Following much speculation regarding whether Atletico Madrid would still permit the departure of Saúl Ñíguez amid interest from Chelsea, a sudden breakthrough on Tuesday afternoon saw talks accelerate and the Spaniard was announced as a Chelsea player shortly after the transfer window deadline.
Saúl’s move to Stamford Bridge is a 1-year loan with an option to buy permanently, believed to be around £30-35m, as he fills the fourth central midfield spot that has been vacated by Billy Gilmour’s loan to Norwich.
Most Chelsea fans can agree that a new midfielder was necessary in this transfer window, especially to add the sort of depth required to challenge for the Premier League title, as fears loomed over whether they could rely on their other midfielders to remain fit. N’Golo Kante has had a poor injury history over the past two seasons, starting just 44 out of a possible 76 league games in that time. Some are worried that fatigue will inevitably catch up with Jorginho who was heavily involved in Chelsea’s fight on three fronts at the end of last season as well as Italy’s Euro campaign. Having been given little time to ease back into first-team action compared to the likes of Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell who featured in Chelsea’s behind-closed-doors friendly against Weymouth for that purpose.
This issue was brought to the fore at Anfield on Saturday evening when Jorginho received treatment and hobbled off the pitch briefly with a minor injury while Kante had to be substituted at half-time after aggravating his existing ankle problem. As suddenly the prospect of Mateo Kovacic and Trevoh Chalobah becoming Chelsea’s new midfield pairing for part of their league title charge looked worryingly close.
There remain doubts, however, within the fanbase that Saúl is well-suited to fill this role. A couple of seasons ago he may have been regarded among the best midfielders in world football. Antonio Conte was keen on signing him for Chelsea in the 2017 summer window and Saúl scored against the Blues at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League group stages that same year. Many now believe that his performance level has declined in recent seasons and Saúl is not likely to return to his best in the way Chelsea are expecting him to.
In part of the club’s official announcement, Marina Granovskaia called Saúl a “proven winner” with “huge experience”, and this can be seen from how he has amassed 340 first-team appearances for Atletico at just 26-years-old. He also won 3 European honours with the Rojiblancos – 2 Europa Leagues and a Super Cup – while playing an important role and making a name for himself with some incredible goals that he scored.
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone has previously praised Saúl’s work-rate, first touch, aerial ability, passing, pace and rhythm but his versatility is also a key attribute of his. In the past year or so, he has played in both offensive and defensive central midfield roles, as well as occasionally out on the flanks or as a left-sided full-back.
On a Twitch stream on Tuesday night after the deal was announced, Saúl appeared to suggest that Simeone has not been allowing him to train in his best position but Chelsea have promised to let him do so this season. This could be closer to a No 10 or a box-to-box midfield role, but we can expect this to change a little each game depending on the midfielder that he is playing alongside.
One certain advantage though of his time under Simeone is the fighting attitude that he appears to have inherited while playing his manager’s philosophy of “Cholismo”, where maximum effort is said to be non-negotiable. On Saúl’s Champions League debut in 2015 against Bayer Leverkusen, he suffered severe damage to his kidney from a clash with an opposing player shortly before half-time but attempted to continue playing in the second half. Lying on a stretcher, he saw his father crying and told him “Dad, it’s OK, I’m a toro, a bull, I can take this.” He was seen shaking in the dressing room and began to lose control of his body, so he was rushed to hospital where he had his blood drained and spent a month before returning to Atletico to play.
In 2017 Saúl revealed that he had been wearing an internal catheter while playing since his return from hospital and would often urinate blood immediately after every training session or match. He said that it was so sore that he was sometimes unable to stand, but when the catheter was removed his kidney was not working properly so he asked for it to be put back in so that he could keep playing.
“They (the doctors) said: ‘Saúl, it’s not that simple,’” he recalls. “I was tired of it all and I said: ‘Doc, just take the kidney out. Take it out. I’ll be out for a month, but then I’ll be back again.’ I thought, lose a kidney, it’s fine, I’ve got another one.”
Saúl was advised against doing so despite his desperation to return to football, but now plays without the catheter and has recovered well, joking that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is not just a cliche for him since he has always been determined and tough. Talking about his move to Chelsea, he referred to it as a chance to move out of his “comfort zone” because he is by no means a guaranteed starter and has pledged to fight for his place in the team.
Of course only time will tell as to whether Saúl will be a success in West London and whether he may be able to persuade the club to trigger his option to buy, as they did with Mateo Kovacic only 2 years ago, but if his battle with his health is anything to go by then it seems almost certain that Saúl will be striving hard to make the first eleven every week and will be a valuable addition to the squad with his immense resilience and tactical versatility even if nothing else.
Written by Ollie McCabe (@OliverMcCabe_)
Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)
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