When football followers start listing off the best fullbacks in the world, it’s usually a list of some of the most athletic players in the game. David Alaba is one of the most diverse players in the game in terms of skillset, both technically and physically; Lukasz Piszczek is an inhuman mixture of speed and strength; Pablo Zabaleta has the stamina of a marathon runner, and the Real Madrid duo of Carvajal and Marcelo are smaller in stature but are stocky and hard to get by whether their opponent attempts to use speed or strength.
That’s not to say there’s never exceptions. Philipp Lahm is the best right back in the world whenever he mans the position, and Leighton Baines is technically on par with almost anyone in the sport despite being neither particularly fast or strong. But they break a mold rather than form a new one. For every Baines, there are another ten Kyle Walkers being produced in a youth academy. Roberto Carlos and Cafu are the typical template for today’s fullbacks, and above all else they were marathon men with blistering speed.
Juanfran is the latest mold breaker for Atletico Madrid. Juanfran has the stamina similar to Zabaleta, but beyond that there’s nothing physically impressive to his play style. There are no darting rundowns of speedy La Liga wingers, there’s no moment of him shoving a massive striker off the ball, there’s even very few crunching tackles being made. There’s nothing eye-popping to the Spanish right back. He’s comfortable being pedestrian.
Yet, that’s Juanfran’s greatest strength. There are very few players in the world more comfortable in their own skin than him. He’s never pressing for a moment, and this coupled by his hard to equal intelligence is a deadly combo. Juanfran simply never makes mistakes, and that’s why he’s evolved into a world class right back. In the easiest position in football to be caught out of position — hello, fellow countrymen Alberto Moreno and Jordi Alba — Juanfran is an omnipresent being. When an opposing winger gets the ball in a situation that’s a counter against any other team in Europe, there is no counter. You can’t catch Atletico’s centerbacks out alone, and it’s a huge part of what makes them so hard to beat. Paolo Maldini famously said, “If I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake.”
Juanfran is the human embodiment of that quote.
That’s not to say he’s offensively incapable. Juanfran is very smooth on the ball, with a style very similar to his defense. You’ll never see him dribbling by three or four guys — he can do it, but why make bad decisions? — as he’ll always happily find an open teammate with a pass. He’s so aware of the positioning of the opposing defense that it always feels as if he’s delivering a big cross just by being in the right place at the right time.
This situation intelligence has turned Juanfran from an unspectacular winger to the lifeline of the Atletico way. Without him, the team’s system would greatly change. He’s not the best player on the squad through quality, but there’s no player they lean on more than Juanfran. And only Diego Godin, his teammate on the world’s most intimidating defensive line, provides an equally irreplaceable presence for Diego Simeone. And he does all that while being physically unspectacular in the most physically demanding position in the sport.
So the next time you didn’t notice Juanfran, know that’s exactly what he wants you to do.