Saúl on a mission at Chelsea to put Atlético stagnation behind him

에스aúl Ñíguez didn’t much like what he had become so he set off in search of himself. A decade after making his first-team debut at Atlético Madrid, having played 340 계략, scored 43 goals and provided 17 assists, still only 26 and still insisting he is the central midfielder he always wanted to be, he has gone looking for his place. Not only at Chelsea, although he described his new team as “the business”, but on the pitch.

“Saúl has played in a thousand positions with us,”Diego Simeone은. Just not, Saúl too often felt, his own. 과 Chelsea agreed. There is exaggeration there, not least from Saúl himself, but his position became almost an existential question: not just where he is but who he is. 과, simplistic though it may sound, that has led him to London. 결국, it happened in a hurry but this move has been coming, on and off, for some time.

His career happened fast too – until it didn’t. “They say players peak at 28; I wanted to be there at 22, 23,”그는 말했다, which perhaps happened. A feeling of stagnation slipped in and once that idea formed it grew, almost becoming self-perpetuating. “The Saúl from the last couple of years frustrated me too,” he admitted in a revealing interview with Ibai Llanos, the Spanish internet celebrity, almost as soon as the deal was done. Chelsea, who could give him his debut at home to Aston Villa on Saturday, is a chance to restart. He had just won the league title with Atlético, playing more than 30 league games for a sixth successive season, but said he didn’t think he could “put up with another season like this”.

그만큼 son and brother of footballers, the first time a Premier League club came for him it was Fulham and Saúl was 15. He made his debut at 17 years and 108 일. At 18, he went on loan at Rayo Vallecano, Manchester United watching regularly. 그는 ~였다 20 when he scored an overhead kick in a 4-0 hammering of Real Madrid 과 21 when he got goal against Bayern Munich, reaching the 2016 Champions League final. That summer he was in Spain’s preliminary Euros squad.

By then he had an internal catheter, passing blood after every game. He told the doctors to take out a kidney and he could get on with playing. They didn’t, but he did. “I actually played very well with [the catheter],” he laughed. At 22, he signed a nine-year contract with Atlético, the size of his salary later limiting his options and helping explain Atlético’s willingness to let go.

At 23, he went to the World Cup. He didn’t play but dominated Spain’s first game under Luis Enrique immediately after Russia 2018, seemingly destined to drive their midfield for a generation after a stunning 6-0 demolition of the finalists Croatia. An admirer of Barcelona style’s but defined more by his dynamism, he was a hybrid, boasting the physique to go with the technique. He had what the Spanish refer to as llegada, or arrival – timing runs into the box.

Asked whether Saúl reminded him of himself, Luis Enrique replied: “Nah, and anyway he’d be a much-improved model. He reads the game, is good in the air, very intelligent: he’s a complete player.”

“Saúl is buenísimo,” Simeone said. “He can be whatever he wants to be.” The problem was that he was not always what he wanted to be, victim of his own versatility, and it came to eat at him. Ambitious, unusually candid and startlingly direct, he was prepared to admit to a tendency to boredom if he was not cut loose. Single-minded in pursuit of some sort of perfection, he wanted to be at the heart of everything.

“He has all the qualities to be one of the best midfielders in the world,” Simeone said. “He can play many roles in the team, although he’s happiest in the middle. He has a great tactical brain. And that, as well as his llegada, his defensive work, and his ability on dead balls, makes him a very important.” Saúl came to see those virtues as his cage. He had the quality and discipline to play at centre-back, full-back, wing-back, wide right and left in a four, inside left and right in a three, but that didn’t mean he liked it. He wanted to be a No 8, running through the middle.

“The team comes first, even if individually I’m not at the same level as two years ago,” he said here in February 2020. “I’m leaving parts of my game behind and I don’t know that it’s a good thing because you stop enjoying it. I’d like to focus on one position and improve there, learn. Simeone is the only one who values my work. He knows I suffer in positions that are not ideal for me, but he appreciates what I do and I can’t say no.”

By the end of lockdown, Saúl seemed to have found his place again. Simeone too. “I can help more in the middle and I think the manager feels the same way,” he told El País. But then Saúl slipped from the side. Atlético’s formation had shifted, Thomas Lemar found his feet, Marcos Llorente emerged as the dynamic midfielder Saúl had been, Yannick Carrasco was rehabilitated and Koke took control from the centre. Saúl’s options reduced, not undisputed any more. Results reinforced that; Atlético were champions.

Saúl played a lot (33 league games, starting 22) and in positions more natural than he seemed to think – an Atlético stats account showed he had played ‘only’ 17% of his minutes on the left over the past three seasons – but he had lost his place again. He hasn’t played for Spain since 2019. 1 월, 그는 말했다: “I’m not right mentally. The team needed something other than this Saúl Ñíguez.”

So did he. And so did Chelsea. When he spoke to Thomas Tuchel, Saúl was told they saw him as a midfielder. They too had been frustrated watching him in other positions over four years following him. In his first interview with Chelsea TV, he described himself as a “box-to-box” midfielder. Last season he asked Simeone to at least let him 기차 as a midfielder – a difficult request to fulfil given the way Atlético prepare.

Rodrigo de Paul’s arrival appeared to reduce his options further. Saúl would have played but where? He felt time slip from him, keenly aware he was not progressing.

“I needed to refind myself and Chelsea appeared,”그는 말했다. “What I want is to train in my role, to rediscover certain movements and positions. That’s the most important part of my decision. The last three years haven’t been easy. I had stagnated and my head didn’t accept it. The idea is to compete, see the Saúl I want to see. The Saúl from the last few years frustrates me too.

“I couldn’t show people what I can do. Not learning, not improving, not growing was frustrating. This is a decision to unblock me. By leaving my comfort zone I’m going to make a new Saúl emerge. This is about me being me.”

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