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Jose Maria Gimenez Will Be the Emerging Face of La Liga This Season

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJuly 17, 2015

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A changing of the guard is occurring at Atletico Madrid, enforced by the emergence of a superlative young talent by the name of Jose Maria Gimenez; his rise to prominence inside two years has been one of the major storylines in world football.

A quietly successful 2013 U-20 FIFA World Cup with Uruguay laid the foundations for an under-the-radar €1 million move from Danubio to the Vicente Calderon. He was a true project in every sense of the word but was joining up with defensive mastermind Diego Simeone and compatriot Diego Godin at his new club.

"I love to fight for every ball as if it is the last minute of a game and I am the type of player who never abandons my team-mates," Gimenez said at his presentation, per the UEFA website. "I have come here to grow. Diego Godin is one of the reference points of the Uruguayan national team and I'm looking forward to learning a lot from him."

That relationship has played a huge part in absurdly accelerated growth, and now, in the summer of 2015, Gimenez will start the new campaign as the undisputed first-choice in central defence—successfully ousting Miranda from his position and forcing his sale to Internazionale.

To breach a central-defensive partnership so soon after it had helped win a Liga title (2014) at the Camp Nou and secure a runners-up medal in the UEFA Champions League is some feat; as a result, the world's eyes will fall upon the 20-year-old Gimenez in 2015-16, expecting nothing short of excellence as Atletico push for more honours.

Get to know Gimenez's game inside-out here, as he emerges as the next major face in Spanish football.

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Physical

Gimenez boasts perfect height, build and power for his position—the result if were to build your dream centre-back in a factory, then perhaps add an inch to make him 6'2" not 6'1" if you're being picky. It's about as good as it gets.

His quickness over short areas is impressive, most centre-backs would kill for the recovery pace he possesses, and his balance is superb. He's aggressive, sometimes to a fault, but is never out of control of his own actions.

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

His upper torso is already fully developed, capable of outpowering 28-year-olds with 300 senior appearances to their name. Add this to his speed and mobility and you've got the recipe for an ideal defender no matter the league or competition.

Aerially Speaking

Gimenez's best attribute is his aerial dominance. He very rarely loses headed duels, and he's involved in a hell of a lot of them—particularly in the big games and on the big occasions.

Simeone's compact, defensive strategy puts natural pressure on the central-defensive duo; as the 4-4-2 formation narrows to close out the space in midfield, it opens room on the flanks for wingers and full-backs to dig out crosses. It's a calculated sacrifice, and it's why Simeone takes such care in addressing his centre-back personnel.

Credit: TVP Sport

Simply put, you have to be hard as nails to play there. Godin certainly is, Miranda was in 2013-14, and Gimenez showed signs that he could be in 2014-15. You face cross after cross, tussling with increasingly frustrated and agitated strikers, and Atleti's own direct attacking play means the ball comes straight back quite a lot of the time. 

Miranda and Godin were some duo, naturally cognizant of where each other was at all times, but Gimenez has picked up the reins and left no slack. The fact they are now first choice for Atleti and Uruguay make them a well-rehearsed, well-versed double.

Gimenez's numbers stack up against the very best; Sportsmatrix's statistics show the South American got to the ball first on 70.9 percent of his 2014-15 duels, faced an average of 5.8 per game, and less than 10 percent of those went awry for him. That makes him busier than team-mate Godin and Villarreal's Mateo Musacchio, and more efficient than the monstrous Nicolas Otamendi.

The eye test supports the findings: Outside of Otamendi, Godin and Sergio Ramos, there are no better aerial centre-backs in La Liga.

Defensive Mechanics

Gimenez's physical traits—natural quickness, power—and his mental attributes—aggression, alertness—give him the perfect starting point when it comes to defensive mechanics, and there aren't too many holes in his game.

He's deceptively quick when it comes to getting his foot in first—very much in line with his ability to nip in front for headers—and tackles firmly but cleanly when he gets his footwork right. He posted a fairly low tackle rate in 2014-15, averaging just 2.1 per game, per WhoScored.com, but that's representative of the lack of opportunities to do so; the space in front of him was clogged by Gabi and Co., leaving little room for adventurous runners into the box.

Credit: Sport 1

Aerially he is, of course, fantastic, and he sticks touch-tight to his markers before leaping well and clearing with efficiency—he has impressive spring when he's able to set his feet.

Positionally he can look a little suspect at times; he sometimes loses his marker, and he's still learning how to identify the right runner/target in the channels when asked to defend a counter-attack. There were moments in the 2014-15 season when Gimenez matched his runner stride for stride back to goal and cleared/tackled well, but there were moments when Godin had to tear back and cover him too.

Credit: Sport 1

He boasts ideal recovery pace to mop up any errors he makes in the first five yards, but there are a few too many errors high up for Simeone's liking right now.

Rashness

This is the major weakness in his game: his excitability and rashness when thundering into risky challenges. He likes to use his power and bulk and believes in his own recovery pace, leading him to make poor decisions higher up the pitch at times.

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If he's only chasing one player and can match up to him, in uncomplicated fashion, he tends to be OK, but when a team springs three runners on the reverse, he has a tendency to identify/match the wrong target and open holes for the free runners to utilise. Far more 2014-15 goals against Atleti were because of Gimenez than because of Godin.

This rashness translates into his poor performance in one-on-one heads-up challenges, too. His percentage of good interferences (37.3 percent), measured by Sportsmatrix, is significantly lower when compared to the same players who he matches or betters aerially. Otamendi manages an impressive 51.8 percent, while Musacchio (55.3) and Godin (47.5) are both far more effective in this regard too.

His movement is good, his hips are fluid and he's as mobile as they come in the position, but something mentally isn't quite there yet—a likely byproduct of playing a very limited number of games in a position that often demands a veteran presence. Something to work with, nothing to worry about.

  

Passing/Buildup

The other part of Gimenez's game that needs work is his passing and ability to contribute to buildup play or instigate attacks. Unfortunately, playing for Simeone's Atletico and Oscar Tabarez's Uruguay, it doesn't look like he'll become educated in this anytime soon.

Both managers create very reductive creative roles for their centre-backs, asking them to focus on defending and very little else. Atletico play direct from back to front, using a bruiser of a target man to haul in the ball, protect it, and release the quicker attackers; Uruguay do the same through Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, asking Gimenez and Godin to merely pass straight and make sure it's an accurate one.

Credit: beINSport

His passing accuracy for the season—78.3 percent in La Liga, per WhoScored.com—is disappointing at face value given he's only averaging 33.8 passes per game, but many of his passes are longer and therefore prone to interception or error. The statistics aren't something to worry about; under Simeone, he's never going to be an 85 percent passer.

That said, his contribution to the attacking game is borderline non-existent, and the quality needs to improve. Direct, longer passes are harder, but his deliveries need work, and he'll come under great scrutiny in big games in 2015-16 if he slings the ball out of play under no pressure.

Set-Piece Threat

Gimenez is yet to score a professional goal that hasn't derived from a set-piece routine. He scored an absolute corker with his right boot against Elche in 2014 following an extravagant corner, and the rest have been tonking headers directly from whipped deliveries.

Atletico have worked hard on set pieces and score a lot of goals from them, devising intricate patterns, routines and plans to work the angles and produce goalscoring opportunities. Gimenez bagged three assists this past season, mostly headed balls back across from far-post deliveries for a team-mate to knock in.

Credit: Sport 1

His ability to win headers, beat his marker one vs. one and keep the ball alive is key; it makes him a wicked threat at set pieces, whether he's flicking on at the near post, sending it back across or burying it emphatically into the far corner.

As he becomes more and more established, he'll become the scourge of opposition penalty boxes as his power and spring bear more and more fruits. He'll be feared in the same way Ramos is; his physique and accuracy with his head is a deadly combination.

Projection

Gimenez would die for Simeone and his cause, as would every Atletico Madrid player to curry favour with the Argentinian tactician. In March, the defender threw himself head-first at Alvaro Vazquez's boot to block a goal-bound shot, preserving a 1-0 victory late on following UEFA Champions League exertions midweek.

Dermot Corrigan @dermotmcorrigan

Super vine of that amazing diving-head block by Atletico CB Gimenez: https://t.co/hlbYsL16jL [via @tjcope ]

The footage speaks of his commitment and aggression, and it's moments like this that will have convinced the boss to sell Miranda and pursue with the Uruguayan connection in defence for the coming season.

At 20 years of age and with less than 100 senior appearances to his name, Gimenez is still a rookie half-fumbling his way through life on the biggest of stages. His raw mechanics are excellent, his physical traits are incredible, but the third prong of that trifecta—the mental aspect of the game—is still to catch up.

That's perfectly natural, and with Godin alongside him quite literally every step of the way, he'll continue his remarkable trajectory toward the top of the game. Some Spanish football aficionados believe there's little difference now between Gimenez and the vaunted Raphael Varane of Real Madrid. While we wouldn't go that far, it's true there's little to separate them in terms of ability and level now.

Gimenez is in the perfect place: In 2013-14, Godin was crowned the de facto best defender in the world following his exploits for Atleti in their title-winning season, and there's no reason, two or three years down the line, the same can't happen for his compatriot.

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