When Juanfran had to leave Tuesday’s contest at Leicester City, Atlético Madrid faced a defensive dilemma. The Spaniard was the only healthy right back in the squad as Šime Vrsaljko’s left knee was still giving him problems - and oh by the way, Atlético had another game Saturday against Espanyol. An important game, too, with third place still up for grabs, and Diego Simeone’s men would be going to Cornellà with no natural right back.
As it would turn out, though, Simeone wouldn’t need one. He could call on his new jack-of-all-trades to do a job at full back.
Last Saturday, against Osasuna, Cholo brought José Giménez back into the team. Giménez, long a gifted and tantalizing prospect, had played just 12 minutes since starting the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie against Bayer Leverkusen on March 15. That night, he made an error at center back that forced Jan Oblak into an outrageous triple save. But with LaLiga’s bottom side coming to town, this was viewed as a good chance to get Giménez some work.
Giménez started in central midfield, where Simeone had first tried him out back in December, and Atlético rolled to a 3-0 win that day that should have been more. Joséma was very impressive, taking control with a destructive display in the center of the park and relying on his speed and athletic gifts to attack a bit. He was a force in the air, with seven aerial duel wins in 10 tries. Further, he won five dribbles and misplaced only seven passes.
(Courtesy of FourFourTwo.)
After the match, Simeone praised Giménez’ strong performance and indicated he’d get more minutes at Leicester, where Atlético would aim to protect a 1-0 lead from the first leg. Joséma ended up starting in midfield again and, taking statistics and circumstances into consideration, put in the best performance of his young career.
Dropping back often to operate as a third center back, the 22-year-old recorded 16 successful clearances - 11 with his head - and won a ridiculous 12 out of 13 aerial duels. For good measure, he threw in half a dozen tackles as Atlético sailed through to the Champions League semifinals.
Those two recitals set the stage for Saturday night at RCDE Stadium. Joséma was called upon to start at right back, where he had not played since his days at Danubio as a teenager. Despite early jitters, again played a pivotal role in securing a result on the road for Atlético.
(By the way, los colchoneros’ last away loss? Dec. 12.)
Espanyol targeted Giménez time and time again in the first half, and 49 percent of the Parakeets’ attacks in the first half originated from his side (44 percent for the game). The hosts had the better chances in the first half and piled on more pressure early in the second half before Atleti found its footing and broke through courtesy of a perfectly-timed Antoine Griezmann volley.
Giménez’ response to an early stimulus mirrored that of his teammates. Hemmed in near his own area in the first half, Joséma ventured forward into more familiar territory in the second half as Atlético grew more comfortable. By the final whistle, he himself had made two more blocks than Espanyol’s entire back line, and he won twice as many aerial duels (6) as the Parakeets’ back four (3).
These three performances lend credence to the theory that Giménez has become Simeone’s new Swiss Army knife, his new jack-of-all-trades. This gives him infinitely more value than simply being a talented but error-prone center back, as his versatility can offer Simeone more solutions - whether he’s being rotated (Osasuna), battening down the hatches (Leicester) or filling in in an emergency capacity (Espanyol). Fitness permitting, Joséma may be the man to watch as the season winds down. It has taken a few months, but he now seems comfortable doing a job wherever he’s needed - and what’s more, he has the confidence of his coach.