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Forget Suarez or Felix: Real Madrid cast-off Llorente the driving force behind Atletico's title challenge

12:00 AM MYT 08/05/2021
Marcos Llorente Diego Simeone Zinedine Zidane Atletico Madrid GFX
The Spain international has been transformed from being a workmanlike defensive midfielder into one of La Liga's most potent attackers in 2020-21

Diego Simeone is the best paid coach in football.

Whether he deserves to be is debatable, but the Argentine's decision to convert Marcos Llorente from a pedestrian holding midfielder into a dynamic, compelling attacker has been unequivocally on the money.

And if Llorente-powered Atletico Madrid can beat Barcelona on Saturday on the way to a potential first league title since 2014, it will justify Simeone’s enormous pay packet.

Atletico head into a massive weekend in Spain as league leaders, thanks to Llorente’s strike which earned them a 1-0 win over Elche last weekend.

He did also, however, concede a late penalty, which in turn was missed. It would have been cruel for Llorente to be the man that stopped their charge when he has been the key to it.

Luis Suarez’s early-season form helped Atletico build momentum, the former Barcelona man on fire with a point to prove and destroying his expected goals (xG) totals.

But it is Llorente’s presence in the forward line which has nourished the Uruguayan.

The Spain international facilitated Suarez’s goal glut, connecting with him as a secondary striker and also a right-sided forward. Simeone has used Llorente in various roles this season, but rarely as a holding midfielder.

When he joined from neighbours and rivals Real Madrid for €40 million (£35.5m/$45m) in June 2019, it was as a hard-working man in the engine room, who could put his foot in, the replacement for Manchester City-bound Rodri.

Zinedine Zidane did not believe he could displace Casemiro, not to mention Luka Modric or Toni Kroos, and was happy to let him go.

Simeone deployed him in defensive midfield for the first half of the 2019-20 season and Llorente, despite being a booking magnet, did a passable job.

Everything changed, though, once the coach got creative.

From the right of midfield against Valencia in February 2020, Llorente broke into the box and fired home from close range. The cogs began to turn in Simeone’s mind.

Under a month later, he was brought off the bench at Anfield and used in attack, replacing Diego Costa after 56 minutes. “It changed my life,” said Llorente, looking back on that night.

Llorente scored twice in a 3-2 extra-time win to help Atletico knock out the reigning European champions, as well as setting up the third for Alvaro Morata. As you may well know by now, he gifted a dog to his mother and named it 'Anfield'.

That game also proved to be the last Champions League game to be played before the Covid-19 lockdown. That gave Llorente plenty of time to work on his finishing and attacking movement, and it paid off once football returned.

What happened on Merseyside was seen as a surprise move by Simeone, and not one he was expected to stick with. But the Argentine coach had other plans. 

Fuelled by his beloved paleo diet, Llorente returned in top condition from the break and determined to make his mark. He added a further two goals and four assists, playing either as a forward or wide midfielder.

"What's happening with Marcos is similar to when [Antoine] Griezmann came here, and I saw him as a second striker or centre-forward when everyone was telling me he was only a winger,” said Simeone at the end of last season. 

Atletico’s problems with strikers - Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto, Kevin Gameiro, Nikola Kalinic… the list goes on - got so bad Simeone decided to create his own.

But while Griezmann’s shift was minor, with his job description still the same - score goals or create them - Llorente’s transformation was far more unlikely, and went beyond what was expected, even after his Anfield explosion.

This season has cemented the transition, Llorente embracing his new role with relish, refusing to rest on his laurels. He does not rest at all, always in motion on the pitch. always hustling, charging and driving, keeping the defensive midfielder's work ethic in an offensive role.

Llorente scored in Atletico’s first game of the season, a 6-1 rout of Granada, and his pinpoint cross helped Suarez to his first goal in red and white.

They kept coming after that, Llorente scoring against Real Betis, Cadiz, Real Valladolid and Alaves as Atletico won 15 La Liga games out of 16, falling only against Real Madrid.

Indeed, Atletico’s form only began to slide when Llorente was moved to right wing-back, covering for the banned Kieran Trippier. Simeone’s side lost their pace and it was a window of opportunity for Real and Barcelona to claw back a gap that at times reached 12 points.

With Trippier now back and Llorente restored to a more advanced position, Atletico have found stability again, and know that four wins from their last four games will give them the title they crave.

The pair have combined to great effect down the right flank this season, and Llorente has an impressive 12 goals and 10 assists - the latter of which can only be bettered by Iago Aspas - in 33 La Liga games, something unthinkable little over a year ago.

Watching Llorente is a strange sensation. Something feels ‘off’, but not in a bad way. He just does not look like a typical forward. He moves too quickly for his frame, gangly but not unbalanced, breaking through lines.

Llorente offers great strength and shielding on the ball with surprising agility and neat footwork. His shooting from distance is powerful, as Liverpool found out, while his finishing in the area is already strong, and improving.

Llorente has become a shining example of the modern player: versatile, technically gifted and physically imperial.

“Maybe if I hadn't met Simeone I would have still been playing in central midfield, ‘El Cholo’ takes all the credit for my position change. There are coaches who can see something in you and he's one of them,” Llorente told Marca.

“I’ll always be grateful to him for discovering my potential in that position. He's a special coach and I'm learning so much.”

Luis Enrique may be grateful too at the Euros this summer, having handed the former Real man his national team debut in November last year, unable to ignore his impact any longer. 

But first, there is a league title to win.