'He’s an introvert' - how Spanish team-mates and Gjanni Alioski helped Diego Llorente during a rough Leeds United introduction
Patrick Bamford struggled to get two words out of Diego Llorente during the Spaniard’s difficult introduction to life in English football.
An introvert, according to his team-mate, Llorente had scarcely learned his way around the corridors of Thorp Arch when injury struck to restrict him to the treatment room and the upstairs gym, where rehabilitation work takes place under the watchful eye of Rob Price and the medical team.
The groin injury picked up on international duty less than three weeks after his September 24 move to Leeds from Real Sociedad kept him out until December, when he suffered a fresh problem right at the end of his return at Chelsea.
His second comeback, at Newcastle United, lasted just 10 minutes before he damaged his hamstring.
It was the cruellest fate for a player desperate to get his new life under way in earnest and that set-back led Marcelo Bielsa to express his concern for Llorente’s morale and mental state.
For a naturally quiet player who spoke some English, the succession of niggling injuries made it difficult for Llorente to fully integrate with his new team.
“He was relatively quiet when he first joined,” said Bamford.
“It’s obviously hard coming to a new club, getting injured and not knowing anyone. It’s difficult because of Covid, especially with the injured players. You pretty much won’t see them if you’re training with the team because they’ll be in the gym upstairs whereas we do all our gym work in the dome. You might go a few weeks and only see them in passing in the corridor.”
Llorente wasn’t left entirely to his own devices, though; his fellow Spanish speakers tried to ensure he felt at home.
“It always helps when you’ve got people who can help you along, who speak your own language,” said Llorente.
“Before I signed here I phoned Pablo because he’s an old team-mate of mine from Rayo Vallecano. He gave me the inside track on how the club was run, how we played, things on and off the field. That helped a lot, he spoke very positively about the way things are here. And in day-to-day stuff, Pablo and Kiko Casilla have helped me a lot in that settling in period.”
Even his polar opposite, the extreme extrovert Gjanni Alioski, played a part.
“Alioski has come into my life,” laughed Llorente.
“Gjanni is a very lively character, he brings a lot of joy to the dressing room, brings everyone up. It’s great for me that he speaks Spanish so we can get on really well and communicate well. He’s great off the field but he’s contributed greatly on the field too. The energy and lively nature he brings is important.”
What really helped the centre-half to settle, however, was football. Since returning from his latest injury, Llorente has been ever-present, playing every minute of Leeds’ last nine games.
Going into battle and showing the men in the Thorp Arch dressing rooms why he was brought in to join them has brought him out of his shell, Bamford says.
“Since he started coming into the team, back fit and started playing, you saw him open up a lot more,” said the striker.
“He’s really stepped out of his own skin. His English isn’t perfect but he tries. He’s still quiet, he’s an introvert but, if it makes sense, he’s come out more than when he first joined. He interacts with the lads.
“The Spanish lads helped him feel welcome but the more he started to play the more he started talking to people on and off the pitch. I maybe got two words out of him the first couple of months he was here because he was injured and you didn’t see him that much. Now he opens up and you can chat with him. I think he’s starting to feel more settled.”
Llorente is keen to continue improving his English. He ended a recent YEP interview expressing his hope that the next one could take place without an interpreter. Until then his football can do all the talking. Right now, it’s speaking volumes.
His aggressive, front-foot style of defending along with his risk-taking on the ball, both dribbling and passing forward, make him a fun player to watch. In one-versus-one battles he has shown the required physicality and his anticipation and reading of the game have made life hard for strikers hoping to receive the ball to feet in the final third.
Leeds supporters’ memories of Ben White are fond but they’re becoming distant, thanks to Robin Koch and Llorente.
As Bamford says, Llorente is ‘playing better and better every game’ and by doing so with consistency he’s keeping Koch, so impressive before his knee operation, out of the team.
Llorente has featured at the heart of a defence that has conceded just four in their last six games, including encounters with Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United.
The game against the latter saw him heavily involved, making the most successful passes – no easy feat for a player who has a taste for the adventurous - winning four duels, two tackles and recovering the ball 12 times, second only to the outstanding Kalvin Phillips.
Phillips was man of the match but both Llorente and Struijk ran him close and the central defensive duo have struck up a solid-looking partnership of late.
Their form gives Bielsa a selection headache, with Liam Cooper due to return from suspension after this weekend’s trip to Brighton & Hove Albion and Koch champing at the bit to get more match minutes.
Llorente, Cooper and Koch all want to state their cases for the European Championships this summer, while Struijk can justifiably stake a claim to a starting place at Leeds thanks to a spectacular breakthrough season.
As problems go, it’s one of the better ones and a far cry from the periods of the season when Bielsa was forced to play a right-back in the middle of his back line, when fans wondered if they would ever get to see what the player Victor Orta signed from Real Sociedad was made of.
It turns out he’s made of some pretty stern stuff. In the six game unbeaten run he has won the most aerial duels of any Leeds player, made the most blocks and the most successful passes. Leadership comes in more forms than the traditional vocal output.
It took some time but Leeds are finally getting a lot out of Llorente. When he really settles in it will be opposition strikers having the difficult introductions to life at Elland Road.