Saul Niguez's versatility cost him a midfield place at Atletico Madrid... now the Spaniard is desperate to play in his preferred position at Chelsea as he looks to rejuvenate his career and World Cup hopes
It was before a game against Chelsea in 2017 that Saul Niguez sat down with Sportsmail and told the story of his burst kidney - one that illustrated perfectly what lengths he would once go to at Atletico Madrid to just get in the starting XI.
Saul was in his favoured central midfield position that season and that’s where he started the game against Chelsea. Atletico lost the match 2-1 thanks to a 93rd minute winner from Michy Batshuayi.
They finished third in that Champions League group and they dropped into the Europa League but they won the competition, beating Marseille in the final, again with Saul in midfield.
He got 11 goals that season for club and country and double figures in a campaign looked like becoming the norm as his ability to time runs from midfield and finish well became his signature.
He was just 22-years-old at the time and opened up in that interview with Sportsmail about how a kick from Kyriakos Papadopoulos in a Champions League game against Bayer Leverkusen two years earlier had left him peeing blood and contemplating losing a kidney.
He had been through surgery for renal colic the previous season and the kick in the same area had left him needing four days in hospital allowing doctors to drain his kidney and reduce the clot that had formed around the bruise.
He had an internal catheter fitted but problems lasted into the following year and he admitted: ‘When I stopped using the catheter the kidney was still not working. I was given the option of playing for a month and then stopping for a month and so I said: "This is no good. If you can put the catheter in again and I can function normally then let's do that, but if not then just take the kidney out. It's fine. I've got another one".'
He was persuaded never to take such drastic action by Diego Simeone’s then No 2 German Burgos who was well qualified to advise him because he was a kidney cancer survivor.
That Europa League-winning season with warrior Saul back to 100 per cent fully recovered from his career threatening injury was one of his best for Simeone who seemed to be planning to build his midfield around him long term.
Saul started 35 of the club’s 38 league games meaning no outfield player played more minutes in the domestic competition.
But Simeone’s preference for having plenty of central midfielders in his squad has always meant that some have been pushed out into the wide midfield positions to accommodate others.
That season it was Koke shunted to the flank with Saul and Thomas Partey in the middle. But things did not stay that way.
In subsequent seasons it wasn’t so much that Saul underperformed in the middle but that he was better than most at moving out wide. He became a victim of his own versatility.
In the 2018-19 season Rodri was signed from Villarreal and the now-Manchester City midfielder made one of the centre midfield positions his own. Saul’s capacity to adapt meant that often it was Thomas Partey alongside Rodri and Saul and Koke played wide. It was, in effect, a midfield of four central midfielders but two had to start in front of the full-back.
Saul was slowly moving away from positions where he could make those runs and show the finishing prowess that gave him nine goals in 25 Spain Under 21 matches – scoring form he took into the senior national team.
He would move even further away from the opposition’s goal when, in the 2019-20 season, he began to be used by Simeone at full-back. Reliable veteran Felipe Luis was in his last season and his replacement Lodi needed time to settle in. Again, no outfield player played more minutes than Saul but he was increasingly becoming the player who could fit in anywhere.
Simeone always saw it as his greatest quality. Whenever he had a problem he called Saul. He told Diario AS this summer: ‘Last season he [Saul] spoke with us about his need to have a place in the team where he felt important but I consider Saul’s importance comes precisely from his ability to play in so many different positions. He and those around him seem to see it as something negative.’
In that last season Simeone was speaking about, Saul had a new string to his bow playing at left wing-back, again not because he was not good enough in centre midfield but because Simone had his usual army of central midfielders and he saw Saul as a better option at left-wing-back than Lodi, who had been signed to play there but was struggling for consistency. That might have been a compliment to Saul’s ability but it did nothing to help his international career.
This summer he was left out of Spain’s Euro 2020 squad and had to watch on television as Pedri and Koke joined Busquets in Spain’s midfield. He blamed having played too much of the season out of position for being overlooked.
There was always respect for Simeone. ‘I think he is the only one who truly values my work; that’s why I play almost every minute,’ he once said and it was true that few players were given more time on the pitch – but in the end it was too much time in zones where he felt he could not really influence the game in the way he wanted to.
There are no 100 per cent guarantees from Thomas Tuchel but Chelsea’s squad does not have the same overbooking in terms of box-to-box central midfielders nor the same paucity of options at left-back and left-wing-back.
Tuchel has not promised Saul a starting berth in midfield but he has said that is the position he will train through the week, that’s where he will be competing to play.
He knows it wont be easy with Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante and Jorginho for competition but he wants the chance to compete where he feels he belongs.
He wants to train day in day out in the position he made his own when he first broke through at Atletico and that he first occupied when he debuted for Spain.
The Spanish are yet to settle on a first choice midfield as they battle to make the Qatar World Cup. Valencia’s Carlos Soler has emerged to challenge the three who played the Euros and Marcos Llorente is also vying for a place.
Again it’s tough competition but as he enters his prime Saul wants a fair fight with the shackles of fitting in where it best suits the team, removed for good.
Complaints from young players about ‘not being played in their position’ are sometimes born of a sense of entitlement – they have had teams built around them as they have come up through youth categories and then can’t take having to adapt in order to stay in the team.
That’s never been Saul’s story. He had the stomach for a fight right from the start – be it playing through that serious kidney problems, or filling in wherever Simeone wanted him.
But at 26 he wants the chance to become a specialist. He and Tuchel have a year together to see if they can make it work. Chelsea and Saul's Qatar World Cup ambitions will benefit if it does.