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Juanfran’s journey from right-winger to left-back

Injuries at the back have forced Juanfran to fill in at left-back and he’s done a great job — amazing considering that even right-back isn’t his natural position. 

Club Atletico de Madrid v Levante UD - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The world’s longest flight is the 15,000km route from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey, with the plane in the air for 19 hours as it travels over the North Pacific. It’s an intense journey between two spots that could hardly be any further away from each other.

Juanfran would be fine with that journey, though. Over the past seven seasons he has made the footballing equivalent — he’s gone from right winger to left-back.

As he came through the Real Madrid academy as a kid in the early Noughties, his idol was Luis Figo and the Spaniard’s dreams involved the scoring of the kinds of goals the Portuguese winger with which he dazzled the Bernabéu, not the prevention of said goals. He even came on as a substitute for the Real Madrid legend during one of his 11 appearances for Los Blancos’ first team, in a Copa del Rey game at Mestalla in 2004.

Juanfran remained a wide player as he went on loan to Espanyol and as he completed a transfer to Osasuna in 2006, where he’d stay for the following four and a half seasons before his switch to Atlético Madrid in January 2011.

It was at Estadio Vicente Calderón where his transition would begin. While he credits Diego Simeone with sculpting him into a complete full-back, it was actually Gregorio Manzano who first used the player on the right side of defence. On Oct. 15, 2011, in a match against Granada, with Silvio and Luis Perea both out, Juanfran was asked to drop into the deeper position to fill in.

“What I thought at the time was that they must have trusted me and that they were rewarding me for being a hard-worker,” he later explained in an interview with EFE. “I think everyone was surprised to see that I could play and perform at a high level as a full-back.”

With Simeone’s arrival in December 2011, the Argentine honed in on the player’s talent and ability to play the position and he used the Spaniard at right-back for the rest of the season, all the way through the triumphant Europa League run.

By then, there was no doubt that Juanfran, with his industrial quantity of elbow grease, was the team’s starting right-back and los rojiblancos went on to achieve further success with him in that novel position.

“It all changed with Cholo’s arrival and with the complete confidence he had in me in that new role,” Juanfran said of that period.

Now, in 2018/19, he has been asked to relocate once again. The plague of defensive injuries that Atleti have suffered from has seen Lucas Hernández and Filipe Luís sidelined at various stages of the season, which firstly required Saúl Ñíguez to slot into left-back before Juanfran almost frictionlessly switched sides in recent weeks.

He has now played there on four occasions this season, most recently doing so for the second half of the 2-0 win over Getafe, when he came on at half-time after a Diego Godín injury required a reshuffling of the defensive pack. The 34-year-old hardly put a foot wrong, even in this unfamiliar position that was a flight from Singapore to New Jersey away from his starting point on the right wing.

It turns out that the longtime Simeone stalwart is as reliable in either full-back role as his idol was on the wing.

“Figo was never able to play as a full-back in his career,” Juanfran once pointed out. “But it’s okay because now I’m doing it for him.”