On August 6, 2016, just 26 minutes into his Swansea City debut, suspicion of the signing of Fernando Llorente had begun. The Swans were taking on Stade Rennais in their final pre-season game and Wayne Routledge’s low cross presented the Spaniard – who had arrived in South Wales less than 24 hours previously – with the ideal welcome gift, yet he inexplicably hit the post and not the netting from just a yard out.
It had been a gamble for Swansea to sign the former Spain international, with Llorente having struggled ever since his move away from Athletic Club in 2013. He had been the driving force behind the Bilbao-based side’s swashbuckling run to the 2011/12 Europa League final, swatting Manchester United aside on their way, but that was to be as good as it got for the man from Pamplona. His form dipped in 2012/13 as he responded poorly to his failed push for a post-Euro 2012 move, before he eventually signed for Juventus the following off-season. Patchy form made it difficult for him ever nail down a place in the Turin team’s starting XI and the summer of 2015 saw him return to LaLiga with Sevilla, where his disappointing return of seven goals in 36 appearances persuaded the new Europa League kings to offload him.
Enter Swansea, who were confident they could squeeze another couple of productive seasons out of the player. Now, seven months on from his debut, it’s clear that Llorente’s first day miss was nothing more than a little rustiness, as he has become the driving force behind the Welsh side’s survival bid. More than that, he is surely the best value signing of the 2016/17 Premier League season.
By the seven-month anniversary of his £5m arrival, Llorente had already netted 11 Premier League goals, making him one of just two players to feature in the top ten of the goalscoring charts while playing for a non-top-seven club. Jermain Defoe, with 14 goals, was the other, but the World Cup winner had a slightly better scoring rate than his Sunderland counterpart, producing a goal every 162 minutes as opposed to one every 173 minutes.
Without Llorente’s goals, Swansea would be nine points worse off and would sit bottom of the table. For comparison, consider that second top scorer Romelu Lukaku’s 18 goals have brought Everton eight points and that top scorer Harry Kane’s 19 goals have been worth an additional 11 points to Tottenham. That means that each goal Swansea’s 32-year-old scores is worth more to his club than Lukaku’s or Kane’s strikes are worth to their respective teams, given the supporting casts that can step up whenever the Belgian or Englishman don’t hit the back of the net.
Looking specifically at new signings, though, there are only two players above Llorente in the scoring charts who touched down in England this season, with Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Liverpool’s Sadio Mané having bagged 15 and 12 goals respectively. Ibrahimovic’s tally have brought 11 additional points to Old Trafford, while Mané’s goals have delivered nine points to Anfield, suggesting that they are just as or more important to their teams than Llorente.
However, United and Liverpool both boast greater squad depth and would surely be able to – at least partially – replace those players’ goals if they were missing, whereas Llorente has typically been replaced by the misfiring Borja Bastón whenever he has been unavailable. Breaking out the stats book, we see that this is indeed the case with Ibrahimovic and United, who are obtaining just 2% more points per Premier League game when the Swede is in the team versus his time on the sidelines. In the cases of Llorente and Mané, the stats – and a look at the Reds’ form during the African Cup of Nations – prove that they are trickier to replace, with Swansea earning 8% more points when Llorente plays and with Liverpool 10% better off with the Senegal international in the team.
So which of those strikers has proven to be the best value? Of course, Ibrahimovic cannot be ruled out just because United are nearly as effective without him, as he obviously arrived on a free transfer and is theoretically pure value. That does, however, ignore the fact that his reported £260,000 per week makes him one of the league’s best paid players. Mané, meanwhile, has had a stellar debut season, but can’t really be considered a bargain buy at £36m.
Looking at Llorente’s £5m price tag, he seems increasingly like the signing of the season, with the transfer fee a drop in the ocean for a Premier League team like Swansea, while it was also significant that they convinced him to agree to their more modest wage demands. He will prove even better value if his goals keep them up and bring in another season’s worth of ‘Best League in the World’ riches. It remains mind-bogglingly true that the financial value between 17th and 18th is larger than that between 4th and 5th.
Of course, not all players play up front – something which is easy to forget after a look at any season’s Ballon d’Or shortlist – but there are few goalkeepers, defenders or midfielders who can claim to have had as much of an impact on their team as Llorente has on Swansea, keeping in mind their transfer fees.
N’Golo Kanté is surely a player of the season contender given the impact he has had at Chelsea, but – just like Mané – his new club did have to pay big money for him, even if it could be argued that he has already proven he’s worth every penny of the £30m sent Leicester’s way. The £12m Victor Wanyama, £7m Idrissa Gueye and free agent Víctor Valdés have all been similarly excellent for their new teams, but Llorente has surely brought more value to Swansea’s relegation fight than those players have done to Tottenham, Everton and Middlesbrough’s causes.
Swansea deserve full credit, therefore, for taking a chance on Llorente, with Chelsea’s January interest proving just how well he has adapted to the Premier League. The Stade Rennais miss is long forgotten.