When Leeds United first approached Diego Llorente to sign for them last summer, no one needed to tell him they were more than just a newly promoted side ready to try their luck in the Premier League.
Growing up in the Spanish capital and dreaming of making it to Real Madrid’s academy, he watched the Yorkshire side reach the 2001 European Cup semi-finals.
“They were an important club in the Champions League when I was growing up,” says the 27-year-old. ‘I know they haven’t played at the highest level in recent years, but I was well aware of the club and the players who played for them.
Diego Llorente (right) competed for Spain in their recent World Cup qualifiers in 2022
Llorente was aware of Leeds United from their run to the Champions League semi-final in 2001
The 27-year-old made the switch from Real Sociedad to the Premier League last summer
‘There is [Jimmy Floyd] Hasselbaink who came to play in La Liga. And in my position, Leeds has always had such important players as Jonathan Woodgate and Rio Ferdinand.
‘All of this plays a role if you decide to sign or not. The fact that it is a historic club was important in my decision. ‘
Ferdinand played and scored when Leeds faced Valencia in the 2001 semi-final. Woodgate was sitting on the couch.
DIEGO LLORENTE FOR LEEDS IN 2020-21
Clean sheets: 2
Marcelo Bielsa sees Llorente as a center back in the Ferdinand-Woodgate mold. He can play from the back and influence both offense and defense.
The Spanish coach Luis Enrique sees the same qualities. That’s why he called him up on his very first squad when he took over in 2018, despite Llorente having a broken fibula at the time.
He explained the decision, saying he would benefit from listening to all the team discussions and drinking everything the new regime demanded of him.
It was the same scenario in the summer, when he was only able to make his debut ten weeks after he signed. He had to learn what Bielsa wanted from his players, first from the sidelines.
Is playing really as special an experience for the Argentinian coach as it is portrayed?
‘People had talked to me about him [Bielsa] but until you really play for him, you don’t realize how different he is as a coach, ‘he says.
‘At first it is a shock, but you quickly understand that every exercise has reasoning and can be directly transferred to what you do on the field during a match.
Llorente didn’t make his debut until 10 weeks after signing, but learned it from Marcelo Bielsa
‘There are certain exercises that are very analytical and that simulate certain moments in games that, due to our playing style, will be repeated a lot – things like what you should do with the ball, or the help you give when you are the free man in any situation.
“These exercises are specific to these particular moments and what is striking is that you do these exercises and then you see that in a match 10 or 20 times in the 90 minutes exactly this situation that you have trained occurs.”
Leeds’ defensive record has improved as the season progresses. The first competitive match that Llorente saw was the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool. That must have been a wake-up call to how busy he would be playing Bielsa’s football style?
The Leeds defender kept a clean sheet against Champions League hopeful Chelsea in March
“Well, I knew that we are a team that has a lot of potential in an attacking sense, but that also has to find a balance defensively and I think I can offer things both offensively and defensively,” says Llorente.
‘If you look at the way we started the season and how we are now, there is an improvement and we can get even better.
‘I am a defender and it is my job to minimize the attacking threat from the opposition and to ensure that we get as few goals against as possible. And from there I can also offer things in attack. ‘
Llorente started his career with Real Madrid, but played for the first team only three times
The Spain international is desperate to get Leeds back to their previous status as a name in European football.
He recalls a time when LaLiga clubs signed players from Leeds (Atletico Madrid bought Hasselbaink in 1999) and both Valencia and Deportivo faced them in the Champions League in ’01.
He’s also seen the tremendous potential lift that a full Elland Road will eventually give them, after taking the Take me home Amazon series about their promotion.
The Spain international played for Luis Enrique in recent World Cup qualifiers
“I was curious,” he says. ‘I couldn’t help the team by playing, so what I wanted to do – other than get fit as soon as possible – was get to know the club as best I could.
‘I wanted to know everything about Leeds, the atmosphere, the supporters, what is it like on match days, what is the routine, what are the people who work at the club like? It brought me closer to the club and what it means to play here.
The return of the fans will certainly make a difference for us. If you have fans like ours, we’ll notice when they get back. And when we combine all the support we get from them and all the hard work we put into it, that’s where the key to success is. ‘