Why Poch, the patron saint of lost causes, should defrost Fernando Llorente
One of the strongest pieces of evidence to support the idea that Mauricio Pochettino is indeed magic, as the song suggests, is his record of resurrections. The man from Murphy has made a handy habit of coaxing elite performances from broken-down write-offs headed for the scrapheap.
Danny Rose may claim he was always destined for greatness, but before Pochettino arrived he was a washed-up liability that most fans would have been thrilled to be rid of. Two years later he was the best left-back in the league. Erik Lamela seemed mentally broken under Tim Sherwood and physically broken for most of 2017. Both times, his countryman bought him back better and stronger.
Moussa Sissoko was an abject punchline, a metaphor for the fecklessness of the Premier League in its Wolf of Wall Street era. His transformation has been so dramatic that it was little surprise when he recently outshone most Barcelona players at the Camp Nou.
Pochettino’s feats of reanimation are so prodigious that it's tempting to consider who he couldn’t make a serviceable footballer of. Serge Aurier has proven his incompetence several times over, but can we entirely rule out the possibility that under this manager’s tutelage he might yet morph into Ashley Cole circa 2006? What could Pochettino do with Christian Benteke? Or Winston Bogarde? Or you?
But there is one glaring, and baffling, exception who is untouched by Pochettino’s alchemy. There are two players in the Tottenham squad with World Cup winners’ medals. One wears the captain’s armband. The other is so under-employed that he might be more usefully pressed into service testing fuse boxes at the new stadium.
Contrary to popular perception, Fernando Llorente has made the most of his meagre minutes in lilywhite. The dashing Basque could scarcely have done more.
Llorente was granted the sum total of one Premier League start in his first season at Tottenham, when he scored at Swansea. In two Champions League starts, he netted against APOEL and delivered a masterclass at Real Madrid. In one of a handful of domestic cup appearances he scored a hat-trick.
This season Llorente has been even further starved, playing just 153 minutes across three competitions. Still he has contributed; scoring on his only start at West Ham in the EFL Cup, assisting Harry Kane for a crucial equaliser against PSV in the Champions League, and playing a key role in engineering late breakthroughs against Watford, Barcelona and Burnley.
Each time, Llorente bought his wealth of experience and rounded skill set to pressure moments. He roughed up defenders, won headers, held the ball up, laid it off and created space, all with the implacable composure and professionalism of a proven thoroughbred. Which is exactly what he is.
Take your chances
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Llorente’s career to date. Spurs have established a low-key tradition of recruiting tragi-comic striker flops, from Grzegorz Rasiak to Roberto Soldado and Vincent Janssen. Llorente is not one of them.
While rarely prolific by modern standards, the Spaniard has been a fixture in the most successful national squad of modern times. He racked up trophies and became a crowd favourite at Juventus. He achieved icon status at Athletic Bilbao. He made the Premier League look easy in his first season in England with 15 goals for a listing Swansea team, which made it a coup when Tottenham beat Chelsea to his signature.
The match seemed perfect. A wily veteran to complement a squad of youthful talents, old and wise enough to accept his supporting role to Kane. But from the start, despite regular injury crises and a thin squad, Llorente has been left on the shelf to gather dust. The Basque has made more of his opportunities than Janssen ever did, but has been rewarded with far fewer. Little wonder that Llorente is now casting wistful eyes towards Bilbao - or frankly anywhere else at this point.
It's easy to see how the veteran could still contribute to this team. Kane will play when possible, but a confident and valued Llorente could grant him occasional respite. The two have also linked encouragingly on the rare moments they have shared a penalty area, notably against Madrid and PSV. A three-man frontline of Kane, Llorente, and Son ahead of a midfield of, say, Winks, Sissoko, and Eriksen, would offer an interesting option against the league’s lower lights with their massed defences. Llorente’s record of impacting matches as a substitute suggests Pochettino should summon his No.18 earlier and more often – if only to give poor Kane a rest more often.
Part to play
The manager has forged his reputation through pragmatism as much as principle - there could be no other way with Daniel Levy as chairman. Pochettino has worked with the tools available to him rather than pining for magic bullets.
He has made necessity the mother of invention, most strikingly by prising an excellent footballer from what was once Moussa Sissoko. With an exhausted and depleted squad, morale sapped by homelessness, Pochettino has maintained his under-funded team’s assault on the elite by extracting the maximum from every player.
Except Llorente, who seems destined for the door. But is it so far-fetched that Pochettino’s sorcery could turn a very good player into a regular match winner? The manager’s record to date suggests that could be one of his easier assignments.
With the January transfer window about to creak open, Spurs fans will lust for that one special player, the game-changer, to give a heroic but overstretched squad a shot in the arm. Spurs are second at the halfway mark, ahead of Manchester City. What might this collective achieve with the addition of a scorer and creator of proven class, capable of adapting seamlessly?
Well, he might just be there already.