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Marcos Llorente’s Quest: From Attacking Winger Who Couldn’t Defend To Real Madrid’s Defensive Midfielder

Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column, on Marcos’s journey from Juvenil B, his strict personal regime, and how he’s learned to become press-resistant.

Deportivo Alaves v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

15-year-old Marcos Llorente would’ve never believed you if you told him he’d be starting as Real Madrid’s defensive midfielder one day — reading passing lanes, organizing the midfield, and barking orders to the outlets he passes to out of the back. “I was a skinny child who couldn’t defend,” Llorente said back in 2016, when discussing his evolution as a footballer.

Marcos wanted to play higher up the pitch where he could consistently contribute to the attack. “Typically I didn’t help the defence as I was more interested in attacking,” Llorente continued. “Now, I’m happy to be amongst the best interceptors because I used to be too little and had defensive problems until I had a growth spurt.

In his first season as a La Liga footballer, under the wing of Mauricio Pellegrino, Llorente was incredible in a position he never dreamed he’d play in. He was the best midfielder on a team that punched above their weight and got to the Copa del Rey final. Along the way, Alaves beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou — a game in which Llorente dispossessed Messi to have his first “who is this kid?” moment to go along with his six successful tackles — and Llorente had one of his best performances in a draw against Atletico Madrid. He was never shy of big moments.

Now Marcos is a traditional anchor — pure as they come. He thrives as a single pivot that drops deep. He shields the defense in transition, plugs gaps, helps cover for wing-backs, gets the team out of a tight press, and distributes quickly. “I like to play ahead of the backline,” Llorente says. “using the ball, and helping the defence.”

That defensive dexterity developed over time. Llorente attributes it to his time at Juvenil B, when his coach at the time, Fernando Morientes, gave him his first start with the club. Until then, at Rayo Majadahonda, Llorente didn’t have any sense of positional play — particularly in his own third. He learned quick, and improved incrementally at Castilla before raising his game to another level at Alaves. His first season as a professional footballer saw him put in more tackles per game than anyone in La Liga other than three players (one of them being Casemiro).

Half the game is mental for Marcos. He has a drive and resilience to him — strict with his fitness and diet to a level that may even seem extreme to the average professional footballer. He essentially disappeared for two seasons and then went into Rome as a surprise starter without any sign of nerves. When he was presented at Alaves, he spoke in the press conference about ‘character’ and ‘personality’. The Basques were thrilled to have him at Mendizorroza. “Marcos Llorente has technical and physical characteristics that are going to make us better as a team,” Alaves’ sporting director Sergio Fernandez said upon the signing.

Two seasons later, Mauricio Pellegrino found himself back coaching in La Liga — this time at Leganes. He desperately tried to sign Marcos upon his arrival, fully knowing the playing-time situation. “I’ve driven him crazy with messages,” Pellegrino said at the start of the season. “We have called him but he does not want to come.”

And all this hype about a defensive midfielder — not the attacker Marcos imagined himself to be. “All I wanted was to be up front and score goals,” Marcos said. “I was stuck near the sidelines as a winger until the Juvenil level, when I hit a growth spurt.”

Llorente’s position changed dramatically along the way; but his mental moxie stayed the same. Growing up, he was always undersized. He found himself continually marking players who were much bigger than him. Llorente never got intimidated. He went into every challenge with the goal of winning the ball, fully knowing there’s no room for uneasy tackles in a cutthroat industry that requires so much to go your way to finally make it at the professional level.

Llorente went as far to say that at the youth levels, opposing players would actively try to intimidate him — something he relished. He labels himself growing up as “quarrelsome” and “without restraint”. Eventually he had to learn to be more composed. He would start going at players with the ball at his feet to show he’s not intimidated. He also needed to learn to put in more calculated challenges without lunging for the ball and missing it completely.

The main reason he had to learn channeling that aggression: the margin of error decreases when you play deeper. Attackers can get away, relatively, with giving the ball away high up the pitch or missing a challenge. The Bernabeu groans and moans when this happens all the time — but give the ball away or lose a 50/50 duel as the team’s anchor and you’re toast. That’s why Marcos has focused so much on the psychological aspect — he firmly believes the defensive midfielder has to be composed with the ball; while limiting the amount of uncomfortable situations you put your defenders in to virtually zero.

“When you play as defensive midfielder,” Llorente says, “you cannot anticipate and fail, because if you don’t get the ball, you will leave the opposing attackers against your defenders, and it’s a clear goal scoring chance.”

You can see all those gears turning when you see him play now. It wasn’t easy getting to where he is, but he’s reevaluated his game and learned constantly. When he jumped from Castilla to Alaves, he had to re-learn how to play entirely, which makes his leap even more impressive. They don’t press in Segunda B the way they do in La Liga; and if they do it’s not as aggressive or as high up the pitch. With Alaves, he was marked heavily, and as teams started to scout him during the 16-17’ La Liga season, they learned the secret to stifling Alaves was to take Llorente out of the game the same way teams try to do with Busquets. Sociedad, in that same season, put two players on Llorente in midfield. That’s when Marcos started to really focus his game on being more press-resistant.

Part of being a safety net for your backline, Marcos says, is being able to read and gauge the opposition’s press. Who’s pressing? How many? How close? Pellegrino, noticing that attackers were hounding him when he had the ball, came up with the solution to get Llorente to distribute as quickly as possible to the attackers to punish the high line.

“The defensive midfielder often has to make the most difficult pass, which is the first one,” Llorente says. “The most important pass is the pass that allows you to bypass the first line of pressing, so that the receiving player can turn around and start the attack.”

Llorente doesn’t see the comparison that people make with him and Casemiro. He has been compared to Casemiro, Kroos, and even Xavi (for his constant 180-turns with the ball when he dribbles out of tight spaces). He bases his game off of Xabi Alonso. He says he learned his positional sense from Xabi, first and foremost.

Leganes v Real Madrid - Spanish Copa del Rey Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Llorente says his uncle (Julio Llorente) is the one who told him to shift his attention to Alonso. Since then, Marcos has done everything he can to learn from Xabi, and Llorente loves his playing style. He wants to be the Xabi of the team — dropping deep between the midfield and defense, helping bring the ball up the field, and shielding the backline. Llorente admires how well Xabi can cleanly win the ball without being a quick player, just by having a positional feel for the game. Alonso is famous for downplaying tackling, claiming it’s a “last resort” rather than something to rely on. Llorente loves that. “You must go down (to tackle) only when you have no other choice” Marcos says, “but if Xabi goes, he always wins the ball.”

It is interesting to see that early scouts compared him to Xavi — a player wildly different with a much better passing game — purely based on Llorente’s dribbling style. Xavi would turn with the ball at his feet until he found the right opening. Llorente does those same turns. He developed that trait at Castilla and polished it at Alaves when he realized how quickly La Liga teams press him. He had to learn to find escape routes quickly in order to not lose the ball and put his team in a troubling situation.

“It comes in handy when I don’t have a passing lane,” Llorente says. “I turn and try to switch the play. In Castilla I did it eight or ten times per game. In La Liga those turns are more complicated because you are being pressed more.”

Llorente’s biggest criticism is his passing. He’s not a daring distributor, and he doesn’t take many gambles with the ball at his feet. Those turns he makes are virtually to find an outlet — typically the first one he can get. He enjoys playing the way he’s facing as it’s the safest route. That’s actually something Llorente is vocal about and something he believes in. He wants to get the ball to Kroos, Modric, or other capable creators. (Maybe he didn’t get the memo from Xabi Alonso on that one.)

His biggest reasoning behind that playing style: It’s not fair to your team if you lose the ball in a deep situation and concede a goal-scoring chance. Llorente isn’t scared of making mistakes, but he believes in not making them. (His literal words: “You can’t be afraid of making a mistake. Another thing, is that you should try not to make mistakes.”)

That element of caution hit him at Alaves more than it did at Castilla. In Segunda B, teams just don’t punish you like they do at the top flight if you commit and error. Llorente says “It is not the same to lose the ball in Castilla as it is here (in La Liga).”

Some of the methods that Llorente uses to get himself out of tight positions are subtle. Sometime it’s a simple drop of the shoulder which gets his team forward:

There is a lot that being a defensive midfielder entails. There is a certain charm with deep-lying playmakers who organize and create. They have instinct and character. They are responsible for organizing, barking orders, and seeing the pitch with a 360-degree view. Llorente is still coming to grips with it. He’s learning when to challenge and when not to. Some of that stuff you can teach. Some of it, Llorente says, is through learning and clairvoyance.

“You do what the game asks of you,” Llorente says. “The rule is to press when the opponent, who is receiving the ball, has his back to the goal or does not have the ball under control.

“To steal the ball,” he continues, “more than knowing concepts, you need intuition.”

One of Llorente’s biggest challenges in his transition from an attacker to a defensive midfielder was getting comfortable with not being involved. He loves having the ball. At his current position, there are a lot of things he has to do that won’t necessarily go noticed. He’s accustomed to it now. He still gets plenty of touches, and has learned that it’s impossible to get bored without the ball. When you’re the team’s anchor, there isn’t a moment you’re not reading the game.

“Sometimes you spend more time away from the game,” Llorente says of playing long stretches without seeing the ball, “but maintaining concentration is easy, because you have to be moving all the time.”

Llorente now calculates everything. If a midfielder goes forward to press, he covers the passing lane behind. For him it’s always about recalibrating surroundings and ensuring he’s there to cover everything that comes into Real Madrid’s third. And if he’s not on the ball, he’s pragmatic to plug the holes behind the team’s midfield.

That on-pitch learning is coupled with an above-average work-ethic off the pitch, and an obsessive quest to become physically flawless. Llorente gets poked fun at for being so strict with his regime (Ibai Gomez calls him ‘lechuga’ because of the amount of salads he eats), but it’s all science to him: get every physical advantage you can possibly get to maximize your chances of being a great player. There’s a good chance he doesn’t get to where he is, playing so little, without his neurotic crusade of transforming into a beast.

Every player will go through the same training routines with their own teams. Llorente seeks advantage outside those sessions when his opponents are resting. He found the extra work he did on his own changed everything — particularly when he wasn’t playing matches.

“I played very little in the youth sides.” Llorente says. “The moment it changed and I went from being a backup to a starter, was when I started training on my own to get stronger. For me, my physique has given me everything. I spend afternoons lifting weights, and, above all, doing a series of thousand-meter runs”

Llorente could’ve left Real Madrid and been a key cog elsewhere by now. He didn’t want to leave the club for Alaves, and ultimately almost stayed after talking to Zinedine Zidane. But things changed when he had a second talk with Zidane, and he decided playing at Alaves regularly was more important than not playing at all. He ended up falling in love with Mendizorroza, and he still supports Alaves now — but it was transitory for him. He wasn’t coaxed enough by Pellegrino in the off-season to be the starter at Leganes. He’d rather busy himself in the gym in Madrid in hopes of breaking through as a starter one day, even if it seemed unlikely.

“The hardest thing in football is to be a starter in Real Madrid, because it’s the team with the best players in the world,” Llorente said in 2016. “I try not to think too much about it, but being a starter in Real Madrid is my dream.”

Deportivo Alaves v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Famously, Llorente is part of a large family tree of Real Madrid players. While he appreciates the greatness of his gene pool, he downplays genetical factors for his physical success, and attributes it mostly to his own work ethic, which, he admits, had a lot to do with how fit his father was and the good habits he had. Gento, his uncle (and one of the best players in Real Madrid history — a devastating winger in the Di Stefano and Puskas era), gave him plenty of wisdom which Marcos never turned down. Ditto his father and uncle. “When they criticize me, they know what they’re talking about. You cannot end up wining [that argument]. They make sure that I stay on the right path.”

Marcos analyzes his own matches post-game with his uncle (and agent) Julio, to see what he does wrong.

Llorente loves Real Madrid as much as anyone. It’s as much a part of his life as his family tree. The surname ‘Llorente’ and Real Madrid are almost synonymous. He’s a feel-good story in a season that hasn’t been great. Everyone wants him to succeed — none more than himself; and he spends every ounce of his energy dedicating himself to that cause of being a Real Madrid great.

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