Marcos Llorente’s last year and why he should start for Spain

About a month ago I wrote about Marcos Llorente and his chances of being included in Spain’s squad to the Euros this summer. After a few weeks of thinking and contemplating I need to revise that thought, because that shouldn’t be the core of the “Llorente and the national team” discussion anymore. His squad place is a given at this point. What should be discussed is whether he should be part of the starting line-up or not. That’s how good he is and that’s how much he would add to the team. This despite having played just one(!) game for ‘La Roja’ until this point.

Against Athletic Club mid-week, he scored his ninth league goal of the season. Add eight assists to that and you get a player who’s fourth in the league in terms of goal contribution.

The names ahead?

Karim Benzema (18), Luis Suárez (20) and Lionel Messi (25). A trio it’s acceptable to be behind.

It might be worth to have a look at the ‘expected goals (xG)’ and ‘expected assists (xA)’ numbers to nuance Llorente’s output, the truth is that he’s outperforming xG and xA like no one else. The tables above show the 10 largest outperformers in La Liga this season and the 26-year-old Spaniard is second and first in the respective categories with 6.4 more goals than expected and 5.4 more assists than expected. A clear difference and something that isn’t sustainable long-term. This would be alarming if Llorente was a player judged primarily through his goal contribution but his strengths go beyond that.

Simeone gave Llorente’s career a 180 degree turn when he transformed him from a defensive midfielder who couldn’t get it going to a player who mainly operates in the final third, often through powerful deep runs in the right side corridor.

In Atlético Madrid he usually starts as one of three central midfielders where he has a relatively small impact in build-up but with freedom to join the attack when the team goes forward. This makes his role hard to compare with a certain group of players since his role differs from most, he’s neither a typical central midfielder or winger/attacking midfielder. For the simplicity of data comparison, I will count him as the former and compare his numbers to other central midfielders. He is however a player with the ability to play a variety of roles, we’ve seen him in the middle as well as an inverted winger with Atlético.

The graphs above are called “Beeswarm plots. They are very easy to understand since every dot represent a player (CM’s in the top 5 leagues in this case) and the further to the right a dot is located the higher their value in the specific metric is.

The role I described as Llorente’s most common in Atlético is visible in the numbers since he’s only averaging 39.5 passes per 90 this season compared to his midfield colleagues Koke and Lemar who averages 69.5 and 52.7 passes respectively. Llorente’s impact in the final third doesn’t go unnoticed though, his 19.7 final third touches per 90 are very high compared to other central midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues and regarding progressive passes received he’s almost the best of them all (a metric where well-timed runners and/or between-the-lines players usually show up good). His ability to get shots off is also good and slightly above average.

With the shot map we can see where he’s taking his shots this season and even though the volume isn’t extreme by any means or the locations constantly good it’s still a decent looking shot map for a CM with overall solid locations. His xG per shot of 0.09 is not fantastic but not horrible.

Judged by his defensive numbers he’s a very intense defender as well. He’s among the top 15 percent in terms of tackles in La Liga (compared to central midfielders), among the top three percent in terms of tackles in the final third and blocked passes and among the top two percent in terms of successful pressing actions in the attacking third. Impressive numbers who indicates that he doesn’t rest off-the-ball, maybe even the complete opposite.

To be very good doesn’t always cut it when you’re a central midfielder from Spain, no footballing nation in the world can line up more top class players in a certain position during the last 10–15 years. Even though they’ve declined since the golden era it’s still an absurd amount of talent in the squad, and not least in central midfield. But as I tried to prove through the numbers he’s far from a traditional Spanish midfielder. He’s no Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta or Xabi Alonso. He’s also no Rodri, Koke, Merino, Canales or Thiago.

And that’s exactly why he should start.

Spain’s starting elevens during two of their most recent competitive games can be seen above. The options are many and the given starters few. Players like Sergio Ramos, Koke and Rodri can probably be somewhat sure about a spot in the line-up based on the current situation but apart from them, most places are up for grabs. Someone like Pau Torres has been the chosen one beside Ramos for a longer period of time but with a questionable season behind him and the sudden rise of Mario Hermoso he might want to continue to impress Luis Enrique going forward, even though I would bet on the Villarreal man.

What’s obvious when looking at Spain’s midfield options is how they lack a natural runner with the ability to threat the opposite defensive line through vertical runs. These issues are highlighted even more based on “Lucho’s” winger choices. He’s desperately trying to balance the eleven up with running players who don’t primarily wants the ball on their feet, even though their overall quality might be doubtful at times.

Here are three names Luis Enrique has tried out recently:

Ferrán Torres: A player who loves to terrorize the defensive line off-the-ball and scored three against Germany but can still not be trusted on the highest of levels.

Adama Traoré: He is another who has been included recently, and while he likes to run both with and without the ball, his overall qualities are average.

Ansu Fati: The last, and best, running-winger-option is Ansu Fati. The teenager shocked the world with his explosion in Barcelona last year and if he was fit he would be my pick on that LW spot for Spain. But a long-term injury put his meteoric rise on hold and it’s hardly likely that he’ll be match-fit, or even ready at all, for the Euros.

For Llorente this means that he can take a spot in central midfield or at the flank as an inverted winger, with the latter being more likely in my opinion. Mostly due to the extreme competition in central areas.

A line-up option for Spain this summer could be the above, and it’s a mix between players Luis Enrique usually goes for along with names I think should be included. Like Marcos Llorente. With this set-up they get the balance with Rodri and Koke, ball progression in the same duo plus Canales or Thiago, vertical runs from Llorente and Morata, a wide attacking full back in Jesús Navas and a versatile left back in Gayá. The left-wing spot is the only one I basically leave completely empty due to the lack of standout options but if Ansu Fati is fit enough to be included and is showing good signs on the pitch during the last stages of the season, he’s my choice.

Which eleven players Luis Enrique decides to go with is just speculations at this point but we might get a hint during the upcoming national team break. The squad for the World Cup qualifiers is presented at the 15th of March and for many players it’s the last chance to prove themselves for “Lucho” for real, and maybe will Marcos Llorente do just that.

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