Last season Atletico Madrid surrendered their La Liga title rather easily, finishing in 3rd place and 16 points behind treble winners Barcelona. After spending a whopping €155 million last summer, Atletico find themselves in between Barcelona and Real Madrid in the league table at the moment and remain one of the dark horses in the Champions League.
Astonishingly, the number of goals that star striker Antoine Griezmann has scored this term (26) is almost double the number of league goals that Atletico have conceded in the entire campaign thus far (15). Diego Simeone’s men have returned to their resilient, determined best this year and in many ways, youngster Saul Niguez has been the driving force behind their resurgence.
The 21-year-old Spaniard has been Atletico Madrid’s most improved player this season as Colchoneros have re-emerged as a genuine force to be reckoned with on both a domestic and European front. He enjoyed a loan spell with Rayo Vallecano during the 2013-14 season, but he’s now finally broken into Atletico’s first-team and become a regular, appearing in 25 of their 31 league matches so far.
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Saul can play as an attacking midfielder or supporting striker but he primarily operates in defensive midfield and he’s tactically astute in whichever way Simeone decides to utilise him. The versatile ex-Real Madrid youth player is tough-tackling, extremely athletic, technically good on the ball and his reading of the game has improved massively.
He is still young but he already has a strong mentality and he works hard for his teammates, making some fantastic last-ditch blocks and recovery tackles over the course of the season to help maintain his side’s incredible defensive record. Saul’s combative style of play and aggression from midfield is valued highly by the Atletico supporters, who are growing increasingly fond of him.
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Despite being defensive minded, Saul isn’t afraid to get forward and last month he scored his eighth goal of the season with a powerful header in Atleti’s comfortable 3-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna.
The Spanish national team reigned supreme for a significant period of time, winning two European Championships and a World Cup between 2008 and 2012, but their dominance came to an abrupt end at the 2014 World Cup. Ever since their disastrous campaign in Brazil, Vicente del Bosque’s squad has undergone a major transformation.
The likes of Xabi Alonso and former Barcelona captain Xavi have retired from international football and it’s paved the way for young talents such as Saul, his Atletico Madrid teammate Koke and Real Madrid’s Isco to begin forcing their way into Spain’s midfield.
Joachim Low and Germany underwent a very similar evolution in 2010, with the rise to prominence of stars like Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller and four years later they were celebrating World Cup glory.
After starring for his country at every single youth level (from U16 to U21), Saul is yet to play for the reigning European champions at senior level but he was called up by Del Bosque last May during their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. He possesses many non-Spanish traits which could make a big difference to the Spanish side, so it can’t be too long until he makes his senior international debut.
Having been moulded and guided by Simeone, who himself was a tenacious midfield player, Saul is heralded as someone who has the quality and the potential to become Spain’s next great midfielder.
He has been on the radar of many Premier League clubs for a considerable amount of time, including Arsenal and Manchester United, with some reports suggesting that United are willing to pay £25 million to secure the services of the rising star this summer.
That said, given his progression this year into one of the best young midfielders in La Liga, he could force his way into Spain’s Euro 2016 squad and thus there seems little reason for him to leave the Vicente Calderon anytime soon.