Analysis

Saul Niguez: What to expect from Chelsea’s new jack of all trades

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Deadline days are best known for drama, and the thrills and spills involving the clubs trying their best to bring in reinforcements right before the transfer window closes.

After one of the most dramatic transfer windows in recent memory, it was only just that Deadline Day offered similar unpredictability – and it did as hours after most sources reported that the deal had collapsed, it was reported that Atletico Madrid and Chelsea had reached an agreement for Saul Niguez. The player’s will to move was a major factor, and Saul will soon be on his way to London for a season-long loan.

It was not the easiest of deals to be made with merely hours to go until the deadline, but Chelsea made sure that they got their man – and on their terms, as they wanted to include an option to buy the player instead of an obligation. The 26-year-old was one of Atletico’s most important player in the past few years, being a mainstay of their deep runs in the Champions League as well as their Europa League triumph in 2018.

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But despite his cult hero status at the Spanish capital and a contract running until 2026, Saul was desperate for a change of scenery – and Chelsea can provide him with just what he wants. And it does look like he can provide a lot to the Blues as well.

Saul is in his own right, one of the most versatile players in the game. Having carved a niche for himself as a premium central midfielder in his nine years at Atlético Madrid, Saul has also shown enough versatility to be deployed in various different positions in his time at the Spanish capital.

But despite being an incredible utility player, his versatility has partly contributed to his downfall – Saul’s influence and importance in the Atlético team has dried up over the last couple of seasons, as he lost his place as a guaranteed starter. Over the past season, Saul was deployed mostly as a makeshift left wing-back in Diego Simeone’s system – but the Spaniard is set for a return back to his favoured position in midfield when he does put on the royal blue shirt in West London.

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Saul is set to be an impressive addition to the European champions’ riches in midfield – a unit that already boasts world-class midfielders in Jorginho, N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić. With Kanté’s recurring injury woes as well as the departure of Billy Gilmour on loan to Norwich City, Thomas Tuchel wanted an able reinforcement as a rotational option – and Saul seems to have just the right profile for him.

The Spaniard who has over 200 appearances for Atlético is vastly experienced but yet hungry for more success, and will be more than willing to serve his role as an option whenever called upon. And just the fact that Chelsea will have the luxury of a name like Saul deep in their ranks is quite something, as he provides the Blues with a profile that is not too common amongst his peers.

Saul Niguez can do almost everything that can be asked of a footballer at the highest level, as the Spaniard can pass, shoot, dribble, tackle, intercept and run – all at a very similar level. Despite primarily being a left-footed midfielder who can play box-to-box, in a double six or as a defensive midfielder, Saul can also slot into the full-back role quite effortlessly – as he has shown over the past season for the Rojiblancos in their title-winning season in La Liga.

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His versatility all over the left flank means that besides being a rotational option in midfield, he can also be able back-up for Ben Chilwell and Marcos Alonso for the left wing-back position or even play as a left-sided attacker whenever he is called upon to do so. Saul is a creative influence from either the midfield or full-back positions, and can come up with a brilliant moment in front of a goal more often than not – but at the same time, his defensive numbers as a midfielder suggest that he is quite the balanced customer in midfield.

When compared to midfielders over the past year in Europe’s top five leagues, Saul Niguez won 2.04 tackles per 90 minutes – ranking him in the 85th percentile amongst his peers. He is also aerially dominant and contests for duels quite a lot – the Spaniard won 2.87 aerial duels per 90 minutes, and contested for 13.6 duels per 90 minutes last season. When compared to his future competitors in the Chelsea midfield, no other midfielder won more aerial duels or contested for more duels than Saul over the past season.

Only Kanté made more tackles per 90 minutes, only Jorginho had a better aerial duel success rate, and only Kovacic had a better dribble success rate than Saul. And in addition to his many talents, Saul also provides something that most Chelsea midfielders don’t – regular attempts at goal from midfield. He is quite the frequent shooter with his left foot, as he took on 1.44 shots per 90 minutes – only Mason Mount took on more shots over the past season.

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All in all, Saul Niguez not only offers incredible depth in midfield for the European champions, but unlike many of Chelsea’s deadline day signings in the past (Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta), his purchase does not have the air of a total gamble surrounding it. If he does impress Thomas Tuchel over the course of the season, then the Blues are likely to buy him permanently for a fee close to €40 million at the end of the season, while if he doesn’t – Chelsea can move on to other options such as Declan Rice or Aurélien Tchouaméni, both of whom will more likely be available next summer.

While it is the starting eleven that makes the difference in a one-off game, it is squad depth which plays a major part in winning league titles – and with Saul Niguez’s acquisition, Chelsea solidifies their claim as one of the best squads in the continent.

If the usually nomadically deployed Saul does indeed nail down a singular position under the German head coach at Stamford Bridge, we might see shades of the man who was tipped to light up Spanish football a few years ago. And if we do see any glimpses of the player who waltzed his way through Pep Guardiola’s Bayern team five years ago, Chelsea fans can look forward to a very exciting season that will certainly see them challenge for the Premier League title for the first time in five long years.

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