How Fernando Llorente's killer instinct helped Swansea see off Sunderland
Swansea’s hosting of fellow Premier League strugglers Sunderland on Saturday had all the qualities of a “six pointer”. Swansea were bottom with just nine points to their names, and had come off the back of a 5-0 mauling at Tottenham going into the clash, whilst Sunderland had won three of their previous four with safety from the bottom three in sight.
Yet Swansea, who had won their last game on home turf against Crystal Palace, ripped up the form book to climb out of the bottom three themselves and send Sunderland to the bottom of the table with a 3-0 victory. An opening strike from Gylfi Sigurdsson, followed by a brace from summer signing Fernando Llorente, proved enough to see off the visitors, and hand Swans boss Bob Bradley a precious second win as manager.
Sigurdsson proved decisive with his creative presence in midfield and going forward for the hosts, but all of his hard work and craft would have gone to waste were it not for Swansea’s ruthless streak in front of goal, which they showed in abundance thanks to the rise to form of their Spanish striker Fernando Llorente.
The lack of killer instinct in the final third has cost Swansea dear already this season, but with four goals now in his last three games, there is a sense that the former Athletic Bilbao and Juventus man is finally settling into his new surroundings and is repaying the South Wales club with the goals that could preserve their Premier League status for yet another season.
So often when the Spaniard has been restricted up front, he has been forced to play out the role of a target man and hold the ball up to create opportunities for Sigurdsson and others. Until the Swans broke the deadlock here, it looked as if Llorente’s game would be heading the same way, as he was forced to try to hold up several long balls forward, winning just 57% of his aerial duels, but doing well winning back possession in the final third by winning each of his attempted tackles.
But with just 68% of his passes finding their intended target, as the game moved into the second half and chances proved difficult to come by, the Spaniard began to cut a figure of frustration, yet again playing the target man figure with nothing quite falling for him and the vital link-ups not quite coming off, as Moyes’ Sunderland, just as they have been doing in recent weeks, defended well.
After Sigurdsson netted from the spot just after the interval following Jason Denayer’s handball however, the shackles were off and Llorente could benefit from the creativity of those around him, rather than attempting to hold up play and create them himself. Indeed, Llorente had managed to create no chances and had attempted no take-ons by the time his first goal came, but he showed a goalscorer’s instinct by being in the right place at the right time to latch onto Sigurdsson’s clever corner along the ground and finish first-time with a side-footed strike beyond Jordan Pickford to hand his team a two-goal cushion.
The goal sparked wild celebrations inside the Liberty Stadium and eased the ever growing nerves inside the ground, and from that point onwards the hosts, who were playing well before, began to operate with much more freedom and intent.
And Llorente was the grateful recipient of a wonderful ball in once again. This time Jefferson Montero was the provider, and his inch-perfect cross from the byline found Llorente, who had been lurking inside the six-yard box, and his well timed jump above static defenders Papy Djilobodji and Patrick Van Aanholt allowed him to crash a header beyond Pickford and into the net for Swansea’s third. It is here where the Spaniard can profit mostly in the air, and his positioning, instinct in front of goal and killer touch in the final third served his team well on this occasion.
Overall Llorente had four efforts on goal, scoring from two of them. With a rate of chances converted therefore equating to 50%, this game will serve as a lesson to Bob Bradley about how to best utilise the Spaniard. When deployed as a target man, Llorente found himself isolated and restricted and using him to link up play with teammates didn’t get the best out of him, as his rate of completed passes showed, and thus Swansea’s play in the final third, particularly in the first-half, would break down.
As soon as Llorente was provided with the ball in the final third, he did what he does best, and that is to score goals. He is after all a finisher, not a target man, despite his height, and his best attributes in the air are centred around his ability to score headed goals and cushion the ball down in the final third. His two finishes, both on the ground and from a header, demonstrated a poacher’s instinct; an ability to be in the right place at the right time and finish clinically. Scoring headed chances may seem simple, but he showed his class through the manner in which he gave himself a couple of yards away from Djilobodji and Van Aanholt in order to run onto and attack the ball.
Ineffective as a target man, yet potent as a finisher. The sooner that Bob Bradley and Swansea City recognise this, the better. Because using the Spaniard correctly and getting the best out of a forward partnership between him and Sigurdsson, with extra service coming in from their other wide players, may on this evidence be just the formula which can keep Swansea in the Premier League.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Ian Johnson.