Saúl Ñíguez is a happy man. Christmas has come early for the Spain international, because Diego Simeone has found another player who can perform at left-back: 19-year-old Manu Sánchez.
With Renan Lodi out injured for the weekend’s match against Osasuna, most expected Saúl to fill in on the left of defence. If not him, then probably Mario Hermoso. But there was a shock debut given out to B team player Sánchez. He was actually only told then just a few hours before the match, with Simeone recommending the teenager turn off his phone — for it was about to blow up with messages.
All of them would have been positive, as the left-back performed admirably. After a nervy start which saw him collect the game’s first yellow card, he thrived during his hour on the pitch and defended well. He delivered some nice crosses and even came close to delivering an assist for João Félix. It is true that most of Atlético Madrid’s attacking play went down the right and through Kieran Trippier in this one, but whenever Sánchez had the ball he was able to make things happen. He also worked well with Thomas Lemar on that left flank.
Manu had already played for the first team in pre-season, and he played really well. But this was the night the youngster, who grew up an Atleti fan even though he spent several years of his childhood in Barcelona, will never forget.
“I fulfilled the dream of all kids who used to go to support Atlético with their parents,” he said afterwards.
The player who moved to the Atleti academy in 2014 is one of the brightest prospects at the club. Still considered raw, his coaches love him and say he is intelligent and naturally-talented. Given that he’s combining his footballing development with the study of law, he’s certainly a smart kid and he’ll surely blossom the more he works with Simeone. The coach could be seen offering constant instructions to him during the first half of the Osasuna win, when the left-back was playing by the touchline right beside Cholo’s technical area.
Lodi remains the starter and, for now, Saúl probably remains the second choice at that position for most matches. But watch out for Sánchez. He’s coming up and will surely play in the first rounds of the Copa del Rey, as well as the occasional LaLiga match. He’s a viable option. He’s Saúl’s new best friend.