Saul Niguez has lost his way at Atletico Madrid, but is wanted by Man United, Liverpool and Barcelona
PETE JENSON: Saul Niguez is a box-to-box dynamo but he’s lost his way at Atletico Madrid… Man United scouted him as a youngster and now they can finally bring in their man – but they face competition from both Barcelona and Liverpool
- Saul Niguez’s 13-year spell at Atlético Madrid could end soon
- Saul has been the subject of a swap deal with Barcelona for Antoine Griezmann
- The Spanish midfielder has been a target of Manchester United in the past
- The 26-year-old has also spoken about his admiration for Liverpool beforehand
If Barcelona fail to pull off Saul Niguez-Antoine Griezmann’s swap deal and land the 26-year-old Spanish midfielder in the Premier League, it will feel like something that was always meant to be.
They like a borrowed English football expression in Spain and when they use ‘box-to-box’ it is often to describe the midfielder who is now on the cusp of leaving the club he joined at the age of 13.
When Saul started knocking on the first-team door as an 18-year-old prospect at Atletico Madrid, he was picked up on Manchester United’s radar and regularly watched. They followed his season on loan with Rayo Vallecano, where his versatility began to shine through playing games as a ball-playing centre-back and a driving midfielder.
Saul Niguez’s 13-year stint as Atlético Madrid player could be over this summer
He’s in line for a potential swap deal with Barcelona striker Antoine Griezmann this summer
He was subsequently given a series of new contracts to keep him at the club and in 2017 he signed a nine-year deal until 2026 with a £130 million buyout clause.
But it was clear for a long time that he would not expire; the versatility he first showed at Rayo became a barrier to his development. Simone started using him wherever the team had the biggest gap to fill and it meant many matches as a left back to the point where he lost his place in the Spanish midfield.
It’s easy to forget how Pedri, Sergio Busquets and Koke played every game for Luis Enrique this summer that it was once Saul who was the first name on the team sheet in midfield. Joaquin Maroto, the Spanish reporter for Diario AS, wrote in 2018: “He is what the English call ‘box-to-box’.
“He has that great physical presence in midfield, he covers so much ground, he can get into the area to score and he can sweep across the field. What [Steven] Gerrard was for Liverpool and England, Saul could be for Spain.’
The nod to Gerrard illustrated how the focus had shifted from United to Liverpool. Before Atletico Madrid played against Liverpool in the Champions League in February 2020, Saul spoke at length with Sportsmail about Jurgen Klopp and his team.
With Gerrard long retired, Saul’s praise was for another Liverpool midfielder. ‘Maybe some people don’t rate Henderson as highly as’ [Georginio] Wijnaldum, (Naby) Keita or Fabinho,’ he said. “But I think he’s the one who brings that team together.
“Henderson does that so-called dirty work that Gabi [Fernandez] did for us, that I have to do, that Koke does. He is an example in so many facets of the game.”
Saul was tipped as the heartbeat of the Spanish midfield for years, but lost his place in the European Championship
He marveled at Liverpool’s intensity, adding: “It’s very hard to escape that pressure when they come at you the way they do. A man comes out and his teammate doesn’t say “where are you going?” He goes with him
“They’re all going. And then when they are flipped, at least seven of them, the four in the back and the three in the middle, all fall back.
“It’s unbelievable, they’re going crazy out there like beasts because they know that even if they lose it, at least seven more will run like crazy to win it back.”
It was praise that bordered on sheer admiration. Having been one of Simeone’s Dogs of War for so many seasons, he could now be ready to run himself into the ground for a new coach. ‘I think that he [Simeone] is the only one who really appreciates my work; that’s why I play almost every minute. He doesn’t just give players minutes,” he said last year.
“He knows I will suffer because I play in positions that are not ideal for me, but he appreciates what I do. I can’t say no to him: he’s the man who gave me my debut, who helped me grow as a player and as a person. I do it for the team.’
He has spoken in the past about his admiration for Liverpool and the way they exert pressure to win the ball
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will also keep an eye on Saul’s future
Saul’s bond with the Atletico coach is strong and so is his bond with the supporters. They know how much he gave for the shirt over the years. He broke a kidney in 2015 against Bayer Leverkusen when he took a kick from Kyriakos Papadopoulos.
He’d had renal colic the previous season, and another blow to the same area meant he had to stay in the hospital for four days so doctors could empty his kidney and reduce the clot that had formed around the bruise.
They will not forget that and so they wish him well whatever he decides to do. It is preferable that he does not encounter them in La Liga if he is playing for another team.
Last week it looked like that was all but certain, but the notoriously difficult swap deal – so many different parties needing to agree on so many different things – means the move to Barcelona is far from done and Premier League supporters are dealing with the situation keep an eye on.
They’ve been eyeing Saul for nearly a decade – if the Barcelona move collapses, he can finally make the switch.
Diego Simeone (left) gave Saul his Atletico debut, but their relationship could end soon