Spain 1-0 Russia: Why Asier Illarramendi Was Man of the Match for La Roja

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Spain 1-0 Russia: Why Asier Illarramendi Was Man of the Match for La Roja
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Spain opened up their U-21 European Championships with a 1-0 win against Russia at Teddy Stadium, Israel.

The Spaniards put their counterparts on the back foot from the off, playing scything diagonal passes and forcing them to track countless runs and passes.

Thiago Alcantara and Isco were dazzling in offensive areas, but the forward line of Rodrigo, Cristian Tello and Iker Muniain failed to convert all evening.

Real Madrid man Alvaro Morata came on and changed the game offensively, making an instinctive run to head home Thiago's free kick and going close again in the dying minutes.

As dominant as Spain were on the ball—WhoScored? clocked them at 78 percent possession—it was one of the defensive-minded players who truly stood out.

Real Sociedad youth product Asier Illarramendi put in an absolutely outstanding performance in the middle of the park, lending weight to the claims that he could be the next big defensive midfielder to rise to the senior national side.

He was instrumental in starting attacks from the back, with both central defenders frequently looking to dump the ball off at his feet.

Ian Walton/Getty Images

His full-backs would often shape to receive it, but more often than not he'd play a pass between the lines to attack the space and release his creative teammates.

Defensively his positioning was stunning, holding his line of engagement, floating between his two midfielders and delivering a crunching challenge when necessary.

His 93 percent pass accuracy off 114 attempts was very impressive, but the four key passes even more so: He's got a touch of the Sergio Busquets about him in how he instigates attacks.

Russia simply never looked like scoring, and that was largely down to the excellent shielding job Illarramendi carried out. He started attacks from deep and moved the ball quick from line to line—an all-round stunning performance.

Isco's trickery, Morata's clutch finish, Thiago's control: These are the things that will receive heavy praise, but Illarramendi was the Man of the Match for Julen Lopetegui's charges.

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