Athletic Bilbao and Spain international striker Fernando Llorente looks set to spark a mad transfer scramble for his signature in January after it became abundantly clear that he wouldn’t even consider signing a new deal to extend his stay at the Basque outfit. But with plenty of Premier League clubs in the mix, such as Tottenham, Manchester City and Arsenal, which club would suit him the most?
The 27-year-old forward has found himself marginalised by club boss Marcelo Bielsa this season, with the club somewhat reasonably trying to make plans for the player’s inevitable departure and he seemed to all but end any hope of a dramatic turnaround last week. The forward turned down the offer of a new contract during the summer after stating that he wanted to leave, but Athletic refused to negotiate with interested parties and this has seen last season’s top scorer relegated to the bench; Llorente has started only once in La Liga this season, scoring just one goal as a result.
“I am going to leave on 30 June. I want to develop as a player and try something new. It isn’t about money because the offer the club made was irresistible.
“The media have not helped with the negotiations and it is one of the things that has generated the bad atmosphere around me out on the pitch. This has encouraged me not to renew my contract; this and many other things.
“I took the decision when I went out for the first Europa League game at San Mamés [in August]. 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 sought-after frontman said.
Far too often we demonise players for displaying a hint of ambition; Robin van Persie in the summer was labelled a ‘money-grabber’ for leaving Arsenal to join a much more successful club. Sure, a raise in wages is a bonus when moving to a bigger club, but it’s winning silverware that was his main motivation. The same could be said of Llorente, after he was offered over €5 million per annum to sign a new, long-term contract to stay at Athletic, a deal which would also see him benefit from one of Spain’s lowest tax bands, but he turned down their ‘irresistible’ offer in the pursuit of a move to a larger team.
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Tottenham are the first name that immediately springs to mind given their long-standing interest in the player. Chairman Daniel Levy has shown this summer that he’s not afraid to lead negotiations on behalf of the club and you sense that the Luka Modric and Gylfi Sigurdsson deals were out of the hands of Andre Villas-Boas.
Jermain Defoe has been in superb form this campaign, flourishing in an unlikely lone striker role for the most part to the tune of 13 goals in 22 games across all competitions, with nine of those coming in the league, while the Portuguese boss has shown a willingness to stray away from his preferred 4-2-3-1 in recent weeks, with Emmanuel Adebayor coming into the team and performing reasonably well, picking right up where he left off last season.
A frantic January trolley-dash back in 2010 saw the club bid £25m for Llorente in January, having also tried to sign a host of other forwards from La Liga, including Giuseppe Rossi and Sergio Aguero, while Roberto Soldado was also a target that summer, so the club remain in the hunt for a world-class forward, something the Spaniard has the potential to become.
The team’s style of play would appear to suit him well too, with the counter-attacking set-up that Villas-Boas has installed, which press high up the pitch very similar to that of Bielsa’s Athletic side which did so well last campaign and saw him strike a career-best of 29 goals. The service of both Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon is in theory fantastic, but they will need to adjust the area where they put their crosses in, looking to exploit Llorente’s strength and power in the air, rather than along the floor which is their current go-to ball at the moment. He stands a better chance of success at White Hart Lane than anywhere else in England in my eyes and the timing behind the switch looks better than any of the other options in the top flight to boot, making the move a realistic possibility.
There is a suspicion that Llorente’s lack of pace could hinder him playing for an expansive side that likes to dominate possession slowly from midfield rather than quickly on the break down the flanks and his movement can be lumbering at times. Arsenal’s summer transfer business, bringing in both Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, would appear to be something of a stumbling block to any future pursuit, with Wenger sure to keep faith in the Frenchman in particular after a patchy start to life in England.
Elsewhere, with Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini so willing to criticise his strikers of late, rather than the flow of chances and lack of creativity from midfield, there is a genuine feeling that the reigning champions could be interested in Llorente, with Balotelli’s form collapsing this term, no longer making him worth the indulgence after a disappointing showing in the Manchester derby.
Nevertheless, he does have a similar style of play to Edin Dzeko, in the fact that both are fairly slow, clinical finishers, who thrive on the service provided and the busy pairing of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero has served the side well so far this season and Mancini would be absolutely mad to break them up on a consistent basis. Even if Llorente does offer a viable plan B, the rigmarole of moving out one player and bringing in another one of similar quality looks a strange move, but the Italian coach does have form with this sort of thing, having moved on Adam Johnson and Nigel De Jong and replacing them with Scott Sinclair and Javi Garcia this summer.
Barcelona remain an option, although Tito Vilanova has struggled to integrate both Alexis Sanchez and David Villa into his side with any real success this season and Llorente would have to admit that he’s very much a back-up player before even moving, with Juventus seemingly right at the front of the queue.
The Premier League remains a more attractive proposition to players than Serie A does, but Juventus offered half of Llorente’s €36 million release clause last summer and their interest is concrete and their need for a forward of top drawer calibre both obvious and well-documented if they want to raise their game to the next level and became a major player in the Champions League again. The Italian champions are the front-runners for the Spaniard and could seal a £7million deal in January, with Athletic reportedly keen to get some sort of return on the player rather than lose him for nothing in the summer.
The urgent nature behind the need for a deal to be struck is what makes a move to both Manchester City and Arsenal seem more unlikely, but Tottenham would be loathed to miss out on yet another top target; they need to end their run of failing to do essential business in January sooner rather than later and while a replacement for Modric is still the highest priority, you sense that Llorente would jump at the chance of a move to a club in England, with Villas-Boas’ side on the cusp of becoming a top four force.