Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente has been linked with a move to the Premier League on and off, for about two years now and with his contract up at the end of the season, a potential cut-price deal is there to be done in January, but stylistically speaking, would he be able to adjust to the demands of the top flight?
We cannot for one second questions Llorente’s class and pedigree; his form over the past three seasons which has seen him plunder 71 goals in 145 games comes under the bracket of the highly sought-after one in two ratio that all strikers aspire to get towards, while 74 goals in his past five seasons in La Liga shows a consistency rarely matched by players turning out for unfancied outfits.
Nevertheless, as Andriy Shevchenko, Juan Sebastien Veron and Robinho among countless others highlight that ability is not always necessarily the only barometer for success in England; they all failed to adapt their natural games at varying points in their careers to the tempo and physical rigours that the league puts you through. Of course, that is not say that they are not excellent players in their own right and have had success elsewhere in other leagues throughout their career, but sometime it’s not as simple as ‘good player can play well for top club’ and there are other factors take into account.
For those among you with a passing interest in Spanish football, Athletic Bilbao’s slow start to the season which has seen them pick up just five points from their opening five league games will not come as much of a surprise given their struggles towards the end of last season. The cycle under Marcelo Bielsa looks to be heading towards its inevitable conclusion, which has seen the players hampered by both mental and physical fatigue at the manager’s methods and playing style. Llorente is clearly on the look-out for a move to a bigger club, but whether that should be to an English club is up for debate.
If you list the 27-year-old’s strengths they would be – hold up play, great ability in the air, clinical nature in front of goal – and on paper, it looks like he’s tailor-made for English football, but dig a little deeper and it’s not as crystal clear as previously assumed. The top flight has increasingly become the domain for smaller, more technical players to showcase their talents, and in that regard, it’s become a more technical league than it was five, ten years ago. Being built like a brick expletive-laden house is no longer a pre-requisite.
Edin Dzeko at Manchester City last term managed to finish the campaign with 14 league goals, a decent return and his involvement in the team’s final day comeback against QPR which went a long way to helping them secure the title will not be quickly forgotten, but there’s no denying that his movement at times can be found wanting and he can look cumbersome next to his more fleet-footed team-mates such as Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and David Silva.
Bilbao play with a high pressing line up the pitch, but Llorente’s job is fairly simple, stay in and around the box and occupy their two centre-backs through sheer fear of what he can do in the air. The tempo of the side lives and dies by the energy it has in midfield rather than the closing down of Llorente. He’s played in a lone striker role for them for years now and done exceptionally well, but he benefits from the slower tempo of La Liga. In Spain, a side like Bilbao last season was the exception, while in the Premier League that level of effort is the bare minimum.
There’s a worry that he may be just a little too one-dimensional to do well in England. Much like Veron did at Manchester United, Llorente would likely flounder in the Premier League but do himself justice in the slower-paced environment of European football. Andy Carroll’s subsequent struggles for form and fitness at Liverpool have proven that the age of powerhouse centre-forward is dying out and while in a certain system, like the one he had at Newcastle and does now at West Ham, he will do well, but you sacrifice elsewhere to get the best out of it.
The only club that Llorente could possibly work at in the Premier League is at Manchester United, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s penchant for playing two touchline hugging wingers well-suited to Llorente’s strengths and you could see him doing well up top at Old Trafford, but with Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, the club’s striking ranks are already swelled in terms of numbers and quality and they simply don’t need him.
He’s Spain’s go-to plan B because he’s a very un-Spanish sort of player. While he’s certainly a better player than the ‘lump it, put it in the mixer’ stylings of Carroll et al, at Arsenal, he’d have to do more than that. The fluid front three which has recently seen Gervinho playing in a more central role sees the club’s wingers like to get inside their full-back rather than on the outside, with Podolski hardly blessed with game-changing pace.
While Chelsea’s pursuit of Andre Schurrle hints at the need to replace Didier Drogba as the burly presence up top in the squad, they also have Romelu Lukaku on loan at West Brom who fits that mould and there are whispers that he may be recalled from his loan in January if he continues to do so well. Would Llorente really fit in with the likes of Mata, Hazard and Oscar, playing quick one-touch football? The club’s transfer activity this summer alone hints at Fernando Torres being given one last sustained throw of the dice as first-choice, with Daniel Sturridge in support.
Fine player though he is, Llorente may just be a touch too slow and limited for the top flight. If he does end up finally securing his move to Serie A champions Juventus, he’ll likely do very well for the club, much like he has at Athletic Bilbao, but that doesn’t mean he’s cut out for the Premier League, where being clinical and superb at one aspect of your game alone doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
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