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How José Giménez has revitalized Atlético Madrid’s defense

The 23-year-old has finally come into his own and taken control of Atlético’s back line.

Sevilla v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Last year, I wrote a column on José Giménez’s emerging role as Diego Simeone’s switchblade. In that column, I theorized that Giménez’s newfound versatility gave him “infinitely more value” than his previous role as super-talented but super-streaky central defender. Perhaps that adaptability would at last make him indispensable to his coach, a thought which lasted approximately...four months.

Giménez was returned to center back and started this season well, notching a dramatic equalizer in a 2-2 draw at Girona and playing the full 90 minutes in Atlético Madrid’s 5-1 win at Las Palmas in matchday two. Appearances were few and far between from that point on; Giménez played in just 10 matches over the rest of 2017, and even came off the bench on three occasions.

But it was a rugged display in a 1-0 win at Eibar on Jan. 13 that may have convinced Simeone to stick with the fellow South American for a while. Stepping in for the suspended Stefan Savić, Giménez rang up 10 clearances and the once foul-prone defender was called for only one. Savić may have regained his place in the XI for the next match against Girona, but Atlético drew 1-1 after going ahead. Simeone then paired Giménez with Diego Godín, and the Uruguayans marshaled Atlético to a 3-0 win over Las Palmas — the visitors had just three shots from inside Atleti’s box.

Atlético Madrid 3-0 Las Palmas shot chart (via WhoScored)

Giménez then replaced an injured Savić in the 1-0 win over Valencia, playing the final hour as Valencia finished with a single shot on target from nine attempts (four from outside the box).

Simeone has started Giménez every game since. Over those 11 fixtures between LaLiga and the Europa League, Atlético have nine wins against two losses at Barcelona and at Villarreal — he was Atleti’s best player against the former. Los colchoneros have a +22 goal difference in that span.

While that’s impressive, you might say Atlético weren’t conceding that many goals when Giménez was glued to the bench — and that’s true. With Savić as Godín’s partner this season, Atleti have allowed just five goals over 14 games. By comparison, the mattress makers have conceded nine times in 13 matches with the all-Uruguayan partnership.

But Atlético have permitted fewer shots to reach Jan Oblak/Axel Werner with Giménez next to Godín — 142, 10.9 per game — than with Savić (164, 11.7 per game). Atlético also average nearly one fewer shot on target against when Giménez and Godín play together — 3.0 versus 3.7 per contest with Godín/Savić — in addition to fewer shots inside the 18-yard box (5.7 versus 6.1). And most importantly: Atleti have won 10 of 13 games with Godín and Giménez in central defense against just seven of 14 with Diego and Stefan.

(Also, Savić was an unmitigated disaster in the Champions League, getting sent off against Qarabag and scoring an own goal at Chelsea. Giménez has been just about faultless in four Europa League fixtures.)

In addition to improved fitness, Joséma’s great physical talents have made the mattress makers more elastic, more mobile in defense. Whereas Godín and Savić are primarily static defenders who invite more and more pressure as a match moves along, Giménez is basically a whirling dervish, a constantly active defender chasing and harassing forwards. He has learned to channel better his aggressiveness and combine that with his outstanding athleticism and improved reading of the game. In turn, Atlético generally have conceded fewer high-quality chances and punished their opponents in transition — Simeone’s men put up better than 2.5 goals per game when the Uruguayans start in central defense and have scored three goals or more on seven occasions.

Surely, this has to be the run of form that convinces Cholo once and for all that Joséma is the future of los rojiblancos’ defense (along with Lucas Hernández). He has finally stayed fit long enough to make the sustained impact he was expected to make when Miranda departed for Inter Milan two-and-a-half years ago. Though LaLiga is gone for this season, this defensive rejuvenation will be crucial to Atlético’s chances of reaching and winning the Europa League final in Lyon. Giménez has turned around a stale, immobile defense and brought it back to life — and as such, the chances of silverware in May are alive as well.