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What has happened to Marcos Llorente?

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The midfielder returned to the club where he had his breakout season looking nothing like the player Spain came to love in 2016/17.

Atletico Madrid v Bayer Leverkusen - UEFA Champions League Photo by © David S. Bustamante/ /Getty Images

“What are Real Madrid doing?”

That was the general reaction to Real’s decision to let Marcos Llorente join their cross-city rivals Atlético Madrid during the summer months. The deal was viewed as a massive win for Atlético, but a few months later it looks anything but.

After the anonymous Ivan Šaponjić, Llorente is the least-used outfielder in the first-team squad this season as he has just 227 total minutes to his name. He was given 45 minutes against Alavés on Tuesday night in the 1-1 draw, although he could have been sent off in the 16th tick of the clock for a bad tackle on the Achilles of Lucas Pérez — the kind of challenge that was punished with red cards earlier this season.

Llorente was hooked at half-time of that match at Estadio Mendizorroza, partly because he was on a booking and partly because he had been so poor. Diego Simeone can’t really be accused of not giving the 24-year-old opportunities. Llorente featured in each of the first four league matches of the season, but his lack of an impact saw his playing time reduced and reduced. He has made a total of eight appearances this season, but has never done enough to warrant a start in the following match.

Making his nightmare Tuesday night even more eye-catching was the fact that it came at the Mendizorroza, the stadium where he made a name for himself in the 2016/17 season when he was on loan from Real Madrid. That year, under Mauricio Pellegrino, he was one of the Basque side’s best players as they reached the Copa del Rey final and finished ninth in the table. He was also their most-used outfielder, ringing up 3,299 minutes.

Llorente led the league in possession recoveries and was the anchor of that Alavés side. He played alongside Manu García in defensive midfield, where he was able to take the ball from the opposition and launch the quick counter-attacks that were so essential to Pellegrino’s team.

Spain got excited about this player, a player from a footballing family. His father Paco Llorente had played for Atlético Madrid, while more distant relatives had written their own chapters LaLiga’s history. Llorente’s mother María Ángela had played basketball. This was a sporty kid from Spanish sporting royalty and he was living up to the reputation of the Llorente name.

That was in 2016/17, though. Since then, the midfielder’s career has stalled. His career was flying down Route 66 towards Hollywood, but it’s broken down somewhat at the side of a dusty road in Oklahoma, kilometres away from the nearest service station and with no spare tire. He hardly played under Zinedine Zidane and he basically didn’t feature at all for Julen Lopetegui. He was used a bit by Santiago Solari, and then he was cast to the side again with Zidane’s return — literally sent to the other side of the city.

Brought in as the replacement for Rodri, Llorente simply doesn’t possess the same technical quality of the now-Manchester City player, while he lacks the Atleti-ism of the other midfielders in Simeone’s squad. It just hasn’t gone well for the 24-year-old since he left Alavés. His return on Tuesday night highlighted this sad fact.