Legendary manager 'struck' by Leeds United man's performance in surprise league start
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Llorente moved to the Serie A giant in the January transfer window in a loan deal that had the potential to become a permanent move in the summer. His lack of involvement to date under Mourinho has cast doubt on Roma’s intention to keep Llorente beyond this season, with Sunday’s game providing him with a first start in the eight Serie A fixtures since his arrival in Italy.
A single minute as a substitute against Empoli was followed by four games in which he sat on the bench, before a groin issue kept him out against Sassuolo. Mourinho sticking to his back three of Chris Smalling, Roger Ibañez and Gianluca Mancini left Llorente as the odd man out. But the Leeds defender returned against Lazio, coming off the bench at the interval, albeit only to be substituted himself on 78 minutes as Roma chased a derby equaliser that never came.
And having caught Mourinho’s eye during the international break, the centre-half was thrust into action against Sampdoria, partnering Chris Smalling in the heart of Roma’s defence.
"Diego Llorente also played very well with Smalling in a four-man defense,” said Mourinho in an interview with DAZN after the 3-0 victory.
"He worked really well during the break, and as a manager that’s what really struck me about today: Llorente’s performance. I could have used [Mehmet] Çelik as a central defender but he’d never done it before so we opted for a four-man defense. I was really happy with Llorente because he allowed us to keep more possession.”
Llorente shared the credit for his performance and the clean sheet with his centre-back partner and Roma left-back Leonardo Spinazzola and insisted that he’s relishing the chance to play for Mourinho at Stadio Olimpico.
“We train very hard every day to be able to play at our best. We wanted to score a few more goals in the first half, but we’re still happy with our team performance,” he told DAZN.
“In Spain I was used to playing in a back four, but Smalling and Spinazzola helped me a great deal today. I am very happy with the coach’s compliments. When he called me I immediately came here because it could be a great opportunity for my career. I’m very happy to be here. I am working very hard to be important for this team.”
Although Llorente took time to settle in Leeds after a summer 2020 move to Elland Road with injuries proving disruptive, he finished his debut campaign well and went on to make 28 Premier League starts in his second season under Marcelo Bielsa and Jesse Marsch.
Liam Cooper’s Achillies injury, sustained last summer, allowed Llorente to play alongside Robin Koch at the start of this season but when the skipper returned Llorente found minutes hard to come by. Koch’s emergence as Leeds’ best option on the right side of central defence, along with the January arrival of Max Wober to bolster the defensive options, made involvement look all the more unlikely for Llorente. Marsch also revealed that there were personal circumstances at play that gave Llorente motivation to go out on loan to Roma.