The 2016-17 season has been a transitional campaign for Juanfran Torres. Atlético Madrid’s first-choice right back now finds himself in the mix for first-choice right midfielder - a position he had not played since 2012. This surprise tactical wrinkle instituted by Diego Simeone means that Juanfran becomes the player to watch as Atlético’s season resumes Tuesday on Gran Canaria.
Atlético have been many things during Simeone's tenure as boss; scrappy, resilient, underrated, aggressive, impenetrable. But one trait Atleti have not exhibited consistently is versatility. Simeone's base formation has always been 4-4-2, and it is by and large how Atleti have set up aside from brief flirtations with 4-2-3-1 (back in the Radamel Falcao days), 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3. This season in particular has seen los colchoneros struggle in midfield due to injuries, poor form and poor fits, and these inconsistencies have manifested themselves on the right side, where Koke, Saúl, Nico Gaitán and Ángel Correa have all seen time.
None of those players has made the position his own, and thus, the flank opposite Yannick Carrasco has become somewhat of a black hole - not unlike the left back position during the 2014-15 season.
So, enter Juanfran, whose grip on first-choice right back had become tenuous due to unconvincing performances and the surging Šime Vrsaljko.
He returned to his old position on Dec. 21 in the 4-1 Copa win over Guijuelo and scored. He played as a right midfielder again in the Dec. 30 friendly against Al-Ittihad and scored again - this time on a splendid touch. This comes with the “lesser opposition” advisory, certainly, but playing Juanfran in his old position allows Atlético to do three things: 1) keep Vrsaljko in the team at his natural right back position, 2) return Correa to the super-sub role he usually thrives in and 3) help replicate Gaitán’s range of passing and chance creation.
After playing more than 4,000 minutes each of the past three seasons, the 31-year-old may no longer be able to bound up and down the right side for 90 minutes every three to seven days; Vrsaljko is capable of doing that with gusto. Juanfran does not have Correa’s pace and flair, but he also doesn't have the Argentine’s volatility and penchant for indisciplined play.
Nico Gaitán should be playing more; per WhoScored, he has averaged 2.5 key passes per 90 minutes in LaLiga. But Simeone has not been impressed with his effort level or his team contribution. Thus, he has not been granted anywhere near the minutes he was expected to get. Juanfran, on the other hand, is a defensive stalwart and routinely one of the first names on the team sheet. He is also an underrated passer who will create close to a chance per 90 (0.7 in LaLiga this season). With Vrsaljko starting the balance of games in this alignment, that combination could feasibly create two chances every 90 minutes with strong defensive contribution.
Juanfran’s level of consistency from here on out will be crucial for Atlético - especially if he remains on the right side of midfield. The team is most definitely stronger with his all-around play, and the less running he has to do, the better he likely will be, which in turn will give Atleti one of its key cogs back in time for a run at trophies this spring.