Fernando Llorente started. Fernando Llorente scored. Happy now?
So much ink/cyberspace has been dedicated to the saga surrounding the Basque player’s prolonged transfer from Athletic Bilbao to Juventus. Llorente demanded a move after the 2012 Europa League final, didn’t get it, and then paid the price with Marcelo Bielsa starting him on the bench for most of the season.
Meanwhile, Juventus fans and media types demanded that the club sign him, saying they needed more forwards. They got their wish on July 1st. But then the clamouring changed in tone, from “Where is Llorente?” to “Why isn’t Llorente playing?”. Before Sunday, his only competitive appearance in the Bianconeri shirt was seeing out the clock for a couple minutes at Sampdoria.
So the inevitable reaction from the European press is that Llorente is unhappy, that he is already looking towards England in January. But on Sunday, the Number 14 appeared on both the team-sheet and the score-sheet. The response from the press and the fanzines? Llorente played well, but the rest of the side “needs work”.
The hype that surrounds a new arrival at big clubs almost always takes on a life of its own. The longer the transfer is drawn out, the greater the myth that accompanies the incoming player. In reality, Llorente needs Juventus more than Juventus needs him.
Before last season’s drama in Bilbao, Llorente was the go-to guy at his ancestral club, their top scorer for five straight seasons. But Llorente only broke the 20-goal mark in two of those campaigns (including that Europa league final season). He’s thrice been in La Liga’s top 10 scorers, coming in at 9th, 5th and 6th in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively. If you were to find an English comparison, Llorente is the Spanish Emmanuel Adebayor: a guy who can be lethal when he wants, but not someone to build your whole team around. Since he’s left, Bilbao have had no problem finding an adequate replacement, bringing in another Basque player (of course), Aritz Aduriz from Valencia.
Despite the common wisdom, Juventus have been finding the back of the net. Last season, they finished their Serie A campaign with the third-most goals in the league, only two behind high-flying Napoli. In the Champions League, by the end of the Round of 16, only Real Madrid and Bayern Munich had scored more goals. No one had a better plus-minus, but critics point to the quarter-final matches against Bayern Munich, when they were outscored 4-0 over two legs. This is the same Bayern that put seven unanswered goals past mighty Barcelona in the following round.
To say that Juventus needs strikers is to misunderstand how Antonio Conte has set up his team. The manager likes to play a 3-5-2 (closer to a 3-5-1-1), which means that the midfielders are the stars of the show. It’s hard to argue with a group that could be the best in Europe: Andrea Pirlo quarterbacking the likes of Arturo Vidal, Kwadwo Asamoah, Stephan Liechsteiner, and Paul Pogba through the middle. It allows them to remain disciplined defensively, while trying to keep possession until they can open up the pitch for the forwards.
Those attacking players haven’t been idle either. They may get outshone individually by, say, Vidal or Pirlo, but they have done their part. If someone has the right to be miffed, it’s Claudio Marchisio and Fabio Quagliarella. Normally slotted in the Number 10 role, the pair have been displaced by the club’s other high-profile signing, Carlos Tevez. The energetic Argentine has already scored four in six matches, including that beauty on the weekend.
Conte has probably waited this long to start Llorente because the player simply hadn’t appeared that much over the last 15 months. Conte also had no reason to displace Mirko Vucinic up front until now. The Montenergrin injured himself on international duty and Conte is easing him back in, using him to replace Llorente in the 69th.
Llorente should be a good foot soldier for the Italian champions. He will have to compete for his job with Vucinic, but if he gets the minutes, he should contribute to the club’s goal count as they defend their title. What he will not be is a game changer, the way that Tevez can take control of a match.
In Bilbao, Llorente was the proverbial big-fish-in-a-smallish-pond. But now he’s in a different league, in the metaphorical as well as the geographical sense. So if he gets a game here and there, and happens to notch a few goals, we should all be happy for the man who finally got his wish… and for the fans and pundits who got theirs as well.