Real Madrid have been looking to replicate the success they had enjoyed under Zinedine Zidane with Santiago Solari, but after an encouraging start the Argentine coach has seen his side’s season crumble in a week. Losing to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and La Liga has seen Madrid lose any hope of domestic silverware while a 4-1 defeat to Ajax in the Champions League last week saw them knocked out of Europe at the earliest stage since 2010.
This run of results saw the Argentine lose his job with Zinedine Zidane return to the helm in a shock move. The darkness set over Madrid’s most decorated club has cast an unease over the city, but one bright star has provided some illumination: Marcos Llorente.
Certainly, it was Zidane who noticed his ability and promoted him to the reserve squad during his time with Real Madrid Castilla. The Spanish defensive midfielder has been a revelation for a Madrid side that boasts some of the world’s best midfielders in Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro.
Casemiro in particular has been underwhelming with his performances not up to par. He hasn’t been able to replicate the world-class standards that made him the fundamental core that Zidane revolved his team around. Llorente has challenged the Brazilian midfielder, performing well when called upon, but who is he and what does he offer Real Madrid?
Marcos Llorente’s performances for Alavés two seasons ago gave him sufficient experience and enough to warrant a place in Real Madrid’s squad. His role at Alavés was slightly more advanced making him central to their attacking play. Traditionally he is a technically gifted, no-nonsense defensive midfielder.
Llorente’s great range of passing is complemented by his tackling ability making him a useful asset to Madrid’s array of choices. His off-the-ball ability is impressive, as are his awareness and positional play. Additionally, he uses his intelligence to bail himself out of pressure situations.
Marcos Llorente: Positional play
Marcos Llorente’s off-the-ball movement is a feature of his play that factored into Santiago Solari’s thinking this season. The young Spaniard’s positional play is a result of his excellent reading and organisational skills.
From a young age, Llorente enjoyed playing as an attacking focal point assisting attackers, but as he matured he moved further back becoming an interceptor and dynamic ball winner. His positional awareness makes him stand out as he is able to plug defensive gaps to fill in for the wing-backs or centre-backs.
Usually deployed at the base of midfield, Llorente typically likes to remain disciplined to his role and stay behind his more attack-minded teammates, providing Real Madrid with a solid fulcrum. His last La Liga outing against Rayo Vallecano in December saw him make 75 passes, and he was required to recycle possession rather than break up play as shown by their 70% possession. Against Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final, Llorente played a more aggressive tackling role.
In this example, we can see Getafe launch a counter-attack with Marcelo out of position high up the pitch. Llorente recognises the imminent danger and sprints into a better defensive position. However, what makes this move even more fascinating is him recognising Ramos’ movement to fill in for Marcelo and thus putting himself into the centre-back position, all while tracking the opposition runner. He is constantly looking around and checking everyone’s positions.
The Spaniard’s fitness regime is amongst the best in La Liga, making him an extremely driven and resilient character. This spills over into his on-field performances where he becomes focused and looks to defend his area before influencing play further up the field. Llorente has the potential to become one of the best technical midfield lynchpins because of his excellent tackling and positional awareness. His incredible range of passing adds a technical quality to his game.
This brings us onto his control. Marcos Llorente possesses an incredible first touch. His ability to stay calm under pressure makes him a viable body in midfield. This gives him an advantage over Casemiro, as he is able to control the ball with ease and read the game situation much more effectively.
A key strength of Marcos Llorente is his dynamic range of passing. Playing with the likes of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, Llorente witnesses and learns from two of the best passers in the league. His style and role are reminiscent of Xabi Alonso.
Llorente’s ability has seen him play accurate passes in a variety of situations including counter-attacks and possession-dominant matches. His skill set would be a perfect fit for teams that play a pass-centric or possession-based style of football like Arsenal.
Given his preference of starting from a deeper position, Llorente has the view of the entire pitch and assesses the correct passing option. He is predominantly right-footed and looks to move the ball into the channels on that side.
Against Manchester United in the International Champions Cup in pre-season, Llorente picks up the ball from Francisco Torres after playing a set of quick interchanging passes. He looks to quickly release a through-ball towards Álvaro Odriozola, who has space to attack in behind the defensive line.
Llorente’s long-range passing ability is arguably better than his short passing. With Casemiro in the defensive midfield position Real Madrid lack the passing range and accuracy from deep, especially when teams want to press or sit off them, to break down stubborn defences or high lines. Llorente’s intelligence to scan the field and understand the game situation by thinking a few steps ahead gives him an advantage.
Against Fuenlabrada, Llorente looks to assess the positions ahead of him and pick a pass. With no pressure on him, he has time. While the Fuenlabrada players attempt to organise their defence the Spanish defensive midfielder picks out Theo Hernandez with ease in acres of space and running in behind the defensive line.
Another point to note is Llorente’s positioning after he completes the pass. He starts to move into a more central position to act as a distraction for the midfield players to make freer runs into the box. His old position as an attack-minded midfielder saw him attack the box on a regular basis, giving him the knowledge of when and where to take up better positions.
Along with his excellent passing range, Llorente’s tackling ability is one of his strongest capabilities. With only a handful of games this season, we can look back at his statistics from his last season at Alavés where he averaged 3.8 tackles per game (the fourth best record in La Liga) and completed 2.7 interceptions per game (the fourth best for a midfielder in La Liga). His inch-perfect tackling has seen him turn opposition attacks into swift counter-attacks.
Firstly, notice Llorente’s starting position in the image above. His positional sense makes this phase of play much easier for him to execute. He is able to cover more ground and distort any potential passing lanes by using his diagonal body position to force the Espanyol attacker one way. Llorente times his tackle to perfection without going to ground, thus giving him an extra few seconds to find the right pass forward.
Even when the Spanish midfielder is higher up the pitch he manages to sprint back into position and cover his teammates in the event of an opposition counter-attack. Against teams who concede possession, Real Madrid will usually find themselves on the verge of a counter-attack due to their high line.
Having a player of Llorente’s skill set can offset some counter-attacking danger as his quick speed and intelligent movement will help delay, if not halt, any attacking move. His intelligent movement sees him take the shortest possible path towards the ball and plugs himself into a gap that could be in danger of being attacked.
Against Al Ain in the Club World Cup, we can see Marcos Llorente move in to cover Marcelo’s foray forward as he sprints back and manages to cleanly tackle the Al Ain player. His quick reaction times and intelligence to know which position will be more important to cover his teammate’s movements are innate skills.
As Marcelo and Sergio Ramos are out of position and miss the interception in the image above, it allows Rayo Vallecano to attack Real Madrid leaving a gaping hole at centre-back. As Raphaël Varane and Marcos Llorente run back to cover the empty space, Varane decides to move towards the attacker, prompting Llorente to move away and get himself in between Varane and the onrushing attacker behind him.
The Zidane era
Marcos Llorente has been unlucky with injury this season but should see increased game time with Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro fatigued having played the majority of the season. Zinedine Zidane’s appointment last night should bring some experimentation with the playing squad as the Frenchman assesses the young players he can mould and rely upon next season.
Casemiro was the catalyst and foundation of Zidane’s first tenure giving Llorente a great opportunity to impress and put himself into Zidane’s thinking. The Spaniard is a technical combative midfielder who possesses the skills to serve a dual purpose on the pitch with his adept passing and industrious defensive work.
The duality and versatility to play in central and defensive midfield should give him an advantage in Real Madrid’s squad next season and breathe fresh air in a midfield that can be immobile at times. He brings athleticism and dynamism along with the technical ability that can unlock defences and keep out dangerous attackers.
Is Marcos Llorente too good to be true? Possibly, but consistency will be critical. He must be able to affect games on a regular basis when given the opportunity. Real Madrid are notorious for its chances given to young players. However, with Zidane seemingly in control now, this could present a welcome opportunity for the fringe members of the squad.
Knowing Zidane has witnessed his ability first hand, he could now look to restore pride and compete with La Masia and explore options from Real Madrid’s Castilla. However, this could be a now-or-never opportunity for Marcos Llorente given his age (24) and need to play consistently to develop into a world-class midfielder. He could suffer the same fate as Jese and decline into mediocrity, or rise up and become an envy to La Masia’s esteemed production of world-class midfield passers.
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