Lee Roden profiles the Atlético Madrid jack-of-all-trades who helped down city rivals Real in style last weekend...
The 60-second story
- Full name: Saúl Ñíguez Esclápez
- Date of birth: November 21, 1994
- Place of birth: Elche, Spain
- Height: 5ft 11in
- Position: Central midfield
- Current club: Atlético Madrid (33 apps, 3 goals)
- National team: Spain U21 (10 caps, 2 goals)
More than one Saul has grabbed the limelight this week. An astoundingly complete performance in Atlético Madrid’s 4-0 derby win last Saturday means midfielder Saúl Ñíguez may well have made even more of an impact than his fictional namesake, at least in Spain (if not on Netflix). During a frantic 60-minute appearance at the Vicente Calderón the youngster produced a goal, an assist, and recovered possession with aplomb for the Colchoneros, leaving his manager Diego Simeone beaming.
There has been plenty of hype surrounding Saúl’s name for a while now, aided by the constant waves of transfer rumours linking him with English clubs (perhaps no coincidence given he is represented by Jorge Mendes). There is substance to the talk, however: those who watched him in the Atlético academy have been singing his praises for some time, while a loan spell at Rayo Vallecano last season helped prove that he is more than good enough for top-flight football.
After returning to the Vicente Calderon in the summer he has been a discreet but reliable squad player, stepping in to fill a number of positions when Simeone rests a member of his starting XI.
In many ways he is the embodiment of the contemporary Atlético midfielder; robust, good in the air, tactically sharp and capable of arriving from the second line to cause damage in front of goal. Simeone’s decision to bring him into the first-team fold rather than sending him out on another loan like Óliver Torres shows that the manager thinks he is ready to push on and become an important player for the club in the near future.
Cholo’s refusal to let Saúl leave on loan in the winter transfer window provided further evidence of that sentiment, the Madrid derby only vindicating the Argentine's decision.
Why you need to know him
When Koke limped off after only 10 minutes against Real Madrid, the home crowd could have been excused for fearing the worst. At that stage the score was still 0-0, and the No.6 is absolutely essential to everything the La Liga champions do well. Tireless off the ball and incredibly effective on it, Koke has so far proven to be a difficult man to replace for Simeone. Until Saturday, that is.
Requiring no time at all to adapt to the tempo of the game despite barely warming up, Saúl’s first act after entering the pitch was to kill off a Real Madrid attack being constructed. Then he did it again, restricting Dani Carvajal’s gains to a harmless throw-in. So far, so good, Simeone must have thought – but the academy product would soon show off far more than just his tactical discipline.
Picking up the ball outside the centre circle, Saúl looked up, saw Mario Mandzukic pulling wide, and floated an excellent pass over to the Croatian. As the striker laid it off inside to Guilherme Siqueira, the midfielder kept going, driving towards the box. Left-back Siqueira reached the byline, chipped in a cross, and Saúl met it with a stunning bicycle kick that found the net via the post. It was the kind of goal the great Hugo Sánchez would have been proud of in his Atlético days, scored by a midfielder.
For a player who has struggled for regular minutes this season it would have been easy to get carried away, but instead Saúl continued to focus on the task at hand. It paid off. In the 67th minute he again arrived in the area, this time meeting an Arda Turan cross.
Ghosting behind Carvajal, he headed the ball across goal to Antoine Griezmann for a simple finish; a great night made even better for the 20-year-old. But it was to be his last act of the game – his determination to leap above Carvajal for the header resulted in an awkward landing, forcing his early withdrawal.
Fortunately for the player, he is expected to recover within the week. It's fortunate for Simeone, too. Koke is out for around a month with a hamstring injury, leaving an obvious gap to be filled and only one man for the job. Who they gona call? (No, not Ghostbusters.)
Saúl is incredibly versatile. His adaptability goes well beyond the occasional forays that some attacking full-backs embark on, or the makeshift striker-from-midfield role we see frequently these days. During his time at Rayo he played at centre-back, defensive midfield and central midfield, while Simeone has used him in the middle, out wide and as a No.10. He even played up front in the Atlético academy on occasion.
Saúl’s natural position is that of a deep midfielder, but in reality the only way to describe him adequately is to borrow from the Spanish term todocampista, roughly translating as “all-fielder”. Ask him to do a job, and more often than not he will do it well.
In his Rayo days, Saúl was often over-zealous when it came to making challenges, and that led to several suspensions for accumulating yellow cards. It’s worth noting that those errors were far more common when he played as a defender than a midfielder, however, and this tendency may perhaps have been exaggerated by the tricky nature of Rayo’s (in)famously high defensive line. Encouragingly for Simeone, there has been little evidence of a desire to go to ground from the player since he returned to Atlético.
“I’ve said it many times, he’s an important player for the future of Atlético. That’s why we wanted him to stay, but he needs to have patience,” said boss Simeone.
Did you know?
Saúl’s dad Jose Antonio (better known as Boria) played up front for Elche, Sabadell and Figueres in the late 1980s. His brothers Aaron and Jonathan play with Elche and Rio Ave, respectively, with the former spending time on loan at Rangers in 2008.
- Shooting 7
- Heading 8
- Passing 6
- Tackling 5
- Pace 7
- Dribbling 4
- Creativity 7
- Work-rate 8
What happens next?
Unhappy with his lack of minutes in the first half of the season, Saúl’s desire to play more games would have taken him elsewhere this year – at least on loan – were it not for his manager’s insistence that he stay. Fortune has handed the youngster the break he wanted. Koke’s injury means he is likely to see much more action in the coming weeks, and this February could provide a brief glimpse of his long-term future. Veteran midfielders Gabi and Tiago can’t go on forever, and Saúl is the natural choice to step up to help replace them, be that directly or in Koke’s wider position should the latter move into the middle on a permanent basis.