Juventus: What Fernando Llorente Brings to the Bianconeri

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2013

Juventus: What Fernando Llorente Brings to the Bianconeri

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    Juventus have finally given Antonio Conte what he's been missing in the two years of his tenure in Turin—a top-of-the-line target man for his striking line.

    The arrival of Fernando Llorente gives Juve their first quality target man since the departure of David Trezeguet.  After two years of frustration, Juve's fans finally have a forward who is capable of the clinical finishes that Juve have lacked in two otherwise spectacular seasons.

    So what does the Spaniard bring to the Bianconeri?  Let's take a close look and find out.

Clinical Finishing

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    Last season was one to forget for Llorente.  A feud with coach Marcelo Bielsa after his refusal to sign a contract extension limited him to mostly substitute appearances.  He scored only five times in all competitions.

    His performance from the year before is what has made Juve go after El Rey Leon for the last year.

    Llorente scored 29 times in all competitions in 2011-12, leading his team to the finals of both the Europa League and the Copa del Rey.

    Finishing has been Juventus's biggest problem the last two years.  Alessandro Matri, Fabio Quagliarella, Mirko Vucinic and Sebastian Giovinco have run hot at various times, but none of them was consistent enough through an entire season to be thought of as a true top-of-the-line goalscorer.

    In his last two full seasons Llorente has scored 35 league goals—18 and 17, respectively.  No Juve player has scored more than 10 league goals the last two seasons.

    Llorente was brought into the team to fix that weakness.

Scratch Goals

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    It's not only the misses on clear chances that have caused Juve's fans to lose some hair the last few years. Few of Juve's strikers could take a half-chance and turn it into a goal with any consistency.

    Llorente can make those chances count.  The above goal, from the 2011-12 Europa League, is just such a chance.

    Llorente streaked down the left side and volleyed a long pass from an angle at 14 yards into the bottom far corner.  It was a fantastic strike, and one that helped Bilbao eliminate Manchester United from the Europa League.

    These are the kinds of goals that Juve can hope to see with Llorente as a member of the squad.

Aerial Dominance

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    At 6'5", Fernando Llorente is a handful for any defender in the air.

    Llorente's leaping ability is complimented by the power and accuracy of his heading ability.  With Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah on the wings in the 3-5-2, Llorente can expect some good service into the box for him to bang into goal.

    Also not to be forgotten is the service he could get on set pieces from dead-ball wizard Andrea Pirlo.  It all means a great number of chances for Llorente to give keepers nightmares.

    His ability to use his head to flick on to teammates like Carlos Tevez isn't a bad trait, either.

Proficiency with Both Feet

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    Llorente is capable of controlling and scoring with either foot.

    For a player in Llorente's mold, the first touch is extraordinarily important.  Llorente's excellent footwork allows him to take that first touch straight into a position to menace the opposing keeper.

    Compare Llorente with a striker of a similar type who has been on Juve's roster for the last two-and-a-half years, Alessandro Matri.

    If someone told you that Matri was one of the best strikers in Europe last year in terms of shot-to-goal ratio, you'd probably be surprised.  But that's exactly the case.  The problem for Matri?  His first touch lets him down so often that he's not able to get into position to take as many shots.

    When Llorente does get himself in that position, he won't have to wait to get onto his preferred right foot, as he's equally deadly with his left.

Making Space

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    The picture accompanying this slide is from the 2012 Europa League Final between Bilbao and Atletico Madrid.  Llorente is standing, in green.  Note how many defenders have been sucked in to defend Llorente.

    The striker is bracketed by two Atletico players with a third on the way to help and a fourth looking on in case he's needed.

    Such is the threat from Llorente that he will suck a few extra defenders to him.  That will make space for Carlos Tevez (or whoever else is partnered with him) to sneak through for shots on goal.  It will also make the channel runs of midfielders Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio that much deadlier.

Hold-Up Play

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    One of the biggest problems Juventus had in the Champions League quarterfinal against Bayern Munich was the hold-up play of the forwards.

    Particularly in the first leg at the Allianz Arena, Fabio Quagliarella and Alessandro Matri were unable to hold onto possession after long clearances.  The Bavarians regained possession too quickly for the Juve midfielders to get forward to support, pinning the Bianconeri into the defensive half.

    Llorente promises to do a better job of holding the ball up when the team is forced to play long from the back.  Such play may be necessary deeper into Champions League play against teams like Barcelona and Bayern, where possession can be harder to come by and long balls from the back more necessary.

Tactical Flexibility

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    Llorente's presence will allow Antonio Conte to experiment with tactics this summer.  He can keep the 3-5-2 that made his team the class of Italy in place, or he can do a few things different.

    In the last few games of 20121-13 season, fans started seeing a 3-5-1-1 formation with Mirko Vucinic as the lone striker and Claudio Marchisio playing in the hole.  It was probably more a way of getting Paul Pogba into the midfield than anything else, but it was also a good experiment for how Juve may be able to incorporate Llorente.  Better as a lone striker than one of a pair, it would allow Carlos Tevez, Vucinic, or even Sebastian Giovinco playing in the hole with Marchisio moving back to his normal midfield position.

    Another option would be the 4-3-3 that Conte used at the very beginning of his tenure with Juve.  It would keep the MVP midfield intact, allow Stephan Lichtsteiner to play his more natural right-back position and shift Vucinic to the left wing, where he has proven very effective in his career.  The downside would be that it wouldn't allow Llorente and Tevez to play together.

    ESPNFC blogger Mina Rzouki wrote in a recent post that Conte has also been toying with an old-timey 3-3-4 formation in preseason training.  The formation was used by teams like Herbert Champman's Arsenal sides in the 1920s and '30s and Tottenham Hotspur in the 1960s.

    The formation has its advantages and disadvantages.  The attacking potential would be phenomenal, allowing Llorente, Tevez and  Vucinic to all be on the field together with Vucinic on the left wing.  The wingers would have to track back to try to win the ball and help cover defensively, and the midfielders would have to be able to run forever—not necessarily something you want Andrea Pirlo to be doing on a regluar basis.

    Great pressure would be put on the defense and midfield, and there would be questions about wing coverage.  It would also likely force the dynamic defensive presence of Lichtsteiner off the field.  There's also a question as to whether or not the team has the correct wingers on the roster to fulfill the duties the formation imposes on them.

    Still, it's an option—one of the wealth that Conte now has at his disposal with Llorente in the fold.

Financial Flexibility

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    The biggest off-field aspect of the acquisition of Llorente is what Juve had to pay to get him.

    Namely, nothing.

    OK, not really nothing.  Llorente's salary is reported to be €4.5 million, which is certainly a shot in the wage bill.  But Llorente did not cost anything beyond that to acquire.

    Juve tried to pry Llorente from Bilbao on an immediate transfer in January, but the Basque club refused to sell their striker rather than make something off of his move.

    This means that Beppe Marotta was able to sign a supremely gifted striker without spending a dime on a transfer fee.

    Marotta's wizardry with the free transfer has been one of the keys to Juve's resurrection.  Andrea Pirlo arrived via the Bosman two seasons ago, and last year Juve nabbed wunderkind midfielder Paul Pogba. Both have turned into huge cogs in Antonio Conte's machine.

    Not spending on a transfer fee for Llorente means more money for Juve to acquire players like Tevez and defender Angelo Ogbonna—not to mention any other moves Marotta has up his sleeve in the month remaining in the transfer window.

Hunger, Part 1

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    Fernando Llorente has spent the entirety of his top-flight career with Athletic Bilbao.  In that time, the team has finished no higher than sixth and as low as 17th.  In a league dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona, he has never sniffed a title and has never played in a Champions League game.

    Despite that mid-table existence, Llorente has led Bilbao to a Europa League final, a pair of Copa del Rey finals, and a Spanish Supercup.  The club were runners up every time.

    Juventus is the best team Llorente has ever played for, and they give him the best chance he's ever had of claiming a winner's medal on the club level.  That's a big carrot to put on the stick.

    For a team that has sometimes been accused of complacency, that kind of motivation could be contagious, which could lead to an excellent season for the Bianconeri.

Experience, Part 1

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    It has been mentioned that Llorente has played in three final games and one two-legged final.  While Bilbao lost all of them, that experience is valuable.

    With a few exceptions—Pirlo and Tevez come to mind—Juventus's players don't have as much experience going deep into club tournaments.  They made the final of the Coppa Italia two years ago, but the Coppa is not nearly as grueling a tournament for a top team like Juve than are its equivalents in other countries.

    Juve's players make up the backbone of the Italian national team, so they have experience going deep into international tournaments, but club tournaments like the Champions League are a different ballgame. The grind of playing those games alongside the league games—and the long-distance travel involved—is different from an international.  Those competitions stand alone and are usually in a localized area where travel is usually not as extensive.

    To have another player with the experience of a deep run on the club is a valuable commodity, and will serve Juve well as the season goes on.

Experience, Part 2

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    Despite their differences, it doesn't hurt to have players who have had success on the highest level of them all.

    Fernando Llorente has never won a title at the club level, but he was on the roster for Spain's triumphs in the 2010 World Cup and at Euro 2012.

    Juve already have a pair of world champions on their team in Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon.  Having another—especially one in the strike force—is a boon to any club.

Hunger, Part 2

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    Llorente has been on the roster for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.  But his lack of playing time during his feud with Bilbao's management this year saw him lose his spot with La Roja in the Confederations Cup to Roberto Soldado.

    Llorente will want his spot on the Spanish national team restored this year.  That will take a great season for the Italian champions.  Llorente will be motivated to make his second trip to the World Cup and will need to show Vicente Del Bosque that he deserves it.

Confidence Factor

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    There seemed to be a lack of confidence in Juve's forwards that was evident on the field.  Between April 15 and May 5 midfielders Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio combined to score five consecutive goals while the forwards floundered.  Overall, midfielders scored 38 of Juve's total goals this season.

    The last two seasons Juve's leading scorer or joint-leading scorer has been a midfielder.  There's just been something about the forwards that the team didn't trust.

    A lot of that production from the midfielders comes from Conte's 3-5-2, but the midfielders have also had to take up the slack from a subpar strike group.

    With Llorente and Tevez in the squad, the midfielders may be more confident in their ability to make the extra pass than to take the shot, which could end up putting the team in better position to score, either off that pass or later on in the movement.

Depth

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    The arrival of Llorente and Tevez has given Juve six strikers on the roster.  That might be a bit much, and as many as two of the gaggle of Vucinic, Matri, Quagliarella, and Giovinco could be going elsewhere before the transfer window is finished.

    Still, Juve has some great depth up front right now, and if Conte does settle on a 3-3-4 formation keeping five of the forwards would be a must, unless someone like Simone Pepe was pressed into service on the wings to give people some rest.

    Conte has a wealth of options in his attack now that he can mix and match into formations as he sees fit. It's a perfect situation for any manager.