Marcos Llorente: The evolution of Atletico's star midfielder since the Anfield night that changed his life

By Sports Desk May 22, 2021

Things aren't always as they seem.

A tired old cliche it may be, but for Marcos Llorente such a notion is one that ultimately he believes "literally changed my life".

The date was March 11, 2020, back at a time when the world was changing, or about to change, for everyone due to the coronavirus pandemic. For Llorente things changed because of a Diego Simeone masterstroke.

Atletico Madrid were losing 1-0 to Liverpool at Anfield in the Champions League last-16 second leg, which left the teams locked at 1-1 on aggregate.

With 56 minutes gone, Llorente entered the fray for Diego Costa. To most observers this was Simeone trying to close the door, put on a defensive-minded midfielder, head to extra time, maybe sneak a goal on the counter or win on penalties.

But it was almost a butterfly-effect moment. Yes, the match did enter additional time, but Llorente – employed in a more attack-minded role – scored twice after Roberto Firmino put Liverpool in front. Alvaro Morata's late third secured Atleti's progression.

"The match at Anfield was a great turning point for my career, indeed it literally changed my life," Llorente said back in November.

"I always say, however, that in football you have to confirm yourself every day. I know that I had a good performance against Liverpool, but the important thing is to maintain this continuity of performance over time. I am succeeding and I am very happy with what I am doing."

Since that night, the forgotten man of Real Madrid has become one of the most important cogs in Simeone's tactical machine – one that stands a single victory away from being crowned champions of LaLiga for the first time since 2013-14, and for only the second since 1996.

A PLAYER TRANSFORMED

This season alone has highlighted Llorente's transformation. Among midfielders in LaLiga, only Jose Luis Morales (13) has managed more goals than Llorente (12). His 11 assists, the most of any LaLiga midfielder, puts him on 23 direct goal involvements in 2020-21 – again, the best return in the division in his position.

In creating chances from open play, Llorente (42) is behind only Lucas Vazquez (44) and Frenkie de Jong (48). Additionally, he is joint-fifth for total shots (47) and third for shots on target (22).

For a direct comparison, over the course of Llorente's final season at Real Madrid in 2018-19, he had two goals, zero assists, six chances created from open play, seven shots and four on target.

Llorente's passing success rate in the final third during that campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu is down from 86.17 per cent to 77.83. But he has had 351 successful passes in the opposition third this term compared to 40 in the whole of his last at Madrid – showing he is contributing much more frequently further up the pitch, where play is more congested. It's only natural for his pass completion to have suffered a little.

What truly sets Llorente apart is the fact his attacking output is surpassing expectations. This season, his 12 league goals have come from an expected goals (xG) of just 3.34, giving him a differential of 8.66. Across Europe's top-five leagues, only Robert Lewandowski – who has scored a record-equalling 40 Bundesliga goals in a single season with one game to go – has a better xG differential (9.83).

It's a similar story in setting up goals. Llorente's 11 LaLiga assists come from an expected assists (xA) of 5.34; his differential of 5.66 is the highest of any player in Spain's top flight this term.

Numbers such as these are not necessarily sustainable in the long term, but they do highlight Llorente's impact in the final third – and how important he has been in this title race.

THE INFLUENCER

A deeper dive into the numbers shows just how influential Llorente has become as an attacking force to Atleti.

His 132 involvements in a sequence ending in a shot is 10th in LaLiga among midfielders but the highest of any Atleti player, with Luis Suarez the nearest to him on 125. When looking at involvements in a sequence ending in a goal, Llorente's 29 is the third-best in the division, behind only Karim Benzema (33) and Lionel Messi (39).

Llorente has started 25 of those shot-ending sequences, the ninth-most among LaLiga midfielders and level with Luka Modric. He has started six sequences that have resulted in a goal for his team, a figure behind only Toni Kroos (seven) and Casemiro (eight).

Llorente has also created 16 goalscoring chances from carries, instances where a player moves the ball five metres or more. No midfielder has managed more in LaLiga this season. Added to that, three of his carries have led to him scoring – again, the joint-highest among midfielders.

Atleti head into Saturday with everything in their own hands: beat Real Valladolid, and the title is theirs.

It's the chance for Simeone to become just the third Atleti head coach to win two titles, after Ricardo Zamora (1940 and 1941) and the great Helenio Herrera (1950 and 1951).

And for Llorente, it is an opportunity to underline his evolution since that fateful night at Anfield.

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