Life can be very cruel. Tiago Mendes will tell you this after breaking a leg during what could be described as some of the best form of his career, or at least in his twilight years. But then life can also give you opportunities, and that is exactly what this most horrific of injuries has given to Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez. That was nearly three months ago, and now, after firmly cementing his place in Diego Simeone’s starting XI and in turn becoming one of the key components in the Atleti side, it is safe to say that the 21-year-old has more than taken his chance.
During this extended run in the team, which has come after only sporadic appearances and glimpses of exactly what Saul can do from last season, he has played in three different positions, and this is one of the reasons why he has become so important. He has featured chiefly as a central or left-sided midfielder, but there have been stints at centre-back when injuries and suspensions have mounted up.
This adaptability has always been a hallmark of the man from Elche’s play, and was in evidence during his loan spell at Rayo Vallecano before breaking into the Atleti team, where he was used by Paco Jemez either at centre-back or central midfield. Habitually, the versatility of players can be detrimental to their progression in one specific area where they could excel because their development is somewhat held back, but it appears that this is not going to be the case with Saul, who has impressed all over midfield and is used in defence rarely.
Another reason to explain his rise to prominence is the way in which Saul has bought into Simeone’s philosophy and his willingness to do exactly what the Coach wants him to do out on the pitch. Cholo needs to know that his players will do absolutely everything to claim victory for the red-and-white shirt and the commitment of the youngster is second to none.
This was shown in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna – firstly, a lung-busting but perfectly-timed run into the box from the left wing meant that Saul only had to put his head where it very well could have hurt to open the scoring, which is exactly what he did. Then, a little later on, we saw his dedication at the other end of the field, finding himself in his own box to block Fede Cartabia’s shot on the line.
It’s clear now that Simeone’s trust has been earned by the one-time Real Madrid academy player. The Argentine has been quoted as saying that, “he can go as far as he wants to. He has everything.” Saul is given the freedom to roam across the final third of the pitch from his most recent starting position on the left-hand side, and his runs into the box are causing havoc amongst defences that don’t know whether to go with him or stay. Watch Los Rojiblancos and you may find Antoine Griezmann drifting very deep to pick up the ball, which gives Saul the signal to become Atleti’s furthest player forward on occasions.
This push higher up the pitch has given the 21-year-old the licence to instigate attacks and proven that for all the hard work, determination and dynamism that he possesses, there’s also a whole lot of technical quality too. There was a moment against PSV in the Champions League last-16 second leg, where it looked as though he had hit a dead end near the corner flag, but a magnificent bit of skill saw him evade two defenders and play in Griezmann, who could have scored.
Saul is endearing himself to the Vicente Calderon faithful with his fine form and high-octane performances, and with Euro 2016 on the horizon, he is hitting his stride at the perfect time. He may not have received a call-up for the latest Spain squad, but that could be down to the fact that he is needed for the Under-21s’ crunch game against Croatia at the top of their European Championship qualifying group. Then again, it might be too early, but if the impressive form of Saul continues, perhaps Vicente del Bosque does need to reconsider his midfield options before flying out to France this summer.