Asier Illaramendi: Next Xabi Alonso or just another incredible Spanish talent?

Illarramendi

As Spain’s senior squad prepare for the Confederations Cup in Brazil, legendary goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas was heard predicting about the bulk of the golden generation of Spanish football slowly deciding to call it a day after the 2014 World Cup. The football fraternity suddenly sits up and thinks if this the end of the Spanish reign?

It very well could be if the likes of Casillas, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres decide to hangs up their boots at the same time. All champions have their time and era to feel nostalgic about, and there is no doubt that another country or team would come and earn their time sometime in the near future . But that future is a fair distance away as Spain’s youth set-up makes one feel that La Roja are set to dominate international football for a fair amount of time.

Barring a drastic and dramatic change in the Spanish political landscape, where one fears the lingering Basque and Catalan nationalism may divide the Iberian country in the future, Spain remains the team to beat in any international tournament covering all age groups. With both the Basque country and Catalunya providing an amazing array of young footballers from their coveted youth academies and schools, Spain cannot afford to lose these regions as football will be the biggest loser in the political quagmire of a very complicated European country.

The U-21 European Championships final in Israel pits defending champions Spain against another traditional football powerhouse, Italy, on Tuesday, and the tournament has already showcased a wide range of young talents set to dominate European football for many years to come. None more than the Spanish squad which boasts of players already knocking on the senior squad’s doors for the next phase of Iberian dominance. One of the players on show in Israel is Real Sociedad’s Asier Illaramendi. Along with Inigo Martinez, Illaramedi has been the find of the season and the 23-year old was instrumental in the Basque club’s fine La Liga season that culminated in a spot in next season’s Champions league.

A product of Real Sociedad’s coveted Zubieta academy from a very young age, Illaramendi is a defensive minded midfielder who covers a lot of ground and is a key figure in assisting his back four in addition to launching credible counter attacks with pin point long range passes. As was evident in last night’s semi-final clash against Norway, Asier Illaramendi is a player who dictates the central midfield with strong tackling, intelligent interceptions and quick passing to take the opposition completely by surprise.

In the first half at Netanya, the Norwegians were gutsy in their defensive play, but Illaramendi’s constant running and undying work ethic tired out the Scandinavians in the Mediterranean heat of Israel that ultimately led to Rodrigo scoring the all important first goal just before the interval and breaking Norwegian resistance for good. In fact, Spain’s dominant defensive display in the group stages prior to the semi-final was largely down to Illaramendi’s excellent positioning in front of the defence, and a wonderful shielding job that tired out fast paced opponents like Russia, Germany and most notably the Netherlands( although he did not feature for the full game against the Dutch).

Gifted with extreme patience, Asier can be involved in patient build up to an attack and possesses god gifted skills to turn defence into attack in no time – a key requirement in Spanish football philosophy. Aged 23, this is the last junior level tournament that Illaramendi would be involved in, and now it remains to be seen when he gets that dream call up to the Spain senior squad ahead of the big World Cup year. Very much likened to the style of Xabi Alonso, a Sociedad and Basque hero, Vicente del Bosque could use the Basque boy as the former’s long term replacement, who it seems would hang up his boots post Brazil 2014.

A no-nonsense defensive midfielder

As far as Real Sociedad’s season was concerned, outgoing manager Philippe Montanier had used the 5ft 9in Illaramendi as a defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system partnering the experienced Markel Bergara. The naturally strong physical aspects and swift passing abilities of the Spain U-21 international have in turn brought the best out of the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Carlos Vela in the Sociedad squad. Illaramendi is the main supply route in the Anoeta based club’s attacking set up and now in the Spain U-21 outfit. When in pressure, the Sociedad defence depends on Illara, and he is know to get the ball out of the danger zone and turn defence into attack – a trait that Xabi Alonso possesses too.

It is too early to predict if Asier Illaramendi is similar to Xabi Alonso, and if Spain would not miss the Real Madrid legend once he is gone because Alonso’s mental set up is probably the strongest in international football and the former Liverpool man has time and again shown that he could be manhandled, kicked and knocked out on the field, but when it comes to making a difference in big matches with audacious passing, tough tackling interceptions and long range goals, there is no one better in Spain and Europe than Xabi. Young Illara would need to improve his physical and mental conditioning to survive the intensity of European football and, above all, need to overlook the lucrative offers that will come his way once the U-21 European Championships are over as remaining in San Sebastien for one more year and helping Sociedad in the Champions League would be the wisest thing to do in a demanding 2013-14 season.

Born in the small Basque coastal town of Mutriku, Asier Illaramendi has immense talent but would need to prove that he is not a one season star. With rumours already linking him with a move to Real Madrid, the player himself has come out and said that he has everything one craves for in life at Sociedad, but that rarely happens in the modern football transfer stories. Undoubtedly though we are dealing with a very impressive player indeed and Europe’s elite are already in Israel to have a look at him.

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