Atlético Madrid chased James Rodríguez last summer. They chased Rodrigo Moreno and there were murmurs of Edinson Cavani and Mauro Icardi interest, too. In the end, their attempts to enhance their attack were futile.
Marcos Llorente did arrive from across the city, but that signing was a solution to an entirely different problem. Or at least it seemed to be.
A few months ago it was acceptable to wonder if both Atlético and Llorente had made a mistake. The midfielder had been given few chances under Diego Simeone and never took any of them. But now, Marcos might be key to recapturing the essence of Atlético’s intense, energetic style.
Llorente has dealt with doubters before. After his goal in the Club World Cup final with Real Madrid in 2018, broadcaster and former player Jorge Valdano said that the previous year and a half was a waste of time for those who made decisions at the club, but not for the midfielder.
“He trained like a marine, looked after himself like a monk and waited like a gentleman,” Valdano wrote.
The world was waiting for Llorente to come good on the promise he had shown at Alavés; he was just waiting for a chance.
“I am clear about one thing. I wanted to come to an ambitious project and the most important thing is that they believe in me and at Atlético they have both of those things,” Llorente said during his introduction. “Simeone is a great manager with a unique character and an enormous ability to transmit his football to his players, and I am delighted to work under him and to learn.”
Simeone has had to change his style in recent games, turning Atlético into a more enterprising unit as they chase a spot in the Champions League next season. As a result, it has taken longer than expected to transmit his style of football to Llorente. Or maybe he didn’t have a place for Llorente in his team. That’s because the idea we had about Marcos Llorente and the player he actually is are two very different things.
At Alavés, Llorente was classified as the best “thief” in the league. When he was establishing himself as one of LaLiga’s best midfielders during his time under Mauricio Pellegrino, El Mundo highlighted his ability to steal the ball — he led the league in ball recoveries at the time, ahead of players such as Casemiro, Gabi, Asier Illarramendi and Roque Mesa. The same article praised his passing statistics and the care he took with the ball.
Llorente signed for Atlético and we started to get a little closer to what appears to be the truth. “A set of lungs for Simeone,” El País said about the addition.
The focus was on his relentless activity on the field. He could play in a double pivot alongside Rodri, they said, before Rodri left for Manchester City. There was still confusion over his best position, but it was becoming apparent that the idea of Llorente as a rigid, defensive midfielder was not true.
The perception remained, though, of a militaristic style figure though, obsessed with training and his diet.
“He sleeps nine hours a day,” his father, former Atlético and Real Madrid player Paco Llorente said. But not in any normal bed, in an intelligent bed, which takes the electromagnetic contamination out of the air, whatever that means. It is said to reduce your biological age by 15 years, which would make him 10 right now.
“His physical shape stands out, but the secret is in his head,” Paco said.
At Real Madrid, we were waiting for him to emerge as the replacement for Casemiro, or maybe as a box-to-box midfielder with a focus on defending. At a stretch, when he arrived one could maybe see him playing in Saúl’s position, surging forward but always conscious of activity behind him.
What we have seen in recent weeks, however, is a creative, technically excellent, aggressive attacker playing the number 10 role. His physicality stands out, of course, but he is far more adventurous than we have credited him as being.
On his return against Athletic Club, Llorente surged forward, arms swirling, searching for an opening, knowing that his team relied on him to create. The confidence he seemed to find over the course of the coronavirus lockdown remained after he came off the bench against Osasuna. His eight dribbles in two games more than doubles his tally from the previous 24 this season. Simeone has not only found a spot for Llorente in his plans; he has unlocked his most audacious side.
This sounds outrageous and even feels strange to type...but maybe Llorente is the replacement for Antoine Griezmann that Atlético needed. Llorente smashed home a goal against Osasuna and provided two assists as well. He continues to provide the lungs as we saw on Wednesday night, chasing down the keeper despite leading 4-0 in the 87th minute. But there’s something more creative, innovative about his style of play that has never been seen before.
Llorente has had to wait a long time to show off his full gamut of skills. For the 25-year-old, however, it’s not about finding his best position, wherever that might be. It’s about finding a position in the team and a role in which he can help the team. Based on his last two games, maybe we need to rethink everything we thought we knew about the player and Atlético as a whole when he’s playing.