Patience is a rare virtue in modern football, but Antonio Conte's cautious approach with Juventus's new striker Fernando Llorente is finally paying dividends.
The Bianconeri announced the signing of the 28-year-old striker on a free transfer from Athletic Club in January and his playing time was very limited with the Spanish club for the rest of the campaign. He was rusty when he joined the Old Lady and most of all he had to adapt to a new culture, new training methods and, especially, a new playing system.
"Juventus was the best decision for me but I need to adapt and it will take time," Llorente warned in August. "Juve play with a 3-5-2, so I will need to improve my movement and understanding with my team-mates. I need to do things which I haven’t done in the past,"
His first summer in the Bianconeri shirt was anything but easy. "The training is more demanding," he was also quoted as saying. "It is barbaric. The workouts are brutal."
Conte's Juventus have won the Scudetto in the last two seasons with a 3-5-2 system which sees the role of forwards to create space for the runs of midfielders like Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio as more important than actually scoring goals. Alessandro Matri was Juventus' leading scorer in 2011/12 with just ten goals, while only Mirko Vučinić and Vidal reached that figure in 2012/13.
With opponents starting to adapt to playing against this system, Conte wanted a striker who could give his attack a different dimension and Llorente, a scorer of 85 goals at Athletic and seven with Spain, was considered the ideal choice with his physical strength and aerial ability. However, the Juventus coach did not rush a player coming in off the back of a very difficult season.
When the Juve attackers wasted plenty of good opportunities to score in the 1-1 draw at FC København on matchday one and Conte ignored Llorente on the bench, using only Sebastian Giovinco to try to change the game, the Italian media started to question whether the signing of the Spanish striker was a mistake.
"Is he only handsome?" was the headline of Turin newspaper Tuttosport over a big picture of a smiling Llorente. Conte, however, was quick to explain his decision. "He's just getting back after a year out and I need to play him when he can shine. I can't put him on the pitch if he isn't in a position to give his maximum just to keep the journalists happy."
After scoring on his first start with Juventus in the 2-1 victory over Hellas-Verona FC on 22 September, Llorente continued to be used mostly as a substitute but the injury suffered by Vučinić offered him the opportunity to get into the starting XI. Llorente started both UEFA Champions League games against Real Madrid CF scoring in each game. His opportunistic finish in Madrid could not prevent a 2-1 defeat but his header in Turin gave the Bianconeri an important point.
His partnership with Carlos Tévez – the classic big man and small man relationship which reminds the Bianconeri fans of the Omar Sivori-John Charles duo in the 60s – is also improving with every match. "I'm starting to see the fruits of the hard work I put in earlier this season," he said. "It was hard at the beginning but I feel I'm starting to do what Conte wants from me and I believe things can only get better."
"Fernando is a player who has been improving exponentially," said Conte with a smile on his face. "And I think he can still give us a lot more. I'm happy, especially considering all the hours we spent together on the pitch to explain to him our playing system." With crucial Group B games against København and Galatasaray AŞ coming up, Llorente will have more opportunities to show that he is not just a pretty face.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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