Marcos Llorente could not have moved to Atlético Madrid at a worse time.
When Atlético were moving away from the hard-nosed football that defined an era, Llorente arrived as a throwback to that style. Where Gabi once prowled, Thomas Partey now sat and looked forward. Where Tiago once diligently patrolled, Saúl now steamed ahead. Where Llorente might once have been counted on weekly, he was moving into a situation where his opportunities would be scarce.
That changed in Liverpool, in the second leg of Atlético’s Champions League last 16 game when the summer recruit scored twice to kill the tie. They are into the quarterfinals of the Champions League, the only competition that continues to evade Diego Simeone and have the chance to “regress” back to the team people fear.
At Anfield, before the coronavirus took football away from us, Llorente’s heroics were a metaphor for Simeone’s message — the everyman who becomes the hero. Hard work, diligence and patience are all rewarded at the end of the game. The unlikely lad wins it for the unlikely lads.
It takes a certain kind of self-belief to make it as a professional footballer. Success at the top presumes undying confidence. Llorente was sidelined by Zinedine Zidane in his final year as a Real Madrid player. When he was eventually told he was not needed any longer at the Santiago Bernabéu, he was sold to Atlético as a further slap to the face. Florentino Pérez refused to sell James Rodríguez to Madrid’s cross-town rivals for fear of strengthening a direct opponent, the implicit message being that they weren’t concerned about that happening with Llorente’s transfer.
Until the Liverpool second leg, Llorente had been on the field for 924 minutes this season. He played 64 in the tie at Anfield and was the key to Atlético’s most important victory in years.
Llorente is not a striker. Despite his two goals and assist, he won’t play in the position he took up during that game when football returns to our screens. It will probably be a long time before we see him score another goal, and perhaps forever before we see him score another one as important.
This isn’t an attempt to convince you that Simeone pulled off a masterstroke by playing the defensive midfielder as an ad-hoc attacker. Amidst the whoops and war cries at Anfield, there was a deeper message to be learned. Llorente’s performance underlined the importance in having players who, while not excellent, are willing to do whatever it takes to win for Simeone. With success comes complacency, and Atlético players have not been immune to that. They lost some of whatever it was that made them so good for so long. They had forgotten how to win ugly.
Llorente was and is the remedy. See, Atlético’s problem has never been defending. It has always been when they were asked to do more than just defend. And in a league that became increasingly aware of how good there were, teams sat and stalemates accumulated. Simeone had no answer.
In the Champions League, however, they don’t have that problem. Any team they are likely to face in the last eight, from Barcelona to Manchester City, will attack them. And Atlético can win those games when they are forced back on top of themselves.
Another issue Atlético have had to contend with in recent years is injuries. As the games go by, players fall at Atlético. It’s just a fact of life like Simeone’s hoarse voice in post-game press conferences, or his immaculate black suit on the sideline. Players tend to fall at a much higher rate than their opponents, too. Once the current coronavirus epidemic passes — which it will — and we finally get Champions League football back, the players’ bodies will be healed if not strengthened by the break.
Marcelo Bielsa believes that you don’t switch to Plan B but simply resolve to get better at Plan A. Diego Simeone is the same when it matters. He has not changed that much since his Rojiblancos side swooped to a league title and put Europe on notice with exhaustingly precise defensive displays and frustratingly basic game-plans.
Atlético have four games now to get to another Champions League final. Four finals, as they say in Spain, that will take them to a literal final.
Marcos Llorente’s role as the hero at Anfield was a harbinger of things to come. The Atlético we have come to know in LaLiga, limping to draws against Leganés and Espanyol, still exists. But they won’t appear again in Europe.
It’s time now for the old school Atlético to return. And with the return of that band of brothers will come the return of the never-say-die attitude. Atlético are healthy, with one competition to focus on and Simeone’s message baked into their synapses. While it would not be smart to forget entirely about the wasteful, uncreative and tired Atlético we have seen this season in LaLiga, their alter-ego might just be favourites to win the Champions League.