If there was one lesson to take away from the September international break, then it was that Saúl Ñíguez is good at football. Atlético Madrid fans and those who have seen him turn it on in the Champions League have known this for years, but this was news to a lot of people.
“Two goals in two matches for Spain?” they said. “What a weapon Atleti have got!”
The problem for Diego Simeone, however, is that finding the best position and role for the talented 23-year-old is not that simple. Luis Enrique’s Spain played in a very different manner from Simeone’s rojiblancos and the box-to-box-ness displayed by Saúl in the red of Spain doesn’t transplant itself easily into the Atlético body.
The pieces of this puzzle are in place, though. The main reason Saúl was able to be so vertical against England and against Croatia had a lot to do with Sergio Busquets anchoring the Spanish midfield, a player as good at breaking up opposition moves as he is at launching his own. In Rodri Hernández, Atlético have a man with these same characteristics and a player who has actually been dubbed “the new Busquets” on numerous occasions over the past year.
So far this LaLiga season, Rodri has started in both Atleti home matches, against Rayo Vallecano and against Eibar. In the Wanda Metropolitano’s season opener against Rayo, Saúl was asked to partner up with Rodri in a double pivot in front of defence, with the result being that the No.8’s average position was inside his own half, just as it was against Valencia and Celta Vigo.
Against Eibar, though, Rodri was trusted by Simeone to be the cornerstone of the midfield himself for the first 70 minutes, before he was replaced by goalscoring hero Borja Garcés. Atlético’s shape was more like a 4-1-4-1 and Saúl was given license to roam, with the man from Elche and the team as a whole playing some of their best football of the season. The 1-1 result wasn’t what anyone in red and white wanted, but the performance was good and the only reason this wasn’t a home win was because of an Oblak-esque performance from Eibar goalkeeper Marko Dmitrović.
Of course, Saúl was one of the many Atleti players frustrated by the Serbian shot-stopper, as he had a bullet header saved, with another shot off-target and another one blocked. But the fact he was in positions to shoot was more important than the fact he didn’t score, as he’ll sooner or later take his chances for Atlético like he has done for Spain. So far this season Saúl has the lowest shooting accuracy – eight percent – of all LaLiga players with at least one shot on target. But he boasts enough quality for this to even out over the course of a season. There’s no reason to panic yet about the fact that he has scored two more goals for his country than for his club. The sample size is simply too small to draw any meaningful conclusions about the difference finishing.
What is important is that with Rodri as the base of the midfield against Eibar, Saúl was able to advance rather than drop back and babysit the new signing from Villarreal. Because Rodri may be just 22 and a couple of months and he may have just joined in the summer, but he is already good enough to be relied upon. He’s the 16-year-old who can be left on his own in the family home for the weekend and be trusted to remember to feed the dog, to water the plants and to not invite the entire neighbourhood over for a rave.
Atlético’s midfield, therefore, surely has to be built around Rodri with Saúl playing through the middle and with license to push forward. The tricky part is fitting in stars like Koke and Thomas Lemar, whose respective talents in terms of getting past defenders or threading the needle with a through ball are too great to be discarded. Antoine Griezmann’s role is a question mark too, but the priority has to be Rodri. With him in front of the back four, Saúl’s explosiveness can be unlocked and this will be vital for Atlético, especially the more defensive teams in LaLiga.
There will be occasions, particularly in the Champions League, where a more restrained Saúl is needed and where a double pivot will be the solution. But on the whole, the shackles need to come off now and Saúl needs to be set free.