“I am very happy because at Atletico we are a family,” Saul Niguez said in the summer of 2017. “There is no better place to be.”
The words were heartfelt, genuine. However, Saul’s actions spoke far louder as, despite interest from heavyweight clubs across Europe, the then 22-year-old opted to sign a new long-term contract with Atletico Madrid.
This wasn’t the standard five-year deal, though. It was a far bigger commitment. Saul opted to sign with Atletico until 2026. He would be tied to the La Liga giants for the next nine years of his career.
“Saul is an example for all the kids in our academy,” the club’s former sporting director Jose Luis Perez Caminero told reporters. “An example of giving, teamwork, solitary on the field, and impressive quality.
“He is an all-around player, with great aerial power, an amazing long-range shot, a tireless worker, a young player with lots of experience… We should feel happy for the agreement we reached because he is such a great player and there are no limits to his growth.”
Saul was a mainstay in the Atleti side over the next three years, although not in a set role. The Spain international would fill in where needed: wing-back, left-back, left midfield, right midfield, as a six or an eight, or even further forward on the odd occasion.
That versatility harmed Saul’s game time last term. Diego Simeone settled on a side in which Marcos Llorente, Koke and Thomas Lemar were given prominent midfield roles. The 26-year-old started only 22 games in all competitions for Los Rojiblancos as a result.
“Last season he spoke with the club, with us about his needs,” Simeone said in July. “What he spoke about was the option of having a position on the pitch where he feels more important.
“And I consider that Saul became Saul by playing everywhere, but he or many of those around him see it as something negative.
“He is very important for Atletico because he can play as a full-back, right-wing, midfielder. He gives us a lot of options to be able to count on him. He is a player who, in that version and playing how the coach needs him to, performs very well.”
Simeone was then offered the opportunity to quash the speculation over Saul’s future. The Argentine coach didn’t take it.
He said: “If he has to leave, [I’ll] give him a big hug, wish him the best with the boys who gave us life and to continue being friends, as always.”
So, Chelsea. The Blues are in need of a fourth central midfielder and are hoping to complete a loan move for Saul before the transfer window closes at 11pm this evening.
On the face of it, why would Atletico let Saul go, especially if there is no obligation on the part of Chelsea to make the deal permanent? Well, there are circumstances to consider.
The first is obvious: Saul is not happy and wants to push through a move to Stamford Bridge. There is also the fact he is one of the club’s highest earners and that Atleti are hoping to push through a move for Antoine Greizmann.
Add in a season playing minutes at central midfielder has the potential to kickstart his career and, in the process, increase his value exponentially and a one-year departure from Madrid and it does add up.
Coming to Chelsea would be a challenge for Saul. He would be viewed as the club’s fourth-choice central midfielder behind N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic. And that triumphant is not easy to crack as Billy Gilmour discovered last term.
Yet Saul would add something the Blues need: cover for Kante.
The Spaniard does most aspects of the game well. According to FBRef, he averaged 4.16 tackles and interceptions per 90 in La Liga last term – a figure below what Kante and Jorginho achieved in the Premier League – and attempted a similar number of pressures per 90 to the Chelsea midfielders, although he was less successful.
His 1.55 shot-creating actions per 90 were below that of Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic, although that will be partly influenced by Atletico’s more reactive approach within games. It’s why he also plays fewer passes (52 per 90) than the trio.
Saul’s intelligence, both positionally and in possession, would be showcased in Chelsea’s system; he would certainly be a fine alternative for Tuchel to turn to when Kante needs a break from the side.
Saul has been an Atletico player since he was 14 years old. The club, barring a loan spell at Elche, is all he has ever known in his professional career, Simeone’s structure is the only one in which he has flourished.
By leaving his “family” for Chelsea, Saul would be taking a risk. There’s no doubt about that. A new country, a new style of football, a new coach. But importantly, it can be a new beginning for the Spain international. Or at the very least a new experience.
His arrival would benefit the Blues too. It could complete Tuchel’s squad, give the German the tools required to challenge for the Premier League title. But the clock is ticking.