If one was to peruse through Atletico Madrid’s top scorer’s list, they would find 21 year-old Saul Niguez third on Atletico’s top scorer’s chart. The Elche native has already worn the shirt of three Madrid clubs like Real Madrid during a short spell at youth level, while he had a loan stint at Rayo Vallecano two seasons ago but he is making large strides at Atletico. A leg-break to Tiago has seen him sustain a first-team berth since December and his versatility could see him make the cut for Spain at the Euros this summer.
For a midfielder that can play at centre-back, Saul is mobile and mercurial as he possesses the physical tenacity and discipline to support Gabi and shield the Rojiblancos’ resolute defence. Meanwhile his athleticism and ability to pick his moments in an attacking sense have made him a goal threat from crosses, set-pieces and long shots as the expercienced Portuguese midfielder Tiago could face an uphill battle to retain his first team spot if he remains in Madrid next season. Saul is a sign of the changing of the guard that has been ongoing since the sale of Miranda to Inter Milan with the Brazilian being replaced by 21 year-old Jose Gimenez.
He has been deployed in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 where he has played in a narrow Atletico midfield which is focused on maintaining a compact shape behind the ball while pushing forward to squeeze the ball out of the opposition on the press. Atletico’s circulation of the ball is direct and incisive while this season they have become more comfortable holding the ball against the teams below them. This has seen Saul thrive as he enjoys the additional freedom from playing in midfield while he tigerishly goes about his defensive responsibilities. Replacing Tiago in the team is a hard act to follow as his partnership with Gabi is not just about defensive solidity but providing a springboard for attacks as it takes real maturity to play in Atletico’s midfield two.
Saul’s inclusion has proved vital as his ability to play the wider midfield role has allowed him to frequently interchange positions with the more experienced Koke who enjoys drifting into the centre while the fullbacks push forward. Koke is allowed to take a firmer grasp on proceedings and this has resulted in a major upturn of form in the second half of the season for the 24 year-old. Saul’s game is all about mobility and energy as he plugs holes in midfield and brings attacking thrust to Diego Simeone’s team. With the Spanish Under 21 international becoming an integral part of Simeone’s title chasing team, it was interesting to see him rested in the 3-1 defeat against Espanyol for the Champions League second leg against Barcelona.
Simeone’s team is laden with different types of central midfielders with the energetic box to box machine Thomas Partey, deep-lying playmaker Matias Kranevitter, defensively sharp Augusto Fernandez and the creative Oliver Torres all fighting for a place in the first team. At the moment and probably in the long-term, Saul will be Simeone’s choice and it will be interesting to see if this is enough to secure him a place at the Euros. Although he was picked for the Spanish Under 21s during the last international break, Vicente Del Bosque made it known that he is keeping an eye on the Atletico Madrid youngster.
“It’s not up to me to say who should be in the national team. Saul is improving. He’s a utility player, who can play in any position in midfield. He has a good strike, he’s a strong header of the ball and everything he has to do to improve depends on him, that’s what I’ve always told him. I hope he keeps improving,” said Diego Simeone eariler this season.
If you look at the Spaniard’s statistics then you would see that it is not without reason as he makes 3 tackles and two interceptions per game while he has 8 goals and 2 assists in all competitions at the other end of the pitch. He plays 38 passes at 77% succession rate which is not exemplary but understandable given that Koke and Gabi are Atletico’s main hub of possession while an astounding 89% of his passes are forward passes meaning he is more daring with the ball at his feet.
At 21 years-old, he has showed maturity and consistency beyond his years while Simeone has given him the platform to use his talents as he has done with many young players. There are rumours that he could be looking elsewhere after turning down a new contract but those rumours could be discredited by the fact that his current deal lasts until 2020 and the youngster has previously said that he could play at Atletico ‘for as long as my legs allow me.’