The Overperformers: How Marcos Llorente Embodies Atlético Madrid’s La Liga Title Chase
We’re used to seeing measurable overperformance from Atlético Madrid in their own half. Add in the same for the attack across a full season, and they’re one match away from their first La Liga title since 2013-14. Marcos Llorente can account for plenty of it.
There are all sorts of ways to quantify the difference between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid this season. The most obvious, and relevant, is points. Real have 81. Atlético have 83. The next most relevant may be Marcos Llorente. Atlético have him. Real do not have him – anymore.
You can argue all day that Real didn’t have a place for him when he moved from one side of Madrid to the other in June 2019, but you can’t argue the Estadio Metropolitano isn’t, in the eyes of Real and their 2020-21 title hopes, exactly the wrong place for him to be.
As for how he’s directly contributed to Diego Simeone’s attack, the surface-level numbers are fantastic. With 12 goals and 11 assists, he’s the first Atlético player since Diego Forlán (32 goals, 10 assists) in 2008-09 to have double-digit goals and assists in the same season.
If Atlético weren’t a match away from the title, we may have led this piece by pointing out just how unsustainable his numbers seem to be. But at this point in the season, that’s a 2021-22 problem.
The reality in today’s La Liga is it takes an overperformance for a club not named Real Madrid or Barcelona to win the league. And that’s exactly what Simeone and Llorente have done. His 12 goals have come from just 3.34 expected goals, meaning he’s scored nearly four times what’s expected of the average player. That overperformance of 8.66 leads La Liga:
It trails only Robert Lewandowski across Europe’s top five leagues, and there’s a similar story with Llorente’s assists. His 11 have come from 5.34 expected assists, meaning his teammates have finished about twice as many of the opportunities he’s provided as would be expected:
Now, positive differences between assists and expected assists is more an indication of teammates’ finishing than it is of elite distribution, but in a team context, it means good things are happening.
So, call this lucky for Llorente’s surface-level numbers, call this world-class efficiency in and around the penalty area for a team that sorely needed it since the departure of Antoine Griezmann, call it whatever you’d like. But be sure to call it a theme of Atlético’s season. It’s been said Atlético made this a more dramatic and difficult title race than they needed to. As we noted a few weeks ago, they had a 79.9% chance to win the league all the way back on Feb. 1 when they held a 10-point lead. That lead is now two points. You could say that by dropping points since, it was them as much as it was Real that stretched this out to the final weekend. But the reality is this was always going to be difficult and they’re doing more than expected, not less.
Last season, Atlético were expected to score 58.2 goals. They scored 51 and finished a distant third to Real and Barca. This season, their xG overperformance (65 goals, 51.6 xG) is a division-leading 13.4. It’s the fourth highest in Europe’s top five leagues, and they need it to be because they just don’t create scoring threat with the regularity of other teams. They’ve managed the fourth-most shots in La Liga, and their 51.6 xG total enters the final weekend of play just sixth in the division. Taking those numbers and turning them into a title is about as easy as being Tony Soprano’s accountant during tax season.
They’ve also overperformed defensively, saving themselves 12.7 goals versus what would be expected defensively. That ranks first in Europe’s top five leagues. This is a story we’re a bit more used to telling because – well – let’s not let Jan Oblak steal this article from Llorente. But the offensive efficiency layered on top of it makes for a team that, when totalling xG for and xG against, has gained about 26 goals over expected. That’s more than anyone in Europe’s top five:
It’s the same story we told about Monaco in 2016-17 with a remarkable total overperformance of 40 goals on their way to that famous Ligue 1 title. It’s the story that told us if Tottenham didn’t win the Premier League in 2016-17 with a total overperformance of 30.1 goals, it probably wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
That overperformance has Atlético a game from their first title in seven years. So all the more reason for them to do it now, because they in all likelihood won’t be able to replicate it.
It would be Llorente’s first La Liga title as he was on loan at Alavés when Real won the league in 2016-17. And as for his contribution to it, we can go beyond goals and assists to better understand the details of how Simeone’s side has gone about this overperformance with respect to their midfielder.
This is the first season since 2011-12 that Atlético have had more of the ball (52% possession) than their opponents. Their passing accuracy (83.2%) is the highest we have on record dating to 2005-06, as is their pass accuracy ending in the attacking third (72.5%).
Sure, Llorente contributes to boosting those with rates of 84.3% and 77.8%, but he’s also a player who transitions that from mere possession to opportunity.
Atlético’s average sequence time is up to 9.4 seconds from 7.5 seconds a season ago, so it follows that their direct speed has dipped from 1.65 meters per second advanced down to 1.42. They’re not playing quite as directly as seasons past, and it seems Llorente is also a part of that alteration of style. The average duration of sequences he’s involved in has increased from 13.9 seconds last season to 16.3. And in terms of positioning, those sequences are starting 3.4 metres closer to the right touchline than a season ago.
It’s increased his pass completion rate into the final third from 71.8% to 77.8%. His open-play crosses are up from 0.53 per 90 to 1.87 but without a dip in accuracy (25% both seasons). And his chances created per 90 are up from 1.05 to 1.37.
When we think of an Alético midfield pre-2020-21, we think of Koke, Saúl and Yannick Carrasco. We think of the departed Thomas Partey. We think of them being fundamental parts of Simeone’s system. What Llorente’s added isn’t only those goals and assists. Rather, he’s become one of those core players in a midfield that all of the sudden seems more consequential and effective than in years past. The result is legitimate attacking threat from both sides. Llorente and Carrasco have teamed up to be among La Liga midfielders most frequently involved in sequences ending in a goal per 90. Among those with at least 1,500 minutes played, Llorente is second and about twice his 0.46 per-90 mark from last season, while Carrasco on the left is up from 0.43:
For Llorente, that’s with far fewer sequences starting in the attacking third than others on the above list. Llorente averages 7.9 per match, whereas players that are just below these five like Frenkie De Jong (9.2) and Sergio Canales (12.1) are getting far more advanced opportunities to be involved, as are Carrasco (12.5) and Kroos (16.3).
How do those sequences end? Ideally, with a forward. Luis Suárez has scored 20 goals on a 15.8 xG this season. That overperformance of 4.2 is better than his last three seasons with Barcelona in total (62 goals, 59.8 xG). Llorente has completed 53 passes to Suárez. Twelve have resulted in chances with three assists.
So of the 41 chances Llorente has created, nearly 30% have been for Suárez. No one else on the team has created double-digit chances for another player, so it’s been this link of two players that either weren’t at the club last season (Suárez) or weren’t yet a massive part of their plans (Llorente) that have led to more chance creation than any other partnership.
The most important of those combinations? On March 7, Llorente won a contested pass out of the back just before midfield. He carried at pace through space on the right flank and found Suárez just inside the penalty area, who let the ball roll onto his right foot for a patient, one-touch finish in the 14th minute to give Atlético a 1-0 lead.
It was against Real Madrid. Without that goal and the point that came from a 1-1 draw, they could be facing an uphill climb this weekend. Instead, they’re a Saturday away from an 11th Spanish top-flight title.
Design by Matt Sisneros.
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