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A vintage yet bittersweet display: Saúl steps up against Osasuna

Saúl Ñíguez took his chance on Sunday, and he reminded us what a special player he used to be.

Atletico de Madrid v CA Osasuna - LaLiga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

In a surprise choice, Diego Simeone on Sunday handed a rare start to Saúl Ñíguez as Atlético Madrid took on Osasuna at the Cívitas Metropolitano. Saúl had not started a game in three months and had made eight substitute appearances in between that totaled 123 minutes — a few of those appearances saw him shifted to left-back, where he has played off-and-on since 2017.

But on Sunday, Saúl played in his preferred midfield role, part of a central trio alongside Koke and Rodrigo de Paul. And he delivered his best performance since returning to Atlético from Chelsea, playing 90 minutes for the first time since October and capping it off with a sweetly-struck 62nd-minute goal.

Saúl rolled back the years with a goal that Radio Marca’s Miguel Quintana said came from the year 2016. De Paul waited for Saúl to arrive into the box, curled a pass toward him, and Osasuna midfielder Jon Moncayola inadvertently deflected the ball into his counterpart’s path. Saúl then shouldered the ball down and hit it on the volley with his weaker right foot. Once he did that, Sergio Herrera had no chance to stop it.

This was a goal out of the top drawer, from a player we once thought was going straight to the top of the game.

When asked Sunday whether he thought Saúl, now 28, is “recoverable,” Cholo Simeone called the player’s journey a “personal search” and commended his professionalism despite the tough years he’s endured.

“He’s always conducted himself very well in the role he has. That speaks very well of him, and his affection for the club and the team,” Simeone said. “It’s not easy to come in after playing a few minutes in one game, zero minutes in other games...Saúl is an example of a committed player, and today he’s been rewarded.”

I have wanted to write about Saúl in some detail for a while, but I haven’t really been able to. Sure, we broke down his winning goal in the reverse fixture against Osasuna in January, and name-dropped him as a possible solution in a Reinildo-less defense.

But it has been difficult for me to square the Saúl of 2016 with the Saúl we’ve seen since 2020. It breaks my heart a little. He won’t even crack 1,500 minutes in all competitions where he once played nearly 5,000 minutes. Saúl was still clocking over 4,000 minutes as recently as 2019/20 — he’s played 5,222 minutes total since the 2020/21 season began.

Maybe the problem began there. Saúl played a LOT of minutes between his age-20 and age-25 seasons — which is when he last played for the Spain national team. And he also played an inordinate amount of minutes at left-back, even before his form began an unmistakable decline.

Is Saúl really to blame for that? Is Simeone to blame for taking the player out of his preferred position and role, weakening one of his most impactful individual talents? Is the club to blame for refusing to bolster the squad when Saúl was a major burnout risk (not to mention signing him to an infamous nine-year contract that still has three years left to run)?

I’d argue that assigning blame no longer matters. What’s done is done, and it serves no productive purpose to litigate it again. What matters now is the Saúl we used to know made a heartwarming yet bittersweet cameo on Sunday. If he is indeed playing out his final weeks at Atlético de Madrid, he’ll leave us with one last man of the match display at the Metropolitano — a parting gift that could help Los Colchoneros land second place in LaLiga.