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Parsing Saúl’s new, yet old, role at Atlético

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Simeone’s rojiblancos have become one of LaLiga’s most prolific teams, and Saúl is still trying to find his way.

Atletico de Madrid v Real Valladolid CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Saúl Ñíguez has played a lot of football for a 26-year-old.

Atlético Madrid’s academy-bred pivot broke into Diego Simeone’s midfield in 2015, announcing himself in unforgettable fashion. Tiago Mendes’ leg break that autumn propelled Saúl into the starting 11 — and from the start of the 2017/18 season through 2019/20, he started 102 of a possible 104 league games.

Saúl topped the 4,000 minute mark in all competitions in both 2017/18 and 2019/20, and finished 90 minutes short in 2018/19. He made his 300th appearance last season, and he scored a career-best six goals — including a penalty brace at Barcelona — to help Atlético finish third in a difficult league season.

Perhaps this is why seeing him appear from Atlético’s bench so often these days has been so unexpected, particularly as los rojiblancos sit first in LaLiga after 17 weeks.

Cornella v Atletico Madrid - Copa del Rey Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

“Saúl is very important for us, he has given us a lot from day one,” Simeone said before Atlético beat Cardassar in the Copa del Rey on Dec. 16. “He knows he has to improve, he will work for it, and we hope he will give us the things he has always given us.”

Despite his wide range of abilities (including “availability”), Saúl has become a target for #online criticism the past couple seasons, for struggling to make the impact expected of someone with his talents. He’s dangled his potential as a world-class box-to-box midfielder, but he never pressed with Thomas Partey’s efficiency and he’s never compiled shot-creating actions at Koke’s level.

Instead, Simeone decided it would be best for the team if Saúl won the ball, recycled it once won, and filled in at left back when he wasn’t doing that. Coincidentally or otherwise, Atlético’s success with Saúl on the pitch dipped each season from 2014/15 on, from (via fbref.com) 2.33 points per match to a shocking 1.86 ppm last season. On average, Atleti picked up fewer than two points per Saúl appearance in 2019/20 — and he appeared a lot.

However, Atlético’s ppm with Saúl on this pitch this season is 2.42, a career-best. Atleti have conceded just three times in his 680 LaLiga minutes — only Ángel Correa has played more minutes (855) and seen fewer goals go in (2). Last Sunday, Saúl made arguably his most crucial contribution to the team so far — the pre-assist on Luis Suárez’s 90th-minute winner at Alavés, which maintained Atleti’s two-point lead over Real Madrid.

But after Sunday came Wednesday, and another Copa del Rey disaster against Cornellà. Saúl, donning the captain’s band with Koke and Jan Oblak resting, started as a right-sided midfielder. Despite the opportunity, he failed to produce anything inspiring in 90 minutes as Atlético fell behind early and never recovered. Simeone unwisely reverted to the 4-4-2 formation, and Saúl looked an ill fit in an awkward midfield alongside Geoffrey Kondogbia and Lucas Torreira. The team created zilch — literally failing to produce a shot on target against a seventh-place Segunda B side — with many in-form players left out of the squad.

Saúl, known for his candor, took responsibility after the match.

“The team is in a good moment, (but) I am not in a good moment,” Saúl said.

“I am not well mentally, but I want to continue working to show the coach that I’m here to help.”

These games, one after the other, highlight Saúl’s dichotomy this season — one step forward, but a larger step back.

Saúl’s statistics have dipped — namely, his tackling (1.97 players tackled per 90 minutes, pedestrian for a defensive-minded midfielder) and his aerial presence (he’s winning 35 percent fewer duels than he did last season). However, he still ranks among the team’s better loose-ball retrievers, and has seen a boost to his touches overall (now 66 per 90 minutes) — along with a healthy increase to his attacking third and penalty area touches. Koke is the only “regular” midfielder with better accuracy on passes between five and 15 yards, too.

Yet, this statistical amalgamation only adds to the murkiness regarding Saúl’s place at Atlético. It shows Saúl is still able to contribute in several ways to a successful midfield, but the midfield has generally been strong without him.

Following an injury that cost him a month of action, Saúl held onto a pecking-order place ahead of summer arrival Torreira and November signing Kondogbia. But Simeone started Héctor Herrera ahead of him in the Madrid derby last month, and has recently taken to starting Marcos Llorente next to Koke in the new 3-4-1-2 setup. In this role, Llorente scored the opener against Alavés and the second goal in the pre-Christmas win at Real Sociedad — two more blows for Saúl’s chances at regaining his “undroppable” status.

Cornella v Atletico Madrid - Copa del Rey Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Saúl has played many meaningful minutes and matches for Atlético. The season is long, and he will play more yet. A player with over 300 appearances and five trophies in Simeone’s side will not disappear overnight — nor should he, even with only seven league starts to his name in 2020/21.

But Saúl’s role is confused within this new-look Atlético, one that theoretically plays to his attacking instincts. Not coincidentally, this has been his most difficult season since breaking into the team several years ago, and he’s readily admitted to the anguish he is feeling. Saúl adapted so readily — and so well — to the demands of a more-defensive side, and now must find a way to do so again. He will be needed.