Llorente: The Abdication of the King

El Rey León, Fernando Llorente Torres will play his final match for Athletic Bilbao in June of this year. Today on the blog Chalkontheboots takes an in-depth look at how his departure will impact upon the club he has called home for 17 years.

FernandoLlorente

The King has publicly announced his abdication. The ceremony will take place on 30 June 2013.

"I am going to leave on 30 June, I want to develop as a player and try something new."

Speculation is rife over where he will take up his new residency and the reasons for his departure. Has the King been tempted by promises of untold riches elsewhere?

"It isn't about money because the offer the club made was irresistible"

Fernando Llorente Torres nicknamed El Rey León (The Lion King) will end his 17 year association with Athletic Club of Bilbao when he departs the Lezama Training Ground for the final time in June 2013.

Llorente began his footballing life in the Athletic cantera at the tender age of 11 and progressed through the tiers of lower league football playing for CD Baskonia and Bilbao Athletic, both feeder sides for Athletic, until he made his first team debut in 2005.

Already a World Champion, Llorente began to attract the attention of the mainstream media during season 2011/12. Athletic appointed Marcelo Bielsa as their manager and went onto reach the final of the Europa League and Cope del Rey playing a brand of attacking football with aggression and pressing, winning admirers if not trophies in the process. What should have become the foundations for future progress instead simply exposed significant cracks as the building of Athletic Bilbao under Bielsa seemingly came to a halt during pre-season.

Summer of Discontent

And so a summer which began with turmoil at the Lezama training complex with Bielsa confronting a workman over perceived slow progress of improvements, continued with the protracted departure of Javi Martinez. And then, with contract negotiations still poised, Llorente received a poor reception from some of the Athletic fans at a Europa League game. The club had privately briefed members of the media regarding the negotiations creating friction between the fans and the player. This was the tipping point for Llorente who would declare his intention to leave the club where he has spent his whole football life.

"Most of what has come out in the press is lies and this has turned people against me. This has meant when I run out on to the pitch people whistle at me. There is a sector of the crowd who do not want me but I feel loved by the majority."

The club, however, refused to entertain offers for him.

Following the 2-0 defeat away to rivals Real Sociedad on 29 September, during which Llorente was a late substitute, the player became involved in a heated argument with Bielsa. Just two days later, Llorente walked out of training early and was thereafter sent to practice with the youth squad.

He was later welcomed back into the fold but appearances have been fleeting and mainly via the substitutes bench.

Athletic's Stubbornness

In the modern era, as players approach the end of their contract, their negotiating power can increase substantially dependant upon the quality they offer. Clubs inevitably bow to pressure and if an agreement over a contract extension cannot be reached, they will sell their star player rather than see a contract run out and lose a valuable asset for no transfer fee.

Athletic Club has taken the opposite approach. Why?

Llorente turned down the offer of a new contract during the summer and said he wanted to leave, but Athletic refused to negotiate with interested parties. Marcelo Bielsa then relegated last season's top scorer to the bench and Llorente has started only once in La Liga this season.

Although often a maverick, Bielsa has sided with the club in this instance. Rather than see the short term profitability of utilising the qualities of Llorente, the Argentinean tactician has taken the longer term view. If Llorente is not going to be here next season, Bielsa will focus his work upon players who, at this juncture at least, will still be at the club next season. It has led to Aritz Aduriz leading the Athletic frontline this season.

The potential loss of the transfer fee, whilst a blow, is not as great a potential problem for Athletic as many other clubs. Having recently gained a reported fee of *40million from Bayern Munich for Javi Martinez, what is the point in another substantial transfer fee for Athletic? The club has a limited talent pool from which to select players from with their “Basque” only policy of Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación (With home grown talent there is no need for foreign imports). The sale of Javi Martinez would inevitably lead to the arrival of Benat Exteberia from Real Betis in the summer except it did not happen.

Furthermore, Bielsa has publicly stated on a number of occasions that he does not wish any further acquisitions. The players who arrived in the summer were not at his behest.

Athletic are in a hugely luxurious position regarding Llorente. Here is a European and World Champion entering the peak of his footballing career who wishes to leave the club. Unburdened by financial concerns, Athletic can retain the player for the duration of his contract, utilising his qualities in the process (assuming of course, that Llorente remains focussed on his present employers throughout this turbulent period).

Except Llorente warms the bench.

Aduriz or Llorente - The Athletic Choice

The 2012/13 season has become an unwanted slog for Llorente, mired in internal club politics. Athletic has made its choice in the striking position with Aritz Aduriz. Does this overlook Llorente’s qualities?

Fernando Llorente has never been a vastly prolific striker. He has roughly averaged a goal every three games thus far with a total of 98 career goals from his 293 appearances.

El Rey León scored 29 goals from 52 games in all competitions last season which included 16 league goals in his 32 league appearances. Although not his highest goalscoring record in the league (That was achieved in season 10/11 when he hit 18 league goals), last season did represent Llorente’s best season in terms of minutes per goal ratio with a league goal every 140 minutes.

What Llorente offers the team is much more than goals. With his stature, he offers the perfect reference point in attack for a side that has traditionally favoured a more direct style of play. His ability to hold the ball up and provide layoffs was a key asset for the Basques last season. Llorente continually combined with Iraola and Susaeta on the right side of the team with De Marcos breaking from midfield towards this area also. It made Athletic very potent on the right flank with the around 40% of their attacks coming down this flank. It also made them very predictable and Llorente’s poor mobility contributed toward this.

Aritz Aduriz returned home to Athletic in the summer from Valencia . Both Llorente and Aduriz had played together for Athletic in 2006/07 when Aduriz was ahead of Llorente in the pecking order. And the more things change, the more the stay the same as Aduriz would become first choice striker ahead of Llorente once more.

And this decision has flummoxed many. Few can comprehend why Aduriz starts ahead of Llorente. Statistically though, Bielsa is making the correct choice so far as goals are concerned.

Aduriz is very similar to Llorente in terms of scoring during their careers. With 108 goals from 301 career appearances, he too averages a goal roughly every three games. This season however, Aduriz has been performing very well and is on course for his best goalscoring season. So far he has 10 league goals from his 16 appearances. Aduriz has averaged a goal every 112 minutes, significantly better than Llorente’s best season.

Another five goals will draw him level with the 15 he scored for Vallodolid in season 04/05. Six goals will see him draw level with his season best of 16 that he scored for Burgos in Segunda B back in season 03/04. Aduriz too offers more than just goals. With far greater mobility than Llorente, Aduriz can press opponents quickly; a necessary duty in Bielsa’s aggressive, pressing system. His link up play is also better than that of Llorente and he offers an aerial threat although not as significant as that of the man he has replaced.

Yet something is missing. Last season Athletic scored 49 league goals, an average of 1.28 per game. Llorente accounted for 32% of Athletic’s league goals. This season with 21 goals so far, the average has dropped slightly to 1.23 goals per game. Aduriz is responsible for 47% of their goals.

Defensively, the stats are sharper with an average of 1.36 goals conceded per game last season. Presently, they are conceding 2 goals per game.

The issue is not the attack, it’s the defence. True, a team cannot be subdivided into separate units and must be considered as a whole entity but the discussion over Llorente obfuscates the issue. The loss of Martinez and a series of injuries and suspensions combined with the physical demands of the system are the issues for Bielsa and Athletic to confront.

El Rey ha muerto, viva el Rey León

With his departure confirmed, only the destination remains unknown. Athletic has restated that Llorente will not depart in the January transfer window and the player himself acknowledges the increased choice he will have by waiting until June.

The king is not dead. He’s just moving castle.

¡Viva El Rey León!

 

The Odds: Athletic Bilbao are best priced at odds of 3.43 with Pinnacle to come away with at victory at Levante this weekend, while Llorente is best priced at 7.50 with Bet365 to be first goalscorer while best priced at odds of 3.00 to score anytime.

 

 

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Stats from WhoScored.com