As defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva looks to be on his way out of the club after a nine year stint at Anfield, Liverpool could replace the Brazilian with Spanish deep-lying playmaker Asier Illarramendi from Real Madrid.
Since arriving from Real Sociedad in 2013, Illarramendi has made 77 appearances for Los Blancos in La Liga and the Champions League in two seasons at the Bernabeu – however a majority of those appearances came as a substitute. In 30 appearances during 2014-15 in the league, Illarramendi came off the bench twenty times, which is bound to make him less effective as a player.
He is a deep-lying playmaker, capable of making tackles as well as making long, medium and short-range passes. In last year’s Champions League, Illarramendi had a pass accuracy percentage of 95.3%, the second highest among all participating players. While this statistic already looks impressive, it has to be remembered that he was often substituted late in games for the sole purpose of maintaining possession as to not give up a goal and lose concentration defensively – meaning that Illarramendi is fulfilling his role exactly as he should be when deployed in that role.
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More accurate statistics about his play style are those of his 2012-13 season with Sociedad. In that season he made 32 appearances, the vast majority of them starts, and completed 79% of his duels on the ground, making 3.8 tackles per game. He completed 82% of his passes, completing 40 per game, and created 32 chances in total.
For a deep-lying midfielder, whose chance creation must come from long balls, those are outstanding statistics for a player who was just 22 years old at the time. Comparisons to Xabi Alonso have been drawn in the past – which make a transfer to Anfield seem logical, considering Alonso’s history.
Liverpool need midfielders that do not leave their defence exposed and are also collected while in possession. If they can give first-team minutes to Illarramendi, he has the potential to regain the form he was in at Sociedad and become their first-choice deep-lying playmaker.
At the moment, Illarra would be contending with Emre Can, Jordan Henderson, and the departing Lucas for a defensive midfield role. However, with Lucas Leiva on his way out, Emre Can frequently deployed in other positions, and Jordan Henderson assuming attacking duties as well, Liverpool will have spent a lot of money this summer while failing to buy a real defensive midfielder if they do not sign Illarra.
There is no question that Illarramendi needs another spark to restart his confidence in order to return to that form. Deep-lying playmakers need swagger and confidence in themselves to maintain the tempo of the game. At the Bernabeu, there is no doubt that Los Blancos have one of those players already in Toni Kroos.
If Liverpool land Asier Illarramendi, they will be able to mould him into one of their own while being able to deploy their numerous attacking midfielders up the pitch. Firmino, Coutinho and Lallana all need to be given freedom to create things on the offensive end, and that’s exactly what Illarramendi would allow the Reds to do if brought to Merseyside.