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The intricacies of Marcos Llorente’s inevitable Real Madrid break-up: How we got here, and why Atleti?

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Kiyan Sobhani’s column, breaking down the Llorente sale

Girona v Real Madrid - Copa del Rey Quarter Final Photo by David Ramos/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.


Earlier this season in Rome, after a Real Madrid victory at Stadio Olimpico, Marcos Llorente — starting his first game of the season and immediately providing Real with ball recoveries and press-resistancy — told reporters his dream is to succeed at Real Madrid. Easy quote to spew — his entire bloodline is infused with Madridismo and he had waited over a year for a break into the first team. Llorente then went on to start eight more matches under then head-coach Santiago Solari, impressing in all of them and providing Real Madrid with a new element of ball-carrying and defensive positioning from a deep position.

Llorente then tore an abductor in January, then relapsed on the same injury again in February. He sat out a total of 59 days, missing 15 games in the process. Real Madrid capitulated and melted their entire season in the span of a week (the two issues — Llorente’s injury and the team’s collapse — are not correlated, but follow the timeline). Santiago Solari’s firing from that disaster meant the return of one of Real Madrid’s most influential figures in club history — Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman returned. Everything changed for multiple players who had previously broken through. Llorente was among the casualties.

It’s wild how easily the fate of a player can swing overnight depending on who the manager is. One fear fans had amid Zidane’s return was how he’d gauge anything that happened this season as a barometer to his future plans. Ceballos thrived under Julen Lopetegui, while Isco and Marco Asensio were playing heavy minutes; Llorente and Sergio Reguilon thrived under Solari. At the very least, in a season fans would like to erase from history, Madridistas got to see young talent they otherwise wouldn’t have seen much of had Solari not emerged. Those players won the hearts of fans and gave them excitement for the future. Reguilon’s two-way play impressed so much that he stabilized the left flank when it was being overrun defensively. All of a sudden he was standing up to players like Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi, Diego Godin, and Jose Gimenez. He became a cult hero, and a poster-boy of Madridismo.

The fate of Reguilon may not be the same as Llorente’s. The most likely outcome for the left-back is he’ll go out on loan, or sold with a buy-back clause. That gives you enough time to phase out Marcelo for a year or two, before deciding between Achraf Hakimi and Reguilon as Ferland Mendy’s wingman. Llorente’s situation was more complicated.

Zidane’s trust for Marcos was never fully there. With Ceballos, it was easy to assess the lack of playing time: he resided in central midfield, in an era where the team has never, in its 115+ years of its history, been this deep at that position. Llorente was the only pure back-up to Casemiro. Still, Zidane’s back-up plan when Casemiro couldn’t play was to shift Mateo Kovacic or Toni Kroos deeper, or restructure the scheme around a double-pivot. That generally worked. The team survived a Bayern bloodbath with Kovacic treading water as an anchor, but other than that, it’s hard to question a team that constantly lifts trophies.

That leaves Llorente, now 24, in a difficult spot. You can only fight for your place for so long before coming to a brutal realization: Move on, or simply fall into irrelevancy. Throughout this entire season, the club and player — a dyad destined to sever — lucked out on two things: 1) Llorente had a chance to show the world what he was worth under Solari; and 2) Real Madrid were able to boost his value, selling him for a fee that wouldn’t have otherwise been as high had Llorente not played even those handful of matches.

Atletico will pay Real Madrid close to €40m for Marcos. That fee isn’t nearly as high if Llorente doesn’t get the luck of Solari’s emergence. From Atletico’s perspective, this signing was a no-brainer. They are about to lose one of the most promising defensive midfielders in the world in Rodri Hernandez. But Rodri was never a seamless fit for them in a defensive scheme — he’s a player who thrives in a possession-based environment that will suit his passing and pressing abilities. Atleti flip Rodri for a profit and use some of that cash to sign about as good a replacement as you can get. In Llorente, they get a player accustomed to playing the anchor role in a defensive scheme (which he thrived in under Mauricio Pellegrino at Alaves). Llorente is perfect for Atletico. He will read passing lanes and start counters. He will get the much needed playing time he deserves.

Manchester City wins. Rodri Hernandez wins. Atletico Madrid wins. Marcos Llorente wins, despite how difficult it will be for Real Madrid fans to see him in an Atleti shirt. It’s not easy to understand why Marcos Llorente — a player who was a Madridista before he was born — would go play for his arch rivals.

Often misunderstood: Players can’t operate the way fans do. This is their lives — their careers. Get it wrong, and leave a lot of money on the table. Llorente, in choosing Atletico over anyone else, gets two things: 1) Atletico are the biggest club that could offer him playing time; and 2) He gets to stay in Madrid. Llorente will now be relevant on the European scale, will be playing Champions League football, and all of that playing time at a high level should get him into the discussion for Spanish National Team duties. Real Madrid likely get the biggest fee they could squeeze out of any club. Those asking for a buy-back: You can’t add a buy-back on top of a €40m sale.

Inter Milan, reportedly, did their due diligence to inquire about Llorente as part of Antonio Conte’s new project. That, for Llorente, would’ve been a step backward from Atleti.

A lot of this is bittersweet if you’re a Real Madrid fan. Most didn’t want to see Llorente walk away — they feel he should’ve dethroned Casemiro’s starting spot, or at least been a future mainstay. Losing talented players is tough, but sometimes you have to check your emotions at the door and trust a proven winning blueprint. The club will get player selection wrong. Clubs around the world, in any sport, will make recurring mistakes when evaluating talent — it’s part of the journey. But if Real Madrid continues winning (relative to its natural course in history), how much will the club miss Llorente? He should thrive elsewhere, and that’s fun. If Real Madrid bring in someone like Tanguy Ndombele in midfield, they’ve already upgraded the midfield and sacrificed a temporary emotional let down by losing a fan-favourite.

We have slight precedences for this. In the summer of 2000, Real Madrid sold Fernando Redondo, one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time and a loyal player who had an undeniable love for Real Madrid. It was a decision that was met with literal protests in the streets of Madrid. That, somehow, worked out. Redondo unfortunately got injured at Milan, and the club signed Claude Makelele, who turned out to be a revolutionary destroyer.

In 2014, the club unexpectedly lost Xabi Alonso after winning the Champions League. Angel Di Maria, one of the key cogs of La Decima, was sold in the same summer. The two were replaced by Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez — neither of which could play that Xabi role. Losing Xabi and Di Maria was gutting for many, and the club paid for it by being dramatically thin at the DM slot — to the point where Sergio Ramos played that role in a big Champions League game against Atleti. Not lost in the shuffle: The team still went on a huge unbeaten run that season and only crumbled when Modric got injured. What ensued: Real Madrid brought in Casemiro, and with his help, won three straight Champions League titles.

One thing should be clear: Llorente’s choice was to stay. You might have been able to finagle your way into keeping him on board — but with the clear message that you can’t play him. Llorente’s second option was to move to a place of his choice (with the club accepting of it given that Atletico was a high bidder). Real Madrid needed to sell anyway — they have 38 players on the books. That’s not including any other inevitable signings. The trimming process is already difficult, and Llorente was never part of Zidane’s long-term plans.

The decision to move on from Llorente was not something the club stumbled upon overnight. Zidane hinted at this back in April, when he suggested that Llorente needs another Alaves-like atmosphere to play well.

This one stings, but this team is still mid-construction, and other midfielders will arrive. It remains to be seen whether Zidane will play with a traditional anchor next season at all, which made Llorente’s future even more in jeopardy. Zidane has hinted at a deviation from the 4-3-3, and if that holds true, even Casemiro might be expendable. (He’s likely not, but if Zidane doesn’t want to rely on a pure-DM, and would rather pack the midfield with multiple creative engines, then there’s no need for another option beyond Casemiro. Casemiro has been a liability in many games — but Zidane’s gung-ho approach to defensive transition makes Casemiro’s inclusion necessary for him. Interesting caveat: Casemiro was often pushed ahead of Modric and Kroos because of his inadequacy dealing with presses, leading to him not being in good areas to help Varane and Ramos defend counters. His role at times became redundant — how can Zidane amend this?)

This will be an emotional summer for fans one way or another. With the current plethora of squad players, this will be a roller-coaster: Jubilation over a key signing on one day, and losing a favourite player the next. Buckle up for more. One tip: Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not allowed to be upset over losing a good player.