Real Madrid midfielder Asier Illarramendi really needs to get away from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu after two years in which his career has gone backwards, but English or Italian clubs considering a swoop for the Basque might be advised to be think carefully about moving for him.
Illarramendi arrived at Madrid in the summer of 2013 as the presumed long-term replacement for his fellow Real Sociedad alumnus Xabi Alonso, on the back of on an excellent season for La Real as they finished fourth in La Liga and qualified for the Champions League. And also having dominated the midfield in all of Spain U-21 games as they won that year's European Championships.
His reputation at the time meant that the San Sebastian club were able to play hardball over the fee, and Madrid eventually paid the full clause plus tax for a layout of €38.8 million, making the then 23 year old the most expensive Spanish player in the Bernabeu club’s history. Alongside fellow Euro U-21 winners Isco, Alvaro Morata and Dani Carvajal, he was to be part of a new native core at the club, according to the local media narrative at the time.
Then Blancos coach Carlo Ancelotti did not always appear to agree however, and it soon became clear that Illarramendi was a long way short of stepping straight into Alonso’s shoes. In his first season, he made 49 appearances for a total of 2,496 minutes playing time, but left very little impression in the bigger games. He was often tidy in possession and useful at mopping up in front of own box, but offered little in terms of incisive passing and showed increasing signs of nerves in bigger games.
A disastrous performance in the Champions League quarter-final second leg at Borussia Dortmund in April, when Madrid almost threw away a 2-0 first leg advantage, appeared to confirm Ancelotti’s doubts about the player. Illarra featured little from then until the end of the season, and even with Alonso unavailable for the UCL final against Atletico Madrid, the Italian coach preferred to throw Sami Khedira straight back into the action after eight months injured. Around this time much publicised images of the professional footballer dressed as Batman while engaging in some amateur night-time bullfighting, appeared to confirm the idea that he was not maturing as had been hoped.
Alonso leaving for Bayern Munich in summer 2014 might have opened up more opportunities. But German World Cup winner Toni Kroos, who although just two months older than Ilarra was much more developed as a player, settled in immediately. The arrival of another younger holding midfielder, in Brazilian starlet Lucas Silva for €14 million in January, also limited any chances of changing Ancelotti’s mind.
Illarramendi continued to get most of his playing time either late in games or in matches Madrid were all but sure to win, and totalled 1,736 of game time over the season. But nobody could claim he had progressed at all over his first two years at the Bernabeu.
The arrival of Rafa Benitez as the Los Blancos new coach has not improved the now 25 year old’s situation. Some injury issues during pre-season also did not help, but it was clear from Rafa’s selections that his midfield plans were elsewhere, with back from a year impressing on loan at Porto Brazilian Casemiro, also younger at 23, ahead in the pecking order.
When asked about Illarra’s future in recent weeks, Benitez has been understandably diplomatic with his comments, but reading between the lines it looks like the coach feels a move would be best for all concerned.
“I have these conversations with the club,” Benitez said in response to a direct question about ‘overbooking’ in midfield after Illarra played just a few minutes of the 2-1 friendly win over Galatasaray in their final warm-up game of the summer. “I understand your question. Now in football, until August 31 anything can happen. I have a good squad and those who are here must show commitment and implication. If not then I will wish them the best. I have no complaints about anyone at the moment.”
Earlier that day Madrid had spent €30 million on yet another midfielder, 21 year old Croatia international Mateo Kovacic, further adding to the competition for places in the centre of the park. The impression was only confirmed when Illarramendi was left out of the travelling squad for Sunday’s La Liga opener at Sporting Gijon - with new signing Kovacic being introduced from the bench as Benitez’s side drew 0-0 at El Molinon and Casemiro an unused sub.
Well-connected local sports paper Marca reacted over the weekend with a piece headlined ‘Illarra shown the door’, which stated bluntly “Rafa Benítez is not counting on Asier Illarramendi… Illarra’s future at ‘La Casa Blanca’ looks very gloomy indeed. Now the midfielder has to decide whether to stay and fight for a place or pack his bags and move on.”
Other reports in the Spanish and Basque press were meanwhile claiming optimistically that many of Europe’s top clubs were interested in the former Spain underage star, a sign perhaps that Madrid were looking to pique some interest from somewhere. Juventus, Liverpool, Tottenham and Inter Milan were all considering entering the fight for Illarra’s signature according to El Diario Vasco. Reports in England said that Southampton had also entered the race for his signature.
More realistically, AS on Tuesday morning reported that a deal was being put together for the Mutriku-born player to head back Real Sociedad for an initial fee of around €10 million plus €5 million in variables.
Such a move would make a lot of sense for all concerned, although Madrid president Florentino Perez would have to accept a big write down on his investment from two years back. The txuri-urdin dressing room definitely appears keen on the idea, with midfielder Markel Bergara saying that he had already been exchanging messages with his ex-colleague, to try and persuade him to return home.
“I hope it finally comes true, I consider him a friend, and I hope he comes, because those who were la Real fans as kids will give everything for this jersey,” Bergara said. “Of course we have been sending him messages, there are always jokes and teasing, because we are friends. I hope he is here with us soon.”
A potential issue however is the attitude of La Real coach David Moyes, who sounded more lukewarm about the idea when asked after his team had drawn 0-0 in their La Liga opener 0-0 draw at Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday afternoon.
"If a midfielder who we believe can help were available, I’m sure that the president would be interested, but I’m happy with the midfielders we have,” Moyes said. “As Illarramendi has been here, you know more about him than me, but I am sure he is a great player.”
Moyes’ comments were pretty blunt, but also summed up the situation well. Illarramendi’s reputation is based mostly on the excellent potential he showed when breaking into the La Real first time and starring for Spain’s under-21s.
Over the last two years, and especially during Moyes’ time in La Liga, he has done nothing to show he has matured as a player. A big money move to the Premier League or Serie A looks unlikely to be a good idea at this stage.
Maybe a return home would help get his career back on track.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan