Diego Llorente exclusive part 2 - From the 'worst moment' to Leeds United 'liberation' and being surprised by Whites promotion heros
Diego Llorente put both hands to his face in a mix of pain and despair and sank to the St James’ Park turf.
Just eight minutes had been played of Leeds United’s game against Newcastle United, Llorente’s big comeback from injury.
Luke Ayling delayed a throw in so the centre-half could go down and await treatment from medical staff. Llorente bowed his head as he sat and awaited an outcome that, on the evidence of his body language, was inevitable.
He had looked uncomfortable for the previous few minutes, his right hand flitting to the back of his right leg, his stride a little laboured in a midfield footrace. His race, yet again, was run.
An October groin injury picked up on international duty before he had even played for Leeds, a groin strain sustained in the final minutes of his debut at Chelsea in December and now a hamstring problem on his January return – hardly the introduction to the Premier League he had envisaged.
Marcelo Bielsa patted his defender sympathetically on the shoulder as he passed him in the technical area.
“The night of the Newcastle game was the lowest point of my time at Leeds, the worst moment,” he told the YEP. “It was very tough.
“Obviously I came here with big hopes, really enthusiastic to do well, work hard and to help the team. In football you get these little problems cropping up from time to time, like injuries. You can’t get too down and be too sad.
“I think I’m quite a strong person mentally and I think it helps when you just get your head down and keep working every day in training.
“By the next morning the only thing I had in my head was to start that road to recovery again so I could get back into a position to help out my team-mates. The only thing in my head was to be positive and turn it around and that’s what I did. I started working the next day.”
After the Newcastle game Bielsa expressed his concern for Llorente’s mental state, given the repeated problems he had encountered since an £18m move from Real Sociedad.
“We’re all trying to help him and support him through this injury,” said the head coach a few days later.
Llorente, still acclimatising to a new country, club and colleagues, valued the support.
“It’s true when you go to a new club you have to put your trust in everyone, not just the medical team but the guys you work with every day, the physios, people helping you in your rehab and your daily work,” he said.
“I’ve got nothing but thanks for everyone who helped. It was my team-mates as well. Everyone at Leeds helped me through those tough times and not just on a sporting level but on a personal level. I’m grateful and always will be.”
On February 23 he walked out to play on the Elland Road pitch for the first time since an £18m move from Real Sociedad.
After two false starts, a few nerves would have been forgivable for both player and club.
Llorente, a man with 138 La Liga appearances and six Spain caps, felt none.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” he said.
“Initially it was a feeling of happiness and almost like a feeling of liberation, like I was freeing myself from those difficult times being injured. When that moment came, when I played those games it was pure joy and happiness.”
He ticked off his first full 90 minutes with the win over Southampton and a narrow, somewhat undeserved defeat to Aston Villa represented another step in the right direction for Llorente.
His performances were good, his defending aggressive and his passing crisp and progressive, taking play deep into the opposition half with drilled, accurate balls to the feet of attackers.
In a team and a system still new to him, playing at a breakneck tempo, he did not look out of place.
“The time spent watching while I was out allowed me to get to know the side, my team-mates, the way we play,” he said. “I learned from it, I was up to speed on the way the team functions by the time I started playing.
“I can assure you, it’s much more intense to play than watch.”
Not all of it was new to Llorente. He first encountered man-to-man marking in his days at Real Madrid’s academy, then again at Rayo Vallecano and most recently at La Real.
“Being aware that Leeds favoured that system as well was one of the things that attracted me to come here and play, I felt my attributes and being used to playing that style meant I would fit in well,” he said.
“I hope you saw in the two games I played that I really enjoyed myself and hopefully you can see I’m used to playing that style, it’s not a case of having to adapt to it too much.”
Out of possession, he fights hard to win it back – his 17 recoveries against Villa set a new 90-minute record for Leeds players under Bielsa.
He’s aiming to replicate the physical effort exemplified by two players who have caught him by surprise with their own English top-flight adaptation.
“One of the most striking things I’ve noticed since I came to the club is the amazing qualities players like Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling have got, given they’ve never played in the Premier League,” he said.
“They’ve taken to it really well. They can run for such a long time and at such a high intensity. It’s something to be admired, something I’m really happy about because it helps the team. I have to try and replicate it myself.”
In possession, he believes he’s a good fit for Bielsaball.
“I can help join in attacks and help start attacks and help the team in offensive play,” he said.
“You always have to take into account the risk-reward thing. If you feel the pass is low in risk and can create something, then I’ll do it.
“If you can make the game easier in the attacking sense without detriment to your defensive duties, it’s something I’ll continue to do in games when it’s the right time.”
The more he plays for Leeds between now and the summer and the more he impresses, the better his chance of making Spain’s European Championships squad will be, though he’s not getting ahead of himself.
“The main thing I’m thinking of, my main objective is to keep learning, taking things day by day and enjoying playing again,” he said.
“I want to help the team in every game I can and I suppose it’s about winning as many games as we can. There’s nothing else on my mind.
“I’d love to be considered for the national team but you have to be aware that there’s lots of competition in all areas but in my position in particular. Of course everyone wants to play for his country, but it’s a tough team to get into. All I can do is concentrate on what’s in my control day to day, working hard.”
A series of niggles put firmly behind him, he’s out to put together a series of performances, step by step. At long last Llorente is off and running at Leeds.