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On initial inspection, Jose Maria Gimenez’s rise to prominence appears a little timeworn, rendered clichéd by familiar tales. After all, the journey from humble South American beginnings to the bright lights of Europe is one well-travelled, from poverty-stricken Alexis Sanchez to favela-born Diego Costa. Yet, Gimenez’s own story retains an element of intrigue, a plot-changing detail that cannot be overlooked. Cruelly rejected by the director of Penarol, the trophy-hoarding giants of Uruguayan football, Gimenez is a classic case of triumph born from adversity.
The 20-year-old centre-half, though not quite the archetypal, rags-to-riches overnight sensation, has been fast-tracked to fame. From FC Danubio to Atletico Madrid, via 16 league appearences and £630,000, Gimenez’s career has soared, his importance rapidly increasing on both the domestic and international stage. So much so, that Uruguay’s long-toothed tactician Oscar Tabarez thrust the 20-year-old into the most blinding of limelights during last year’s World Cup while Atletico facilitated the departures of Joao Miranda and Toby Alderweireld; utterly convinced of Gimenez’s boundless potential.
Rarely does one player so seamlessly epitomise his surroundings. With both club and country, Gimenez innately defines their psychotic thirst for success, a ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality of the siege variety. He is a proud exponent of his homeland’s garra traditions, a tubthumping style augmented by a hard-nosed maturity. However, Gimenez’s full-blooded bravura is not merely a consequence of patriotic tradition. It is a trait encouraged, developed by Atletico’s voracious deity, Diego Simeone. Thus, Gimenez’s inherent doggedness, moulded with Simeone’s meticulous organisation, should transform the 20-year-old into South America’s next truly great centre-half.
Talent Radar Accolades
- Named in 100 to Watch in 2016 feature
- Named in 100 to Watch in 2015 feature
- Named in Talent Radar Young Player Awards 2015-16
- Placed 3rd in Talent Radar Defender Rankings in 2016
- Named in 100 to Watch in 2014 featurePart of the 2014-15 Team of the Season
Gimenez’s skill-set, combining power, pace and positioning, provides the basis of an exceptional talent. Dynamic and forceful, yet intelligent and refined, Gimenez is blessed with an impeccable leap, rapid pace and physicality belying his years. Primarily, however, he thrives in physical encounters, possessing the determination and skill to shackle to world’s most fearsome line-leaders. Last season, he averaged more tackles (2.1) and interceptions (2.7) than both Miranda and Diego Godin with even Fernando Llorente, all 6ft 5in of him, restricted to a watching brief in November’s goalless Champions League stalemate with Juventus. Gimenez, though four inches shorter than the Spanish targetman, won every aerial duel. Add a clean-sheet and thumping header against Real in the Copa Del Rey, plus assured performances throughout the World Cup group stage, and Gimenez clearly possesses that underrated ability to defy the occasion. A handy skill for a 20-year-old’s repertoire.
However, despite his obdurate methods, Gimenez should not fall victim to idle pigeon-holing. He is not merely a callous enforcer, all substance, no style. His wide-ranging distribution, a barometer of ability in the modern, ball-playing era, adds yet another string to a multifaceted bow. Long or short, diagonal or driven; Gimenez’s pass completion rate far surpasses his defensive counterparts at club level. In truth, he is something of a hybrid, appreciating the dying arts yet fulfilling the modern demand for resourceful liberos. Think an idyllic blend of Kurt Zouma and Jeison Murillo. Furthermore, his infinite capacity is not restricted to the defensive third. Gimenez, thanks in part to his formidable spring, assisted three goals last season for Atletico while crafting Christian Rodriguez’ winner against Jamaica at the Copa America.
Gimenez, taking influence from two disparate eras of defending, possesses all the components of a formidable centre-half. However, if Simeone played with “a knife between his teeth”, Gimenez shoulders a bazooka, fingers twitching on the trigger. There’s little subtlety, but it gets the job done. Though, as with any explosive, there’s a risk of unexpected outbursts. For, against quicker, shrewder opponents, Gimenez’s innate tenacity often pools into excessive aggression. Graduating from South America’s school of hard knocks, he must adapt his approach on European shores with officials less lenient, and attackers callously streetwise.
A case in point; in Atletico’s silver-seizing campaign, they stifled Barcelona, conceding twice in four games against the, albeit underachieving, Kings of Catalonia. In stark contrast, however, Barca won all four encounters in league and cup in 2014/15. Gimenez, disturbingly, was present in all but one of last season’s defining defeats. During January’s Camp Nou cruise, he toiled against the Blaugrana’s unrelenting triumvirate, his thrusting, uber-octane strengths inverted into a weakness. Overwhelmed by Barca’s relentless interchanging, he was frequently dragged out of position, evidently uncertain of when to mark and when to drop off. Barca, displaying a tactical antithesis that would render even Johann Cryuff speechless, drove long diagonals into the channels, bypassing Simeone’s personalised gegenpressing. Gimenez, inspired by his enigmatic exuberance, desperately attempted to cover, thus leaving cavernous gaps in behind. However, despite failing to make a mark on proceedings, his ill-timed lunge on Neymar left the Brazilian bloodied and bruised. Something Gimenez must learn to curb for his own good, as well as his opponents.
For Gimenez, the required improvements are obvious. Despite his youthful pace, he lacks the positional awareness, or perhaps necessary experience, to counter the ingenious movement of the world’s finest marksmen. Even in the Copa America defeat to Argentina, Sergio Aguero’s near-post matchwinner, though sublime in its simplicity, owed much to Gimenez’s delayed awareness.
All prodigious defenders, however, must endure these errors. It’s an art form only mastered through experience, through learning from the best. Gimenez, without question, possesses the attitude to learn from such mistakes. And, in a league boasting Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Kevin Gameiro, Gimenez’s understanding will improve by the game.
Despite his infinite potential, Gimenez’s continued naivety cannot be overlooked. 2014/15 represented his breakthrough, his first uninterrupted campaign in the exalted echelons of professional football. Positional errors are part and parcel, naivety a by-product of inexperience. But with arguably the world’s finest defender, Diego Godin, to his right, and the modern-era’s most neurotically prepared coach barking orders from his pitchside habitat, improvement is simply inevitable. His tenacious proclivity will receive further encouragement while the positional indiscipline and unforced errors could quickly become a forgotten failure, a learning curve on his road to success. After all, he and Godin, the present and future for club and country, conceded only 10 times in 18 league games together last term.
Though football frequently defies prediction, often sense and reason, Gimenez’s long-term future appears under lock and key. Miranda’s abrupt departure, coupled with Atletico defiantly dismissing Manchester City’s £17.5million bid last year, only emphasises their belief that Gimenez can, and most probably will, evolve into one of the world’s most prestigious defenders in the blinking of an eye. His value will only rise, in conjunction with his ability. Next season, however, could, should, cement Jose Maria Gimenez position among tomorrow’s elite.
VIDEO: World of Football’s take on Gimenez
Written by Danny Owen