Atlético Madrid’s bad luck with injuries has left them without Filipe Luís and Lucas Hernández for several weeks, and Diego Simeone’s solution has been to slide Saúl Ñíguez into the left-back position to fill in.
Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Sevilla was the sixth time in the past five weeks that the Spain international has had to play on the left of the back line and he has done such a calm and sensible job that what he has done risks being underappreciated. Going up against in-form Jesús Navas was the toughest test he’d had at this position so far and he did have some struggles in the first half, but this was almost the exception that proved the rule. Only then did Saúl really stand out, after quietly going about his business without drawing attention to himself for the past month.
Aided by Koke’s defensive support, Saúl was much improved in the second half against the Andalusians, and he once again he helped Atlético pick up a point. Los Rojiblancos have now won three and drawn three with the 24-year-old at left-back this season, which is not to be sniffed at.
Many teams would crumble if their starting left-back went down, never mind if both their natural left-sided defenders were made unavailable for an extended period. Yet Atlético have been able to continue accumulating points thanks to Saúl’s, who has taken on a role he didn’t want and that he doesn’t enjoy without complaining.
“Of course I’m keen to return to midfield and to feel comfortable in the centre, but the coach knows he can count on me to play any position,” he said after the match on Sunday. “If he needs me at left-back then I’ll sacrifice myself for the team and I’ll play there.”
While some might assume that all players would adopt a similarly selfless approach, that isn’t necessarily the case.
“During my time, there were a couple of centre-back teammates who told the coach they couldn’t take on the mission of playing at full-back because of their characteristics,” former Atleti star Kiko Narváez explained this weekend in his column for AS.
With Saúl having picked up a fifth yellow card in Seville — one of the 12 that referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz gave out in Oprah-you-have-a-car fashion — he’ll be missing for next weekend’s LaLiga clash with Levante, and Simeone better hope that one of Filipe or Lucas is fit again. If not and someone else is asked to play left-back, maybe then we’ll see just how vital Saúl has been.