Twelve months ago, Juventus had a problem.
Gianluigi Buffon was still one of the greatest stoppers on the planet, the back line was making a case for being the best in Europe and with the addition of Paul Pogba, Juve's midfield was as dominant as ever. The Bianconeri were running away with the Italian title again, but all was not well in Turin.
The forwards weren't scoring. Alessandro Matri couldn't find his shooting touch, Fabio Quagliarella was in coach Antonio Conte's doghouse and Sebastian Giovinco and Mirko Vucinic were never known as expert poachers anyway.
Something had to be done, and with the financial state of Italian football, overpaying for a big-name striker wasn't an option.
Enter Fernando Llorente, another in a long line of Beppe Marotta's brilliant transfer steals. The big Spaniard was unhappy at Basque outfit Bilbao, but despite Juve's best efforts to come to an agreement with Bilbao, no deal could be struck. Instead, Llorente was signed as a free agent to join the Italian giants at the conclusion of the season.
The move was genius. Like Paul Pogba and Andrea Pirlo, Marotta had once again signed a top player coveted by many without having to pay a cent. Fans were ecstatic at the prospect of the Spanish international leading the front line. A big, powerful forward with surprising technique and a proven track record of scoring goals, Llorente was seen as Juve's best in-the-box forward since David Trezeguet.
Fast forward one year and Llorente has yet to see his first start for the team. He's been warming the bench as Antonio Conte seems to prefer the combination of Vucinic and fellow new signee Carlos Tevez up front. Against FC Copenhagen, with the team desperately looking for a late goal, Conte went with Sebastian Giovinco instead of Llorente to turn the tide.
Few coaches in world football care more about form than Antonio Conte. Unlike most coaches, he will sit his top players if he believes said players are not at their best. He'll start players who impressed him during the week, and if there's any kind of competition between several players fighting for the same spot, he will always choose whoever has the hot hand.
Fernando Llorente arrived in Italy not having played regular competitive football for a year. As far as form goes, that's pretty bad. While all of his teammates were busy winning the Italian title or scoring goals in the Premier League, he had to watch as his coach refused to field him in retribution for his plan to leave Bilbao.
The Spaniard was rusty and faced an even bigger problem: He had to learn how to play in a whole new system. Juventus play in the 3-5-2, a system that is not used that often outside of Italy. It requires both forwards to have blind faith in each other and to know at all times what the other is doing. For Llorente, who probably couldn't even remember the last time he played with a partner up front, it wasn't just a change of system but a change of footballing culture.
And while the former Bilbao ace was struggling, Mirko Vucinic and Carlos Tevez were busy building up the kind of connection needed to thrive in the 3-5-2.
Tevez was built for the 3-5-2. It's rare to find a player who can adapt to Juve's way of playing the game so easily, but the Argentinian did it and the rewards were instant. Tevez is scoring at an impressive rate, but his efforts on the pitch go well beyond that. His work rate is terrific and he provides Vucinic and Pirlo with a magnificent target near the box.
Paired with Tevez, Vucinic gets to do what he does best: provide the midfielders an outlet at all times, swerve outside to create space for Tevez and serve as a link between Juve's wingers and the players ready to finish in front of goal.
Juventus has looked very impressive since the start of the season, and Conte seems to have found the pairing up front that gives his team the best chance to win right now. The Bianconeri don't need Llorente and his expert goal poaching because the partnership of Vucinic and Tevez looks to be a very strong one.
If it isn't broken, there's no need to fix it.
Does this mean Llorente isn't a part of Antonio Conte's long-term plans? Of course not. With the team looking as strong as ever, Llorente will have the luxury of slowly working towards his best form. He'll have to be patient, but sooner or later Juve will find themselves in a situation similar to the one against Copenhagen. And if the Spanish international can impress Coach Conte during practice, there's no reason to believe Conte won't call his number when the time comes.
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