When Leeds United first approached Diego Llorente to sign for them last summer, nobody needed to tell him they were more than just a recently promoted side ready to try their luck in the Premier League.
When he was a budding young centre-back growing up in the Spanish capital and dreaming of making it to Real Madrid’s academy, he saw how the Yorkshire side reached the 2001 European Cup semi-finals.
‘They were an important club in the Champions League when I was growing up,’ the 27-year-old says. ‘I know they have not been playing at the highest level in recent years, but I was well aware of the club and the players that played for them.
Diego Llorente (right) has been in action for Spain in their recent 2022 World Cup qualifiers
Llorente knew about Leeds United from their run to the 2001 Champions League semis
The 27-year-old made the move to the Premier League from Real Sociedad last summer
‘There is [Jimmy Floyd] Hasselbaink who came to play in La Liga. And in my position Leeds have always had important players such as Jonathan Woodgate and Rio Ferdinand.
‘All that plays its part when you are deciding to sign or not. The fact that it’s a historic club was important in my decision.’
Ferdinand played and scored as Leeds faced Valencia in the 2001 semi-final. Woodgate was on bench.
DIEGO LLORENTE FOR LEEDS IN 2020-21
Clean sheets: 2
Marcelo Bielsa sees Llorente as a centre back in the Ferdinand-Woodgate mould. He can play out from the back, impacting attack as well as defence.
Spain coach Luis Enrique sees the same qualities. It’s why he called him into his first ever squad when he took over in 2018 despite the fact that Llorente had a broken fibula at the time.
He explained the decision saying that he would benefit from listening to all the team talks, drinking in all that the new regime wanted from him.
It was the same scenario in the summer when he couldn’t make his debut until 10 weeks after he had signed. He has had to learn what Bielsa wanted from his players, at first watching from the sidelines.
Is playing for the Argentine coach really as special an experience as it is portrayed?
‘People had spoken to me about him [Bielsa] but until you are actually playing for him you don’t realise just how different he is as a coach,’ he says.
‘At first it is a shock but you soon understand that every exercise has a reasoning behind it and can be directly transferred to what you do on the pitch during a game.
Llorente didn’t make his debut until 10 weeks after he signed but learned from Marcelo Bielsa
‘There are certain exercises that are very analytical and that simulate certain moments in games that, because of our style of play, are going to be repeated a lot – things like what you should be doing off the ball, or the help you give if you are the free man in any given situation.
‘These drills are specific to these certain moments and what is striking is that you do these exercises and then you see that in a match there are 10 or 20 times in the 90 minutes when exactly this situation that you have trained arises.’
Leeds’ defensive record has improved as the season has progressed. The first competitive match 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 style of football?
The Leeds defender kept a clean sheet against Champions League hopefuls Chelsea in March
‘Well I knew that we are a team that in an attacking sense has huge potential but that also has to look for a balance defensively and I think I can offer things both in an offensive and defensive sense,’ Llorente says.
‘If you look at the way we started the season and how we are now, there is an improvement and we can still get better.
‘I am a defender and my job is to minimize the attacking threat of the opposition and make sure we concede as few goals as possible. And from there I can also offer things in attack.’
Llorente started his career at Real Madrid but only made three first-team appearances
The Spain international is desperate to get Leeds moving back towards their previous status as a name in European football.
He remembers 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 has also seen the huge potential lift a full Elland Road will eventually give them, having watched the Take Me Home Amazon series chronicling their promotion.
The Spain international featured for Luis Enrique’s side in the recent World Cup qualifiers
‘I was curious,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t help the team by playing so what I wanted to do – apart from get fit as quickly as possible – was get to know the club as well as I possibly could.
‘I wanted to know everything related to Leeds, the atmosphere, the supporters, what’s it like on matchdays, what’s the routine like, 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 make a difference to us for sure. When you have fans like ours we are going to notice it when they are back. And if we combine all of the support we will get from them and all the hard work that we put in, then right there is the key to us being successful.’