by Tom Lees - 14th January 2016
Now that the January transfer window is picking up pace, bigger names and fees are starting to be mentioned as Europe’s largest club side prepare for the final stages of their seasons. One such name is that of Saúl Ñíguez, with Manchester United heavily linked with the Atlético Madrid midfielder. Both the player and his club have publicly denied that a move to Manchester will take place, however in football you can never say never. So who is Saúl, and what does he bring to the footballing table?
Saúl is one of Atlético Madrid’s three prized young Spanish assets, along with Javier Manquillo and Óliver Torres. He is an exceptional all round midfielder, capable of playing in the defensive role, attacking or out wide. Saúl can break down opposition attacks, create the play for his own side and has the vision and ability to pick a pass in tight situations. His high work rate and team ethic make him a particular favourite of his club coach Diego Simeone and he will be keen to not only keep Saúl at Atlético, but build the team around both him and Koke in the coming years.
Saúl is from a footballing family, his father José Antonio Ñíguez was a striker for Elche, and his two brothers Aaron and Jonathan are also professional footballers. Aaron plays for Braga and Jonathan most recently represented Rio Ave in the Portuguese league. Born in Elche, Saúl moved to Madrid in 2008 and after a brief flirtation with Real Madrid, joined up with the Atlético Madrid youth team. Over the next few years he would gain experience in the Atlético youth sides before his displays afforded him the opportunity to train with the first team squad in the summer of 2011 during the pre-season break.
It was in March 2012 that 17-year-old Saúl Ñíguez would make his professional debut with Atlético, coming on as a late substitute in a Europa League victory over Turkish side Besiktas. Further game time in the Europa League would follow the next season, as a reward for continued good performances for the Atlético second team. However, his La Liga introduction did not come about until April 2013, as he was introduced for the last two minutes in a victory at Sevilla. He only had a few minutes under his belt by seasons end, but coach Diego Simeone saw in him a truly talented player that just needed to add something extra to his game. This came the following season, as a loan move became a master stroke.
In July 2013 Saúl joined up with fellow La Liga side Rayo Vallecano on a season long loan, the general idea behind the move was seen as a way for the player to gain more first team experience before returning to the Atlético squad. However, whether by luck or genius, the move would result in Saúl becoming a much more rounded midfield talent than had been expected. Because of the nature of Rayo Vallecano’s tactics under Paco Jémez, the team would play an expansive attacking game that would leave the defence critically exposed at times. Saúl quickly learnt the responsibility to fill in gaps in the defence and hold a deeper midfield position as a security measure. This of course was still not enough to stop Rayo leaking goals during the season, and you would very often see a young Saúl desperately running back into defence trying to break up attacks. This taught the youngster a valuable lesson and added an extra level of hard work to his game, and this he has kept with him ever since.
Upon returning to Atlético, Diego Simeone thrust Saúl straight into the first team for the upcoming Spanish Super Cup victories over rivals Real Madrid, a sign of the confidence Simeone had in the player. It also showed that the hard work Saúl had put in during his loan spell at Rayo was appreciated, and that he was now ready to perform a valuable role in the Atlético team. Since then he has continued to pick up game time under Simeone, maybe not as much as he’d like, but is always relied upon in the big games especially in the Champions League. His high work rate, flexibility and quality in all midfield roles mean he is a vital cog in the Atlético machine, and they will be looking to utilise him more and more with each coming season.
Internationally Saúl has represented Spain at Under 17, 19 and 20 levels, and is also a key member of the current Spanish Under 21 setup. He was a member of the side that won the 2011/12 UEFA Under 19 Championship and will be hoping to add the Under 21 crown to that in Poland next summer. In 2015 he was also called up by Vicente del Bosque to the senior national team before the games against Costa Rica and Belarus, however he did not make his debut in either game. It is only a matter of time before he is an important member of La Roja though and many expect 2016 to be the year he is rewarded with a full international cap.
Saúl Ñíguez has an abundance of quality and could go on to be one of the games great midfielders. He can defend well, read the game, makes great passes, dictate tempo and join in attacks when necessary with important goals. He will continue to be linked with the top sides in the World because of the calibre of player that he is, however I don’t expect him to leave the Vicente Calderón anytime soon. He loves Atlético Madrid and importantly, the club and fans love him too.