24. Marcos Llorente
Over the past few years, countless people have noticed a change in the policy of one of the greatest club in world football. I’m talking about the transfer strategy of Real Madrid, a side infamous for their obsession with acquiring the signatures of only the world’s most expensive and famous footballing stars. This grand club seems to have altered their plans in recent times, deviating from the Galáctico route ever so slightly, and instead, shifting their focus toward the development of younger talents.
Lately, this youth development strategy has been accomplished via sending out prospects to lower-tier sides in Europe, where they can gain invaluable experience and return to Madrid after a year or two, coming back stronger and smarter. Recently, the likes of Dani Carvajal, Marco Asensio, and Casemiro have taken up this exact path, all comfortably slotting into the first team following brief stints away from the Spanish capital. It’s the renowned “Zidanes y Pavones” with a modern twist, and Marcos Llorente is one of its latest beneficiaries.
The timid blonde midfielder, whose great-uncle is none other than the legendary Paco Gento, had been part of Real’s Cantera for nearly a decade. He was promoted to the B team by Zinedine Zidane, and after an impressive 2015/16 season with the reserves, was asked to travel north to Vitoria-Gasteiz, where he could enjoy the rich culture of the Basque country, and, more importantly, where he could hone his talents with newly-promoted Deportivo Alavés. In hindsight, it’s fair to say the decision turned out to be one of the best he has ever made.
Argentine tactician Mauricio Pellegrino organized his team in various different setups last season, and Llorente had a key role to play in every formation he used. For the most part, Llorente was essential in Alavés’ steeltrap double-pivot. Defensively, he was a linchpin, making use of his sublime positional awareness and timing to ceaselessly win the ball back for his team. He completed the season with 122 successful tackles in La Liga, the second highest tally in the competition. He boasted an average of 3.8 tackles, 2.7 interceptions, and 1.6 clearances per game.
Due to the defensive nature of Alavés, the lanky youngster was given very little creative freedom and attacking duties, with the likes of Victor Camarasa being instructed to move the ball forward instead. His main job was to pepper and distribute across the pitch and act as an outlet in possession. Needless to say, he did not disappoint. Marcos displayed a level of coolness and accuracy you would rarely expect from a player his age, ending his loan spell with 87% pass completion.
His ability to retain the ball under pressure is yet another matter: thanks to his mobility, he was able to carry Alavés out of innumerable sticky situations, particularly against teams like Barcelona which heavily pressured and restricted the midfield. In an interview with Marca, Marcos says, “My uncle told me to learn from [Xabi] Alonso.”
Upon observing him, you can’t help but notice the similarities between the two, especially in the way he switches play by distributing accurate long balls to distant teammates. Other comparisons have been brought up, from Toni Kroos to Fernando Redondo.
Another one of Llorente’s intriguing qualities is his fitness. It is also possibly his most important feature; the ability to avoid injury is a crucial—albeit widely overlooked—aspect of the modern footballer. Marcos seems to be one of those athletes who are extra-obsessed with maintaining their physical condition and keeping their body in tip-top shape. Whenever he steps out onto the pitch, he always strives to play with efficiency and to sustain as much of his stamina as possible.
For these reasons, he became the outfield player with the highest number of minutes played for Alavés in 2016/17, despite having to sit out two league games against his parent club due to a “fear clause” in his contract. The Spaniard became one of the Mendizorroza’s favorites; in fact, no Alavés player was more influential or more consistent this season. It is telling that in the four matches that Alavés lost by 3+ goals, two of them were against Real, when Llorente was left at home.
Now, the season that went by may have been Marcos Llorente’s breakthrough year, but it may be the 2017/18 season that decides whether he truly has what it takes to become a world beater. Following a few weeks in Poland in which Marcos impressed in the U-21 Euros all the way up to the final, he has now returned to take off his silver medal and begin an unenviable battle with Casemiro for a position in Zidane’s starting lineup. Although Marcos is superior to the Brazilian on the ball, Casemiro remains far more experienced and proven on bigger occasions, making him more than worthy of playing behind Kroos and Modrić.
Llorente will be looking to build on the momentum of his scintillating past 12 months, and while he certainly has all the tools to succeed in the white shirt, he has a highly challenging season ahead.
Photo: Louie Hendy/@LH_BCFC