Saul Niguez: The Exquisite All-Rounder With an Eye for the Astonishing

Jude Summerfield
Saul Niguez - Atletico Madrid
Saul Niguez - Atletico Madrid /

If you type the phrase 'Manchester United are interested in...' into Google - other search engines are of course available - one of the names that'll pop up is Saul Niguez.

And that, incredibly, shows that when footballers start to get really, really good at their profession, they're linked with the biggest clubs around. Crazy, right?

Manchester United are one of the biggest sides around, and Saul is undoubtedly one of the best players in world football right now. Two plus two equals four, you know the drill.

Saul Niguez - Atletico Madrid
Saul Niguez - Atletico Madrid / Soccrates Images/Getty Images

In recent years, Atletico Madrid have been blessed with players who were, and are, easily able to embody their iconic manager's touchline spirit and dogged determination. Gabi, Diego Godin, Juanfran, Felipe Luis, Antoine Griezmann - the list isn't endless, but it's bloody long.

But where Saul differs from that pool of players is that he could become Atleti's greatest ever. Better than Luis Aragones, better than Adrian Escudero, better than Fernando Torres.

And why's that? Because he can do everything the modern midfielder needs to at the highest possible standard.

Being an Atleti midfielder means you have to be flexible. You have to be confident controlling games in the middle of the pitch, but also adept to playing on the left or right, whenever it's needed. It can mean filling in at left back, if the senior first choice option isn't available, which Saul has done with ease this season.

Saul celebrates scoring against Barcelona
Saul celebrates scoring against Barcelona / TF-Images/Getty Images

But no matter where Saul plays, the level of performance remains pretty much the same. And while his attacking output may be a little on the lean side, the Spaniard's positional intelligence will only help him identify situations where he can make the difference as he picks up more and more experience throughout his career.

Take his performance and goal in the first leg of Atletico's Champions League last 16 clash with Liverpool in February, for example.

Yes, the ball ricochetted to him in somewhat fortuitous fashion, but he had given himself the opportunity by attacking Koke's corner. That goal gave Atleti a lead they never looked like giving up to the European champions, their performance inspired by Saul and Thomas Partey's dominant showing in central midfield.

While in that game his strengths as an enforcer came to light, his ability to find and exploit space is probably one which characterises his status as one of the best box to box midfielders in the game today. His terrific strike against Barcelona in late 2017 exemplifies this brilliantly.

He moved into space in front of Barcelona's box without being properly tracked, received and shifted the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a curling strike that sailed past Barça stopper Marc Andre ter Stegen into the far corner.

It was a marginal pocket of space to exploit, yet Saul drifted into it seamlessly.

However, it was his strike against Bayern Munich in 2016 that made Saul a household name for Champions League viewers. While his awareness for space is remarkable, such a goal is usually reserved for Lionel Messi and his fans who chant 'GOAT! GOAT! GOAT!' wherever he goes.

The 25-year-old jinked past a number of Bayern defenders on his way into the box, eventually working the ball on to his left foot before whipping it past Manuel Neuer. It was only his second senior season with Atleti, having spent time on loan with Rayo Vallecano a couple of years previously, but he made it clear to Diego Simeone and the club's fans that he was there to stay with that emphatic, match-winning strike.

At international level, there should be little doubt that Saul is the player to lead Spain forward. While he would not be a natural successor to Sergio Busquets, whose game revolves more around making space for himself in possession before giving it to more attacking-minded midfielders, Saul can be that ever-present rock for Luis Enrique's side. And when you factor in other players like Thiago and Rodri, it's evident that La Roja have the ball-players to become an established international force again.

There is, of course, still work to be done for Saul. He can occasionally jump into tackles unnecessarily, which means he can be beaten by talented dribblers, but Atleti's natural stubbornness in defence - in seasons past and the Champions League this term, anyway - means he's very rarely culpable for goals conceded.

Saul at one with the crowd after his winner against Liverpool
Saul at one with the crowd after his winner against Liverpool / DeFodi Images/Getty Images

But regardless, Saul is an exciting player for a team often brandished with the sh*thouse label, a midfielder always looking forward and eager to arrive athletically into the box with purpose, one who 'gets bums off seats', so to speak.

He won't be putting up Frank Lampard numbers anytime soon, but his versatility, all-round skillset and eye for the astonishing mark him out as someone to monitor for the rest of his playing career.

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