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Saúl Ñíguez returns following disappointing Chelsea loan

The academy graduate seems set to stay and receive another opportunity to return to form.

2016-17 La Liga - Atletico de Madrid vs Athletic de Bilbao Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Saúl Ñíguez is officially back at Atlético Madrid.

The club published an interview with the midfielder/full-back on its website Saturday, as the team prepares to begin preseason preparations next week.

“Honestly, I feel very well, I am looking forward to it, very excited to return home and mentally (I’m) at my best,” Saúl told the club. “I really want to see my teammates, to see the coach and go back to work under him. I am looking forward to Sunday and meeting everyone again.”

Saúl played most of last season at Chelsea, leaving Atlético on loan for the second time (he played one season at Rayo Vallecano when he was a teenager). The 27-year-old scored only one goal (in the FA Cup) and made 22 appearances total before the Blues notified Atleti they would not be signing him on a permanent deal.

Atlético had been hoping for the opposite to happen, knowing a Saúl sale would clear space on an overstuffed wage bill and bring in funds to pursue further transfers. But similar to Álvaro Morata’s situation, a depressed market for Spanish clubs and the board’s inability to produce a viable backup plan means Saúl is back and almost certain to stay for the 2022/23 season.

Chelsea v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

“I’m looking forward to seeing everyone, the coaching staff, the physios, kit men, gardeners, the security people, the matchday delegate...everyone, I really want to see them all, because I’ve missed them,” Saúl said. “I have even come to Madrid three or four days earlier because I am looking forward to starting, going back to work each day.”

Once regarded as one of the top young midfielders in Europe, Saúl burst onto the scene with an instantly-memorable chilena in a 2015 Madrid Derby and signed a nine-year contract extension in 2017, intended to ward off interest from FC Barcelona and Manchester United. Barça have been tracking Saúl for several years, dating back to Sandro Rosell’s presidency, and there was a time United floated paying more than €100 million to acquire the player.

But the quality of Saúl’s performances began to drop off in the years following the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with his form reaching its nadir during the 2020/21 campaign — during which he openly admitted to mental health struggles and had to accept a substitute role as Atlético held on to win LaLiga for the first time in seven years.

Saúl asked to leave before last summer’s transfer window opened, and he was able to secure a deadline-day move to Stamford Bridge. But he made only five Premier League starts under Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea balked at paying the €35 million option to buy inserted into the loan agreement.

Though he had a sour spell at Chelsea from a playing perspective, Saúl said he’s grateful for his brief time in the Premier League.

“Despite the fact that I didn’t have the desired minutes, I think it was a good experience for me to leave at a time when I wasn’t feeling well mentally,” he explained. “I have been able to reset, learn from a new culture, lead a new life, meet a new club (and) fans. I can only be grateful to all the people at Chelsea for their trust, and to my teammates for making the year very bearable and helping me — and to Atleti, for having made it easier.”

Considering the lack of concrete transfer business and money to spend this summer, Diego Simeone is probable to welcome Saúl back into his plans, given the player’s versatility and skill set. I think he is most likely to compete with Renan Lodi or Reinildo Mandava for minutes at left-back, or at left wing-back when Reinildo drops into central defense on days where Atlético line up in a 3-5-2.

Saúl could also receive minutes at his preferred central midfield position, though Axel Witsel’s arrival on a free transfer and Atleti’s rumored Carlos Soler pursuit makes that difficult to envision.

“On an individual level, I only hope to give my best. I am aware that I am coming off a loan in which I haven’t had many minutes and that I have to find my place in the team with work, perseverance, and a lot of sacrifice, something that can be very costly because there is very high competition — we have an enormously-competitive team,” Saúl said. “I come with a lot of humility, thinking of working and helping the team in everything I can and from (whatever position) I play. I really want to show that, despite having a difficult year, it has been very good for me to improve and grow in many aspects, both sporting and personal.”

Read the interview in English here.