After finding themselves 1-0 down after 45 minutes and, quite frankly, rather outplayed by Bayern München, Diego Simeone felt he needed to act. He needed to change his tactics to change the game, and in an inspired decision moved Saúl Ñíguez from the right midfield position in Atlético’s 4-4-2 to a holding midfield role in a new look 4-1-4-1. Moving a player from the wing to defensive midfield isn’t common, but then again Saúl isn’t your typical everyday player. In fact he is a complete player who over the last nine months has shown himself able to do everything.
Saúl comes from a football family and was born in Elche, where his father played. Saúl’s older brothers Jony and Aaron are both professional footballers, but it is the youngest brother who has turned into the most talented and successful of the three. He joined Atléti’s cantera, academy, as a 13-year-old in 2008. Four years later, on 8th March 2012, he made his debut for the first team under the watching eyes of Simeone. The following season, 2012/13, saw Saúl make a total of eleven appearances for Atlético and was slowly beginning to gain Simeone’s trust.
After spending the entire 2013/14 season on loan at Rayo Vallecano, Saúl joined Simeone’s side for the start of the 2014/15 season for his first full season as a proper first team player. The then 20-year old had just gone through a mixed spell at Rayo where he was mostly used as a centre-back in Paco Jemez’ ultra attacking system. To say Saúl was highly rated wouldn’t be an understatement as he’d already been linked with moves to the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. The season would represent a breakthrough for Saúl as he made a total of 35 appearances in all competitions and also added four goals. Those goals include a spectacular over-head kick in the derby demolition of Real Madrid in February 2015 with Atlético blowing Real away, winning 4-0 at Vicente Calderón.
Mainly considered a pivote, a holding midfielder, before his loan at Rayo where as stated above mostly played at centre-back, he last season added the position of wide midfielder to his repertoire, appearing mostly on either the left or right of Simeone’s midfield quartet. He did occasionally appear centrally, but mostly provided tireless running and hard work from the sides. Simeone clearly valued this, as he kept giving him games, but Saúl still looked like a central player playing wide.
Going into this season, I discussed the future of Atlético and mainly their youngsters, where I said Saúl would likely continue out wide before Simeone thought he was ready to move in centrally. I always felt Saúl was a player Simeone clearly valued, but didn’t really trust enough to use him centrally. This season has proved me wrong in two accounts. First of all, Simeone has showed how much he trusts Saúl, using him both wide and centrally in midfield and even at centre-back, despite the obvious difference between him and “Simeone centre-backs” like Diego Godin, Miranda and Jose Giménez.
And secondly, Saúl has improved his attacking game over the course of the season and is now regularly seen dribbling away from opponents as well as providing creative passing from wide areas. He has turned into an attacking threat as well as an tireless worker and has earned Simeone’s trust and can now be considered one of Atlético’s key men.
When watching Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, you could be forgiven to think they’ve declared war on their opponents. Simeone is the main general, providing intensity and energy in abundance for his players to take efter. Gabi has been his captain and his main man for years, basically another Cholo on the pitch. With Juanfran, Godin, Tiago and the likes of Diego Costa and Koke they have been the one’s making every game a battle-field, and now Saúl has joined that group along with Giménez, Augusto Fernandez and Fernando Torres. Saúl has blatantly put turned into one of general Simeone’s most trusted soldiers.
“Everything good that is happening to him is for his work and his quality. It was a great individual play. Saul has a lot of versatility, he can play in different positions, he is very complete and that satisfies me. What happens is a result of his effort.”
Back to that Bayern game and the move which increased Atléti’s defensive stability and helped stem the flow of Bayern attacks at least a little. Saúl gave balance to the team and his presence ensured Fernando Torres could get more support from other players up front. After scoring an exceptional solo-goal in the first leg, Saúl now contributed with a strong defensive effort, further highlighting the completeness of his game. A truly modern player, Saúl has showcased his tremendous ability in the last week in two of Atléti’s biggest ever games.
Apart from his attitude as a winner and competitor, Saúl’s football has improved immensely. He’s not a rotation player anymore as he was last season, he’s now a mainstay in the team and will be instrumental in the Champions League final in a few weeks and also in the last two La Liga fixtures as Atléti push Barcelona all the way for the title. Saúl has appeared at centre-back, defensive midfield, central midfield, left midfield and right midfield in a spectacular campaign for the canterano and he’s now followed Koke in fully establishing himself at his club. Excellent in both defence and attack, Saúl Ñíguez is one of Europe’s most complete midfielder and as one of Simeone’s most trusted, the future looks extremely bright.