You can't type "transfer rumour" into google these days without a raft of articles linking Saúl Ñíguez with a move away from the Vicente Calderon popping up, it seems. The Spanish midfielder burst onto the scene this season and has already started to draw comparisons with some of Spain and Europe's finest do-it-all midfielders.
For anyone who has been paying attention, his emergence was just a matter of time, however, and Atletico are being paid off for their work in developing the youngster and encouraging him to remain at the club during some difficult moments.
Diego Simeone recently explained to La Nacion in his home country how he likes to play a central midfielder on the left in order to give the team stability. We have seen this countless times with Koke and, when given opportunities, it was most likely that we would see Saúl taking up this position with Atletico when starting out.
Out of 10 starts Saúl made in La Liga last year, half of those were on the left or right of midfield shuttling between defending and being an outlet on the attack. He would go on to score four goals in those ten starts including that standout goal against cross-town rivals Real Madrid in a 4-0 humiliation of Los Blancos.
After that goal, Saul's father, Boria Niguez explained how his son had asked to leave but referenced a Simeone intervention and that bicycle kick goal as a turning point in his career, "He thought about leaving and we were set to leave the club because he wanted more minutes to continue the progression from last season with Rayo. Logically, we asked to leave because we saw that he wasn't getting the minutes we thought he would but the one who counted on him was the manager and he said that he is counting on him and asked him to have patience, as did the club. Therefore, we decided to stay. He came on the other day and had a brilliant game, as did the rest of the team. The win over Real Madrid was a turning point in Saul's future."
There was more light shed on why that goal meant so much to the youngster when he opened up recently about being bullied at Real Madrid's academy and referred to his time there as an 11-year-old as a "difficult year" while divulging information of the things that were happening. He said, "They robbed my boots, food (...) They stopped me from going to Valdebebas for two weeks for things I'd not done. They passed a letter to the manager saying I had written it. I said I'd not done it because I really had not done it."
That's the past and an attempt to add a little texture to the kind of footballer we are dealing with in Diego Simeone's new lieutenant in midfield. Let's talk about the future and what it holds for the now 21-year-old.
Who's setting the standards?
Let's just say, for all intents and purposes, that Paul Pogba is the benchmark of excellence in terms of central players who moonlight as box-to-box midfielders and defensive and attacking options for their team. There are few who would disagree that Pogba is the next wave of Ballon d'Or contenders when Father Time has decided Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are no longer worthy to compete for football's greatest individual award.
Pogba has the grace of a swan, appears indefatigable in the ground he covers on the field and scores more goals than seems plausible; Saul Niguez can be every bit as effective as the Frenchman, however, without possessing the same technical quality.
This is a bold claim when you consider just how good Pogba is - if you haven't watched him in full flight, leave this article where it is and go and watch an entire 90 minutes of what he offers. As we can see from the image above, Saul is asked to add more defensively than Pogba in his role and delivers more as a result. Niguez has always been a tough tackler and does not compromise when it comes to the physical aspect of play.
This was evident during his year at Rayo Vallecano, on loan from Atletico, when he featured in 37 games and played at centre-back in 13 of those, picking up 14 yellow cards - two in one game - and three suspensions during his stint on the outskirts of Madrid. He also showed signs of his durability during that season when he only missed one game due to injury; a 2-1 loss to Getafe on the final day of the season. For what Saúl lacks in technical ability, he more than makes up for in terms of his robust defensive style and supreme conditioning.
Saúl the attacker
When referring to the technical ability, he is not known for his racking, long passes or his ability to consistently take on defenders like Pogba does. This is partly down to his role under Simeone and his reputation as more of a bouncer than a ballerina. Also, he has not perfected the art of finishing and remains raw when it comes to creating chances and playing through his teammates, but Atletico as a team have struggled in the final third and there is little doubt that Niguez has the tools to improve in this area when Atletico become more incisive in attack and Saúl's influence grows within Cholo's system.
The funny thing about the goal against Real Madrid is that he makes that exact same run several times a game. Arriving late and understanding the correct spaces in the box to attack, awaiting a cross from his full-backs or fellow midfielders and he will take it whatever way the ball lands to him. His most recent goal against Deportivo was similar in that he arrived late, albeit this time with unnerving pace, caught the opposing defenders off guard and was not to be stopped.
Talk of transfers in the region of €30 and €40 million are ridiculous at this point of Saúl's development and while they might result in a new deal which pays the midfielder a wage worthy of his potential, if he is moving away from the Calderon, it will be for double that amount and not unless something drastic happens in his relationship with Cholo Simeone.
Antoine Griezmann gets most of the headlines for Atletico Madrid, and nobody can doubt his influence, but expect Saul - who is almost two years Pogba's junior - to contest a Ballon d'Or at some point in the future. While Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta have long been the thread that knits Spain's national team together, Saul Niguez is arriving on the scene and is not going anywhere for the next decade.