LaLiga Player Profiles

Better Call Saúl

The 22-year-old box-to-box dynamo has already become one of Atlético Madrid's most promising players

Better Call Saúl

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In November 1958, just a few kilometers from the Florence Cathedral, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) set up its headquarters in the Coverciano quarter of the city. Nowadays, the nearly 60-year-old Coverciano features lush training pitches, high-quality gyms, lecture theaters, and a museum honoring the treasured accomplishments of Gli Azzurri. But the most fascinating place in the entire complex has to be the library.

This library is unlike most others in the world. Here you will find literature on Italian football’s theory, as well as Fabio Capello’s research of “The Zonal Marking System,” which he completed as a Coverciano student in 1984. It is in these volumes of research that you will find Carlo Ancelotti’s thesis titled, Il Futuro del Calcio: Piu Dinamicita (The Future of Football: More Dynamism). The paper contains charts, diagrams, and a reasoned explanation from a 38-year-old Ancelotti regarding the circumstances that allow dynamism to occur in football.

Ancelotti’s concept of dynamism has been interpreted in many different ways over the intervening years. His nostalgia-inducing AC Milan teams of the 2000s were dynamic in their ability to seamlessly transform from defense to offense. His Real Madrid side that clinched La Decima in 2014 had a dynamic free-flowing attack featuring three of the world’s best forwards in Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Logic dictates that for a team to be dynamic, it must also possess players that are themselves dynamic. And over the past few seasons, very few teams have shown the dynamism of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. From Antoine Griezmann’s excellent finishing and off-the-ball movement to Diego Godín’s defensive abilities to Koke’s talents in the center of the park, it’s undeniable that Los Rojiblancos feature dynamic players at every turn.

One of these dynamos that has quickly endeared himself to Atleti fans has been the 22-year-old box-to-box sensation Saúl Ñíguez. After a two-year stint with cross-town rivals Real Madrid back in 2006-2008 as a youth, Saúl was snapped up by Atlético’s youth team where he spent an additional two seasons maturing his game. 2010-2013 were fruitful for the blossoming Atleti man as he went on to collect 70 appearances with Atletico’s second division squad. In March 2012, aged only 17, Saúl earned his debut with the senior team in the final six minutes of a Europa League tie with Turkish side Beşiktaş.

His La Liga debut arrived more than a year later when he replaced Koke in an April 2013 match against Sevilla. And since then, he has only continued to evolve and adapt his game. Last season was a revelation for Saúl. In La Liga, he featured in 31 games, and proceeded to collect four goals and two assists over the course of a remarkable campaign that saw Atlético finish in third, with just three points separating them from league winners Barcelona. But it was in the Champion’s League that Saúl shined the brightest. Take, for example, his remarkable, twisting-and-turning, slaloming run through the heart of the Bayern Munich defense:

His close control of the ball, as well as the change of pace allowed him to pick apart the flailing Bayern defense, with the coup de grâce arriving through his beautiful, curving strike past a lunging Manuel Neuer. That moment of genius from Saúl knocked Bayern out of the Champion’s League, and Atleti went on to feature in yet another Champion’s League final in the span of three years. That moment also cemented Saúl’s place within Diego Simeone’s tactical setup.

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The Atlético Madrid midfield core four. Courtesy of beIN Sports.

This season, Simeone has opted to move Koke from the wings to a more central role alongside the club’s captain, Gabi, while Saúl and Yannick Carrasco patrol the wings. However, the key to this whole operation has been Saúl. During matches, when Koke leaves his central role and pushes out to the wings during Atleti’s attacking phase, Saúl takes Koke’s spot. Whenever Gabi surges forward to help press the opposition, Saúl takes over the deep-lying playmaker role vacated by Gabi. And at times, for good measure, Carrasco and Saúl will switch to the opposite wing in order to help the attack build up.

This is where Carlo Ancelotti’s concept of dynamism rears its head. Since Simeone has the position-agnostic abilities of Saúl at his disposal, he can deploy a midfield that appears as varied as the amount of ice cream flavors at your local Ben & Jerry’s.

I believe that the future evolution of the game will be to improve attacking solutions, with more time dedicated to tactics but at the same time keeping a balance between defence and attack.

Therefore the objective for the future will be to play football that is evermore dynamic and I believe that this concept of dynamism will improve over time because the quick flow of the game, its unpredictability and variety of plays are all important weapons in the development of football.

– Carlo Ancelotti, discussing the evolution of football in his Coverciano research paper

Saúl’s abilities not only improve Atlético’s attacking solutions, but they also assist in “keeping a balance between defense and attack,” which creates an environment that flows to the tunes of dynamism. And as Gabi grows older, it will be important for Atlético to cultivate Saúl’s talents to mould into that deep-lying playmaker role. In fact, Saúl’s already showing a knack for it. For example, watch how his pinpoint-precise long pass to Antoine Griezmann during a recent La Liga outing against Malaga arrives right at Griezmann’s feet:

Though Griezmann squandered that chance to capitalize upon Saúl’s moment of brilliance, he can take solace in the fact that many more of these Seeing-Eye passes will continue to find him.

Since his placement on the right wing, Saúl has formed a well-functioning partnership with Juanfran, a formidable right back with almost a decade of experience. When Juanfran catapults forward to help the attack, Saúl makes sure to provide ample cover. At times, Saúl and Juanfran will play quick one-twos to build up the transition phase from the right flank. At other times, they’ll holler back-and-forth on defense as they coordinate how to block off passing lanes and opposition pressure.

Simeone’s use of the 4-4-2 formation allows plenty of room for attacking, but against tougher opposition, the formation transforms into a collective defensive unit that flows as one organism. The formation also allows Simeone’s men to sit deep, absorb the pressure, and then, once they’ve recovered the ball, proceed to open up the floodgates of their lethal counterattack. If the counterattack ends up in a free kick or a corner, then Saúl’s slender frame and 6’0” height comes in handy, too, as he wins around 2.7 aerial duels per match, according to whoscored.com.

Saúl’s 79% passing accuracy through 10 La Liga games leaves room for improvement, however, his distribution to the proper players at the precise time remains without many flaws, and this ability helps to maintain Atlético’s shape and structure during the most important moments of the attacking phase. At times, Saúl will drop back to the holding midfielder role and help the defense play the ball out from the back by creating intricate triangles, which are then transformed into open passing lanes. His lapses in concentration can prove disastrous at times, and his tendency for amassing worrisome fouls here and there has shown there’s cracks in his mental game and composure.

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But to accomplish all of these feats, while consistently improving his game and evolving at every turn, is no small task, especially for a newly-turned 22-year-old. In due time, La Furia Roja will come calling for his services at the international level. At club level, Simeone and Atlético have already experienced Manchester United and Barcelona’s persistent eye batting in Saúl’s direction, and these speculations will only grow stronger as he becomes more adept.

The footballing world is Saúl’s oyster at this point, and in the coming years, we’ll all have first-hand experience of his elite talents. The Bayern Munich goal, as phenomenal as it was, was only the start. Expect those moments to transform from the fleeting to the routine as Atlético Madrid keep placing Saúl in front and center.

Viraj Patel
Written By

Viraj Patel

Viraj Patel is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Penalty Arc.

Twitter: @virajpatel24