BARI, ITALY - AUGUST 10: Fernando Llorente of Spain shows his dejection during the international friendly match between Italy and Spain at Stadio San Nicola on August 10, 2011 in Bari, Italy. (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
Fernando Llorente, aka The Lion King, will have to prove that he's more than just an aerial target man if Spain is going to repeat as Euro champions.
Fernando Llorente has been a fascinating character in Spanish football since his debut with Athletic Bilbao in 2005 at the tender age of 19. Yet despite his young age (and Greek God-like appearance), he has managed to remain something of an enigma to fans and journalists alike. Recently, analysts have had a hard time categorizing the young Lion King (Athletic Bilbao's nickname is los leones, or "the lions")--is he more of a strong target man and aerial threat (a classic "9" a la Ruud van Nistelrooy)? Or is his ability to score in the air played up in Spain--a country, and a league famous for its inability to defend strong aerial threats--while his strength on the ball is downplayed for similar reasons? That is, is Fernando Llorente more of a "modern striker" than we think?
Throughout his career he has been the weight on the "traditional" side of the scale: while Athletic Bilbao play free-flowing tiki taka-esque soccer under Marcelo Bielsa, Llorente still remains stuck towards the top of the attack, seemingly stranded while his smaller-bodied counterparts dart around him. For Spain, he seems to have a similar experience, sitting near the top of the box, trotting backwards and forwards, in and out, while his teammates pass the ball effortlessly behind him. He only seems to move--as van Nistelrooy once did--when the ball is in exactly the right location.
But is this really what's going on? Or are our eyes, slaves to our brain's need for patterns and connections, deceiving us ever so slightly?
Llorente made his debut for Athletic Bilbao in January of 2005, and promptly netted a hat-trick in a Copa del Rey game that Athletic would end up winning 6-0. He would finish out the season with the first squad and never look back; as his work-load grew (he spent his first few years on the bench, mainly), he matured as a player. He would develop the exquisite touch on the ball that had been his calling card early on in his career, and he became an even bigger force in the air. In the 2007-08 season, his first as a full-time starter, he scored 11 goals for a mediocre Athletic side; in November 2008 he made his debut for Spain's first team.
He had, however, represented Spain before: in 2005--the same year he was called up to Bilbao--he won the silver boot at the World Youth Championships, scoring five goals for la Rojita.
His first international goal at the highest level came against England in 2009, when he scored the second of two goals in a 2-0 friendly victory at the Sánchez Pizjuán in Seville. Since then he has been a fixture on Spain's squad, edging out players like Álvaro Negredo (Sevilla) and Roberto Soldado (Valencia) for the third striker spot after the Euro 2008 victory.
The 2010 World Cup saw Llorente take a back seat to the David Villa-Fernando Torres-Pedro (and company) striking tandem; the Lion King only saw minutes in one match, coming on as a substitute for 32 minutes. He did look good in his limited action, however (says this totally unbiased observer).
But now, with coach Vicente del Bosque searching around for top-level talent to replace the injured Villa (down with a knee injury since December), and, possibly, the still-slumping Torres, Llorente has become an increasingly important part of Spain's Euro plans. He has shown a unique ability to score from open play and from dead ball situations--Spain's two main dead ball threats are defenders Sergio Ramos and injured Carles Puyol--so he has seen extended run in some of their preliminary friendly matches.
All of that brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning of this profile: is there more to the Lion King than meets the eye? He has shown extended flashes of brilliance, and has starred this season for one of the most exciting teams to watch in the entire footballing world; he has scored in every conceivable way, while guiding Athletic to the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals. But does that answer the question of whether there's more to Llorente than we see from watching him? I'm not sure.
I think there's a considerable amount of thought that goes into his movement on the pitch--from his runs backwards to defend, which he does very well, to his sprints to the flanks, and small overlaps outside the box. He understands the nuances of space on a pitch in relation to his team very well--something that, for all his brilliance as a goalscorer, Ruud van Nistelrooy never really did--and this understanding meshes with some of his more pass-oriented teammates.
Ultimately, though, Spain is hoping that the answer to the Llorente question is a resounding "yes!", as their future--even after Euro 2012 is over--will depend partly on Llorente's considerable talent. While it's amazing to have a prodigious goalscorer on a team--who would say no to another Ruud?!--Spain needs something more from Llorente if they're going to be able to win the elusive Euro-World Cup-Euro treble.
National Team: Spain
Club Team: Athletic Club Bilbao
Role in first team: Second or third-choice striker, depending on injuries and match-ups.