Some saw this coming. He was highly regarded enough to make his Atlético Madrid debut as a 17-year-old during the team’s successful 2011-12 Europa League campaign. As a 20-year-old, he scored a goal no Atlético fan will ever forget. A year later, he eviscerated one of Europe’s top defenses in a Champions League semifinal, and his goals in the 2016-17 knockout stage helped Atlético reach a third semifinal since 2014.
Each of those displays, each of those goals, each of those moments on their own could have made Saúl Ñíguez a household name. However, it can no longer be debated that Saúl is one of the best young players in Europe following his sensational recital against Italy in the UEFA EURO Under-21s semifinal on Tuesday night.
As much as we have enjoyed “Better Call Saúl” and the Photoshops that have come with it, Tuesday’s hat trick showed that Saúl and his golazos - Saúlazos, let’s call them - have put him on a path to superstardom. Atlético supporters have recognized for some time that Saúlito is a pretty special talent, but it is time for the footballing world at large to realize what a gem the 22-year-old is. We know that Saúl - who’s played in a Champions League final and two semifinals already - is too advanced to be playing in this competition and needs to be in Julen Lopetegui’s plans for the 2018 World Cup. He’s quite literally been a man among boys, notching five goals in three games, including the opening strike each time. But the 3-1 win over Italy reinforced Saúl’s bevy of technical gifts and underscored that superstar potential.
His first goal was a clean, left-footed strike from a Dani Ceballos through ball. It was, of course, another opening goal; that’s become a specialty for the canterano. His second goal was an absolute missile from well outside the box, a stunning thunderbolt which answered Federico Bernardeschi’s equalizer minutes after the hour. His third goal was slotted to Gianluigi Donnarumma’s right, a relatively simple yet inevitable left-footed finish from a Marco Asensio pass that sentenced Italy to defeat and sent Spain to the final against Germany.
Saúl is the first Spanish player to score five times in the U-21 Euro and has given Diego Simeone something to think about by flourishing in Albert Celades’ 4-3-3. He has been allowed more control and freedom than he is in Simeone’s disciplined 4-4-2 hybrid, even as that system displays his defensive abilities and tactical acumen. Granted, he is older than many of the players he’s going up against in this competition, but that should not take away from how complete a midfielder Saúl is at just 22 years old.
Saúl has emerged as much, much more than the television show that (sorta) bears his name. He’s a tactically versatile, technically excellent pivot laying waste to the under-21 competition. He has stood out on an international stage and in a team filled with some of football’s best young jewels - Asensio, Ceballos, Marcos Llorente, Sandro Ramírez and others. It can be argued, though, that Saúl is the brightest jewel of them all.