It’s often said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Ahead of their visit to Denmark on Tuesday to face FC København in the Champions League, Juventus at least looked to have taken on board the lesson they received during their last trip to the Parken Stadion.
On that occasion, they had gone behind to Nordsjælland and needed to come back to get a 1-1 draw. There was a feeling of regret on the plane home to Turin. Juventus should have won comfortably. By the end of the match, they’d made no fewer than 33 attempts on goal. Nordsjælland `keeper Jesper Hansen had enjoyed arguably the finest night of his career but the conclusion many people drew was that Juventus’ finishing was imprecise and poor.
They lacked a go-to goalscorer, a cold-blooded executor of chances. Too often in the previous season and throughout that one, Juventus’ strikers made goalies look like Superman, the nickname of their own shot stopper Gigi Buffon.
The list goes like this: Jean-François Gillet for Bologna on September 21, 2011, Gianluca Pegolo for Siena on February 5, 2012, Stefano Sorrentino for Chievo on March 3, 2012, Massimiliano Benassi for Lecce on May 2, 2012, Hansen on October 23, 2012 and the exceptional Federico Marchetti for Lazio on November 17, 2012 as well in both legs of the Coppa Italia semi-final.
It was of great frustration. The resolve to end it hardened. And so, in the spring Juventus announced Fernando Llorente would be joining on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao at the end of the season and in the summer they signed Carlitos Tévez. After supposedly missing out on Sergio Agüero, Luis Suárez and Robin van Persie in recent years, the Old Lady finally had her leading man. Make that men.
The least fans expected was that this meant Juventus would now make lighter work of the likes of Nordsjælland. But football is a funny old game. Watching the København game, Juventini were struck by an inescapable sense of déjà vu. Once again, their team improbably went behind, got back on level terms but couldn’t find a winner despite making no fewer than 27 attempts on goal.
Johan Wiland, København’s man between the sticks, can add his name to the roll order of great goalkeeping performances against Conte’s Juventus. It wasn’t the start the champions of Italy wanted to their European campaign.
Much of the post-match focus fell on Conte’s decisions and one in particular. Why bring on Sebastian Giovinco and not Llorente in the 76th minute with his team chasing the lead? It did cause some consternation. “Juventus ignore Llorente,” was the headline of El País’ Champions League round-up on Wednesday morning.
You can understand how they have got that impression. In five competitive matches, Llorente has played just one minute. Told to warm up but ultimately overlooked against København, it was a game that seemed to be crying out for his introduction.
Juventus had 16 corners. That’s a lot. Nearly half of them were short. Another two went to the edge of the penalty area and the rest to the near post. In part, the strategy reflected the physical make-up of Juventus’ strike partnership. Tévez and Fabio Quagliarella are under 6ft so it’s really no use expecting them to win headers in a crowded box.
With that in mind wouldn’t the inclusion of a player of Llorente’s size – he’s 6ft 5in – rather than Giovinco, who is nicknamed the Atomic Ant for a reason, have given Juventus a better chance of making more of set-pieces like that? Not necessarily, no.
Perhaps Conte spent the summer reading David Sally and Chris Anderson’s book The Numbers Game which uses statistics to demonstrate that corners are an ineffective way of scoring goals. If you’re going to take them, they claim, do so short. But Juventus also made 40 crosses from open play, only 14 of which were successful.
Again, wouldn’t Llorente have posed more of a threat from this particular avenue of attack than those chosen ahead and instead of him. Conte’s riposte to this made some sense. København’s centre-backs Olof Mellberg and Ragnar Sigurdsson are tall—though not as tall as Llorente incidentally—and the way to put players like that in difficulty is with small mobile forwards in possession of a low centre of gravity.
But if it hadn’t worked up until that point why not try a different option? Because that’s what Llorente gives Juventus, a Plan B, their rationale in signing him being quite similar to Barcelona’s reasoning for the purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic four years ago. Some are already wondering whether it might be just as unsuccessful.
At least he didn’t cost €69.5 million. As with Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba, Juventus got Llorente for free. Cynics have claimed that they only did so in order to sell him on for an easy profit. But you don’t give a 28-year-old player a four-year contract worth €4.5 million a season if you don’t foresee him becoming a major part of your team. So how then do we explain Llorente’s struggle to make an impact in Turin?
Might it have something to do with the circumstances he found himself in during his final season with Athletic? At the club since the age of 11, Llorente, with a year left on his contract, felt ready for a new challenge at the end of the season before last. He informed Athletic’s president Jose Urrutia of his decision not to renew. It didn’t go down well. Juventus were told they’d need to pay Llorente’s €36 million buy-out clause if they wanted him.
Unlike Bayern Munich in the case of teammate Javi Martinez, they balked. Llorente would have to wait. Aware that he was planning to leave once his contract expired Athletic moved on. They signed Aduriz from Valencia. He’d be their first choice striker. Llorente was made out to be a villain, the great betrayer, an absurdity considering the loyalty he’d shown Athletic.
It got ugly. Graffiti sprayed on the window of the club shop read: “Death to Llorente, the bastard Spaniard.” Mentally, it must have been tough. Physically too, being out in the cold can only have numbed his instincts. Llorente went from playing 3171 minutes in 2010-11 and 2248 minutes in 2011-12 to just 865. Without consistency, match rhythm and the warmth of the San Mames crowd, he scored only four goals. It’s almost like Juventus have signed a player who has been out for a year with injury.
Seen from this angle, you can appreciate why it might be taking longer than anticipated to reawaken this gentle giant. Apparently a timid sort, the Lion King as he’s called needs to discover his roar again. That’s the mentality expected of a player in Conte’s teams.
Then there’s the adaptation to a new country, new culture and new style of play. Marcelo Bielsa’s and Conte’s football do share some similarities. This was a reason why many thought Llorente would be a great fit for Juventus. But there will be several different nuances like, for example, the type of movement he’s expected to make and the tasks he is required to perform. Conte was seen picking up and placing Llorente in various positions during pre-season.
Unlearning old habits, things that have become second nature over the years, will be hard. “I have to improve in several things,” Llorente said during pre-season. “At times, perhaps I pass the ball when I could directly go for goal. I believe I should shoot more, be more concrete.”
Given time and the opportunity, Llorente should come good. The success of Borja Valero at Fiorentina last season went some way to debunking the myth that Spanish players can’t make it in Italy and remember it’s only September. The season in Serie A is three games old and with a World Cup at the end of it, Llorente, who had a game-changing role in Spain’s ousting of Portugal in the Round of 16 in 2010 – the sort he could have performed for Juve in Copenhagen – will want to be there. Fly in Turin and he should be able to fly from there to Brazil.