His name is linked to some outrageous goals. The amazing run against Bayern Munich in 2016, the bicycle kick against Real Madrid in the 4-0 derby and some other stunners with U21 Spain are among the best-known. Yes, he scores some astonishing goals but he also does well in other parts of the game. He is Saúl Ñíguez, a Spanish midfielder (who had played at left-back also this season) born on November 24th 1996 who joined Atlético Madrid on 2008 at the age of 11. After spending a year on loan at Rayo Vallecano, during the 2013-2014 season, he returned home to be an incontestable starter and one of Atlético’s key players during Simeone’s era.
Saul the Spanish midfielder
Saúl is well-known for his scoring ability, long range and accurate shots. The Spanish man scored five goals from his 10 shots during the Under 21 European Championship in 2017. During this season, and while playing in midfield, Saul overperforms in terms of expected goals. He scores approximatively once every five games (0.19 goal/game) compared to his 0.12 xG. Saul has also an average of 1.58 shots per game with over 34% of them on target. In terms of shots attempted and accuracy, he has may have one of the best numbers in La Liga. He surpasses Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Dani Parejo in the average of attempted shots. Only Parejo have a better on target ratio than him.
Moreover, Saúl is generally well-known for his passing abilities. He had 84.4% of his passes being accurate this season. This is quite similar to other Atletico’s midfielders such as Koke (86%) and Thomas Partey (86%).
Though, his most important quality is to move the ball forward. He has this tendency to initiate a new attack whenever he has the ball. He positions himself often in a deeper role than a usual right/left midfielder. Then, he tries to get the ball to his team-mates positioned between the opponent’s lines. He prefers to get the ball on his feet and face the opponent’s midfield line rather than trying to offer pass solutions to the ball holder. Saúl has some convincing statistics here. The 24-year-old midfielder has an average of 14 forward passes per game, 77% of them are accurate. He also sends seven passes to the final third of the pitch with the same accuracy ratio.
Here is Saúl’s heatmap for this season where you can observe his positioning on the field. During Atlético’s attacking phase his influence zone covers zones 10 and 11 of the pitch which corresponds to the space in front of the opponent’s midfield line.
Now let’s have a look at the direction of Saúl’s passes in the midfield and analyse his choice of ball receivers. When he has the ball while being, at the same time, behind the opponent’s first defensive line, he often tries to use one of his partners as “relay point”. He generally, looks for forwards who came in support and attract defenders so he can make a one-two movement or create triangles to progress into released space. Generally, the forward passes are followed by runs. This could remind you of some of Lionel Messi’s signature moves. The Argentinean tries often to make, sometimes forces, one-two movements. The classic one-two with Alba is maybe the best-known.
The final remark about Saúl’s role as midfielder concerns his task and positioning in long balls’ actions. He is always one of the main long ball targets alongside Diego Costa. He stays on the same line as Costa and Griezmann in order to win an aerial duel. Here is an illustration from the game against Rayo Vallecano.
During this season Saúl was often positioned as a left back due to the multiple injuries that occurred. All of Godin, Jimenez, Lucas Hernandez, and Felipe Luis were absent for injury during a certain period of time. Saul had played over 45 minutes at least in eight games as a left-back this season. Well, he did not have the most impressive defensive statistics. He had on average won only one defensive duel over five and one correct sliding tackle over four. When it comes to aerial duels, he had the final word in 50% of them. This may seem not great but it’s quite similar to Atleti’s fullbacks such as Filipe Luis and Arias.
Though, the fact that Saúl has better numbers when it comes to offensive contribution is what can really look like controversial. He had more progressive runs, more crosses with better success ratio (this one seems quite logic) more forward passes, and attempted three times more passes to the penalty box. Here is a comparison of his statistics as a midfielder and as a left back.
Does this mean that Saúl performs better as a left-back? I do not think so. The fact that he has better statistics as a left-back can be explained through several points.
Atlético Madrid is a defensive-minded team who generally have less ball possession than their opponents (47% this season according to Wyscout statistics). The Rojiblancos have an average of fewer than 4.5 passes per possession. They often let the opponent control the ball, especially when they face big teams or even when they lead in the score sheet against weaker teams. This says that the midfielders are often asked to stay close to each other to close gaps in the midfield, to maintain a compact structure while defending on one side of the pitch, etc.
You can say that their attacking role is less demanding than in most of La Liga’s teams. In addition to this Atlético Madrid is a wings-oriented team when it comes to the attacking phase. Here is a picture where you can see the distribution of the Colchoneros’ attacks. As Atlético do not try to have long ball sequences over and above preferring attacks from sides rather than from central lane, it becomes a little bit more understandable that Saúl has better numbers while being on the flanks.
Saúl has proven himself as a multi-functional player with no significant weaknesses. The statistics mentioned above can help to see his varied abilities. He is at the very least as good as any one of his team-mates in the positions where he plays. Though, there are some tactical details where Saul needs improvement. During the offensive phase, and whenever he stays on the cooperation space that is to say considered as a potential receiver, Saúl needs to avoid being cover shadowed.
In the picture below, he was unavailable for receiving a pass despite being well positioned to create a potential danger that he could create if he did get the ball. There is a general lack of movement from Saúl in such situations. He can easily be the right pass option for the ball holder if he stands a bit closer to his team-mate and at the right/left of his opponent.
During the defensive phase, one action caught my attention. There were few moments when Saúl loses sight of his direct opponent. Here is an example from the match against Barcelona that could easily end in a goal.
However, this weakness can be a bit relativised. Atletico Madrid is a team who rarely man marks their opponents’ players. Diego Simeone has implemented a zonal defending system that closes spaces for forwards. If an opponent gets over a defender, his team-mates will come to support him and close down the attacker. This can work pretty good when it comes to stopping forwards’ dribbling. It becomes a bit harder to apply when it concerns the off-ball movements of a certain player. In these situations, if you keep, for example, chasing the ball and forget about the man you look after, any space left at your back can be crucial.
A midfielder, who is able to pass, tackle and run with the ball is a necessity for every top-flight team. If he can save the day with a long-range shot, as Saúl did at several times, it’s even better. It is no secret that the Spanish midfielder piques interest at Manchester City or Barcelona. Though, it is essential for him to progress in terms of passing accuracy, availability on the pitch, identifying pass channels and even ball control. Sure, Saúl has shown great skills in these areas. Though, you cannot progress through multiple levels when building attacks and breaking the opponent’s structure is not your team’s priority. In order to do so, you need to face real challenging situations repetitively both in training and during matches.
Thus, I think that Saúl’s progression from Atletico Madrid to another big club, where he will be asked to build more frequently, will require him to adopt new playing habits and a different style of play.