Shock horror! Fernando Llorente is leaving Athletic in the Summer! Equally remarkable rumours that the Pope is actually Catholic and bears defecate in the woods remain unconfirmed.
The leaving of Bilbao tends to be complicated, of course: ask Javi Martinez! Llorente, aware of the fact he might actually want to return to the region at some point, has played it flawlessly when it comes to explaining his decision to leave. No criticism of the club or suggestion he needs something bigger and better: instead, the dastardly press have driven a wedge between him and his beloved people:
“It isn’t about money because the offer the club made was irresistible.
“The media have not helped with the negotiations and it is one of the things that has generated the bad atmosphere around me out on the pitch….
“I took the decision when I went out for the first Europa League game at San Mamés [in August].
“Most of what has come out in the press is lies and this has turned people against me. This has meant when I run out on to the pitch people whistle at me. There is a sector of the crowd who do not want me but I feel loved by the majority.”
Fair enough, but that’s hardly the full story. Llorente ended the last season as one of Europe’s hottest properties, and despite the fact that overuse left him looking out on his feet as the campaign sputtered out, there was plenty of confusion about the lack of time he spent on the pitch during the European Championships.
Yet he returned to San Mames and, rather than be seen as the returning hero, was turfed out of the team in favour of a journeyman striker. A decent journeyman striker, but still: Aritz Aduriz is hardly Sergio Aguerro.
Thus far, Llorente the superstar has started one league match this season, despite not having been injured. But that didn’t merit a mention in his valedictory speech!
Llorente is hardly on his own in suffering what players’ union FIFPRO describe as “blackmail”: Wesley Sneijder finds himself in an even worse situation at Inter, not even considered for a place on e bench unless he signs a new contract.
But closer to home, players are being treated very differently. Fernando Amorebieta’s contract runs out in the Summer but he continues to be chosen despite showing no signs of putting pen to paper: indeed, his agent is talking up a possible January move to Zenit St Petersburg, Roma, Liverpool or anyone else with a bit of cash in their back pockets. As far as I can see ( and I’m willing to be corrected on this!) Isma Lopez seems to be in the last year of his contract too.
Marcelo Bielsa, ever the theoretician, seems to have decided to test the question of whether it’s possible to replace Llorente by trying it out before he left. The most cursory of glances at the league table tells you that the answer is not encouraging.
Aduriz has done a good job in the lone striker job, and shares many attributes with Llorente. However, Bilbao have floundered after losing not only Llorente, in essence, but also Javi Martinez. The problem is, having discovered that it’s not going to be easy to replace Llorente, there’s nothing Bielsa can do with this information.
I imagine Bielsa, the football scientist, in his lab, calculating the outcomes from his latest experiment. He deduces that Athletic without Llorente up front, trying to cope with the current squad, doesn’t work. So he wants to discard the plan and try something new. But he can’t. As their transfer policy precludes buying non-local talent, if the good couples of the Basque Country don’t produce another top class target man, Bilbao can’t play with one. No quick fix dips into the transfer market here: all Athletic can do is accumulate the millions from Javi Martinez and please the bank manager. All that cash counts for nothing in the market.
Of course, there are quality Basque players out there for Athletic to sign, but if they think they’re going to get value for money they can think again. If they go sniffing after Benat, Ruben Pardo or Natxo Monreal they’ll encounter clubs who know they’re in a bind. There’s a finite number of Basque players out there who will enhance Athletic’s squad, and therefore if they go for them their desperation is likely to be reflected in a Bilbao supplement slapped on top of the transfer fee.
“Oh, you’re desperate for a quality left back are you? Well, you can pay over the odds for Monreal, or look elsewhere. What’s that, you can’t look elsewhere? My, what a pity!”
Mind you, mad scientist Bielsa might not need be too concerned that his experiment has failed. After all, he’s not going to be around next season to try a new approach, surely?