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Marcos Llorente gets his reward — a shot with the national team

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Atlético’s dynamic attacker has fully deserved his first minutes with Spain.

International friendly match”The Netherlands v Spain” Photo by ANP Sport via Getty Images

Luis Enrique had seen enough.

He had seen the blazing runs. He had seen the slick dribbling, the mazy turns. He had seen the goals at Anfield.

Nine months of electrifying performances for Atlético Madrid convinced the Spain coach that Marcos Llorente had to be in the national team for a friendly against the Netherlands, and Nations League contests against Switzerland and Germany. Llorente was to become a third-generation Spain international, after his father Paco (who also dressed for Atlético) and his grandfather Ramón Grosso (a longtime Real Madrid forward). Francisco Gento, his uncle and another Real Madrid stalwart, made 43 appearances for Spain himself.

Llorente stepped onto the Amsterdam ArenA pitch after 71 minutes on Wednesday night, replacing goalscorer Sergio Canales for the final 18-plus minutes of a 1-1 draw. And he realized a dream.

Oh, how much can change in a year. Over his past 21 league appearances, Llorente has scored six goals and assisted five others. He is one of two players to record at least a goal and an assist in four or more league games in 2020. The 25-year-old CrossFit addict who sticks to a paleo diet has seen his game explode under Diego Simeone’s stewardship. Llorente’s form — in part — has driven the coach to rethink his trademark Cholismo playing style and roll out what is essentially a freer-flowing front three with João Félix and Luis Suárez.

Three managers at the Santiago Bernabéu did not think Llorente could reach this level. Initially, Simeone didn’t either.

It hadn’t been easy for Llorente, who was three years removed from what should have been a star-making loan spell at Alavés. During the 2016/17 season, he dazzled in central midfield for the shock Copa del Rey finalists. Marcos was particularly outstanding when Alavés hosted Atlético at Mendizorroza that January — a match that ended goalless despite his dominance directing play.

Llorente returned to the Bernabéu that summer but couldn’t break into a loaded side that eventually won the Champions League. Former Atlético midfielder Santiago Solari gave him minutes as 2018 became 2019, but he suffered two abductor tears — one in January and another in February — that knocked him out of contention. Zinedine Zidane took over once more that spring and sanctioned the player’s exit.

Cholo experimented with Llorente at center back in training last winter, and there were rumors he would leave the club on loan as the calendar flipped to 2020. He was a walking yellow card at that time — and an easy target for some, as a madridista donning Gabi’s number 14 shirt. Marcos had not settled as Rodri’s replacement and started only three times between August and January, playing a combined 164 minutes in those appearances.

Athletic de Bilbao v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Then, reports surfaced that Simeone had found the role for Llorente — as a new Raúl García.

I scoffed. Llorente had never scored in LaLiga, and had scored only twice in competitive games since his 2015 debut. “Sure, he’s athletic enough and certainly fast enough to cover for Kieran Trippier,” I thought. “But Raúl García?!

My skepticism was rooted in my fond memories of Raúl García as a colchonero — an aggressive, battle-tested warrior who went hard into tackles and predicated his game on tremendous aerial ability, set piece presence and under-appreciated playmaking. He continues to perform at this level for Athletic Club.

So, Simeone tried it. Llorente played all 90 minutes in a Madrid Derby loss last February, and two weeks later he scored the opening goal in a draw at Valencia. The month after came Liverpool, when he entered as a 65th minute sub to create all three goals in a 3-2 win. He was ever-present when LaLiga restarted in June and ended the season as an undisputed starter.

It turns out Marcos Llorente never needed to be Raúl García — he needed to be Marcos Llorente. He is now an exceedingly-confident creative force, not to mention arguably LaLiga’s fastest player. He takes risks when moving swiftly between the lines, but they’re calculated — he knows the type of talent around him in Félix, Suárez, and the sizzling Ángel Correa. And he knows his lung-busting explosiveness alone creates chances for himself or others.

Llorente has been even more dangerous to start the 2020/21 campaign. He has doubled his attacking third touches per 90 minutes compared to a season ago, per FBRef. His 2.50 passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes are tied for the team lead, while his 1.99 shots by that metric are roughly triple his career mark. He’s averaged 2.74 shot-creating actions per 90, a rate one-and-a-half times greater than his pace last season. Atlético have not lost in the league since that Madrid Derby he started in February, and the team has generated some buzz as a possible title contender.

“Luis Enrique will find a player that will serve him in many ways,” Simeone said last week before Llorente scored in a 4-0 win over Cádiz. “We were telling Marcos how important it is for him to develop different skills, because it is a virtue that a footballer can play on the wing, as a holding midfielder, an attacking midfielder, or as a second forward.

“It is a virtue for the player and for the coach who has him.”

Assuming EURO 2020 actually happens, the virtuous Llorente’s meteoric rise could hit new heights next summer. Given his progress over this calendar year, it would be no great surprise if he goes on to become an important piece to La Roja’s jumbled attacking puzzle.

Luis Enrique’s seen plenty already, enough to give Llorente a chance. As Simeone proved in March, that’s all Marcos needs.