Real Madrid: Illarramendi signals shift from the Mourinho era

Asier Illarramendi

Asier Illarramendi

Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival at Real Madrid to takeover from Jose Mourinho is appearing to be more than a simple managerial change. Mourinho’s future became untenable at the Bernabeu despite delivering a league title in his second year, threatening mutiny as he clashed repeatedly, and in one instance even alienated, star players.

His departure in favour of Ancelotti, having just won the French league with PSG, seemed inevitable. Yet it seems Madrid are willing to move further away from the Mourinho era than just appointing a different manager in name.

During his short time in charge of Madrid, Ancelotti has spent over €50 million buying two stars of Spain’s under-21 European Championship winning squad. Attacking midfielder Isco arrives from Malaga for €27 million, whilst Asier Illarramendi comes from Real Sociedad with a price tag of €32.2 million. Their arrivals add to an already incredibly talented midfield that contains Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, and Kaka.

Mourinho’s system however, dictated that those players operated fast and directly, the spine of the midfield being the energy with the stamina of Khedira alongside the remarkable passing vision of Alonso. The arrival of Illarramendi, more measured and controlled in his use of the ball, suggests a change in direction, that Ancelotti’s midfield will be far more possession-based than Mourinho’s.

Illarramendi signs from Sociedad after a brilliant season in San Sebastien, anchoring a midfield that saw the club unexpectedly qualify for the Champions League. Since graduating from the club’s youth system, the 23-year old has progressed through 5 years at the club, playing 54 times, with repeated comparison to Xabi Alonso, a fellow product of the Basque region.

With his balance and ability to control the pace of the play in deep midfield, Illarramendi has long-been lined up as the natural heir to Alonso, especially prevalent with the World Cup winner’s current contract due to expire next summer. With currently no deal on the table, the vast amount of money spent on Illarramendi could be very much with the future in mind.

At the age of 31 however, Alonso still has a lot to offer to Ancelotti and is likely to partner his young protege at first, as the Italian seemingly verges towards the “Tiki-Taka” style that has underpinned Spain’s recent trailblazing of the modern game. At Madrid, such a move has been seen as unthinkable in recent years as the system has been blooded by the wonderful philosophy in place at Barcelona’s La Masia.

The harnessing of supremely gifted footballers taught to cherish the ball, formed the Barcelona juggernaut of Josep Guardiola, whilst also forming the majority of Spain’s double-European Championship and World Cup winning national side.

Madrid were left to play the role of the jealous onlooker as Barcelona hoovered up a gluttony of trophies, and were forced to resort to Mourinho, with his direct style and focus on intense pressing, in order to topple them.

By bringing in the technically gifted Isco and Illarramendi, as well as the returning Madrid youth-academy graduate Daniel Carvajal at right-back and the 21-year old Carlos Casemiro, it suggests a change in approach influenced by their Catalan rivals.

Ancelotti now has a midfield in position to replicate Guardiola’s 4-3-3 system, with the assured Illarramendi screening the defence similarly to Sergio Busquets, Alonso offering the same wide range of passing Xavi possesses, whilst Isco, with his sublime control and intelligent movement, is comparable to the genius of Andres Iniesta in the advanced role. It would be a balanced, technically-gifted trio providing support to an explosive front three of Di Maria or Ozil and Ronaldo either side of Karim Benzema.

The fee in excess of £30 million on a 23-year old yet to play in the Champions League may have surprised many, but there is little doubt in the talent that Ancelotti is investing in.

The diminutive midfielder’s future is indeed very bright, but he could be at the forefront of Madrid’s transition to a Barcelona-esque philosophy. That may be even more surprising than any amount of transfer fee.

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