When Sami Khedira suffered a cruciate ligament injury in the second half of Germany's friendly with Italy last week, national team coach Joachim Loew didn't look to hide his disappointment. The German described the loss of the midfielder as a "blow to the neck," after translation, with the 26-year-old potentially missing out at next summer's World Cup.
The fact that the injury occurred in a match of such little relevance will hurt his club side even more, and the implications of Khedira's absence for Real Madrid have already been discussed at length. The former Stuttgart man is seen as something of an unsung hero at the club and has certainly been central to new manager Carlo Ancelotti's plans thus far.
He's made 11 league appearances under Ancelotti -- 10 starts -- with only Cristiano Ronaldo and the now first-choice goalkeeper Diego Lopez making more, having featured in all 13 of Los Blancos' La Liga matches. The workmanlike midfielder is also one of six players to start all four of the side's Champions League games to date, with Real's Italian boss clearly valuing Khedira on the biggest of stages.
- Rigg: Bumps and bruises for Blancos
- DFB confirms Sami Khedira blow
The fact that Xabi Alonso has returned to fitness is certainly timely, but the Spaniard's and German's games are very different. Alonso is the ball player of the two, finding the space and time to pick passes and dictate the play, but Khedira can be credited with the athleticism that allows the 31-year-old to execute such a role.
The big-money signings of Isco and Illarramendi, who were a cut above the rest in the Euro under-21 championships earlier in the year, were seen as a sign of a new dawn at Real, but Khedira wasn't one of those Ancelotti was looking to replace. The former is predominantly a No. 10, despite playing deeper on occasion this season, while the latter was seen as the natural replacement for the ageing Alonso.
If Real Madrid are to stick with the 4-3-3 formation they have adopted of late, in part to accommodate the arrival of Gareth Bale, Illarramendi may well be tasked with matching the energy levels Khedira brings to the side. While many will be wary of whether the far less physically imposing midfielder can replicate the strength of Khedira in such a role, he can certainly be more than a match for the German in terms of his defensive contribution.
Illarramendi showed at the championships in Israel this summer just how good he can be on the ball, keeping possession with consummate ease (95.1 percent pass accuracy), albeit against limited opposition at times. However, his ball-winning ability and graft in central areas is often overlooked. Only three teammates have averaged more tackles per game this season (all full-backs) than the former Real Sociedad man's 2.7, but when you consider that four of his nine appearances have come as a substitute that figure is all the more impressive.
Indeed, of all players to make at least five La Liga appearances, only six have made a tackle more often than the 23-year-old (every 19 minutes), with that average unsurprisingly the best at Real Madrid. Far more shocking to those who see Khedira as the predominantly defensive force in the Real midfield: of all players to make at least five appearances for the club, only Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo have made a tackle less often (every 71 minutes) than the German.
It's evident then that Illarramendi is more than capable of covering for Khedira when it comes to breaking up play and distributing the ball -- the two have a near-identical pass accuracy this season, with Khedira edging it (86.4 percent to 85.8 percent) -- but the German puts in plenty of hard yards that aren't necessarily visible via statistics.
He's the box-to-box midfielder at the club, and while Illarramendi, Luka Modric and Alonso cover plenty of bases between them, none really offers the threat Khedira can carry when throwing his weight into a considerably powerful Madrid attack. Between the four, the injured man is the only central midfielder to have found the net.
A shift back to 4-2-3-1 could be an option but neither Alonso nor Modric offers a great deal of physicality to unsettle the opposition and allow their more attack-minded teammates to thrive. The quality of squad available to Ancelotti means that of course Real Madrid can cope without Khedira, but the speed with which they adapt to what could be an enforced change of system will be key to their hopes on both the domestic and European front.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.