From unused sub to scorer, Saul redefines Spanish midfielder
BARCELONA, Spain — After patiently waiting his turn, Saul Niguez is doing more than just making the most of it. The 23-year-old Atletico Madrid player is revolutionizing what it means to be a Spanish midfielder.
Saul didn’t play a single minute for Spain at the World Cup. Instead, he watched his country manage only one win in three group matches before losing to host Russia in the round of 16.
But the arrival of Luis Enrique as Spain coach, combined with the retirement from international soccer by Andres Iniesta and David Silva, has given Saul his chance.
Saul started and scored goals in both of Spain’s UEFA Nations League matches. He netted the equalizer in the 2-1 win over England at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, and three days later he scored the opening goal in a 6-0 rout of World Cup runner-up Croatia.
“I have been working very hard on my team to have this chance, and for two years on the national team,” Saul said after the win in London.
After the victory over Croatia in Saul’s hometown of Elche in southern Spain, the midfielder admitted it had been frustrating not getting off the bench at the World Cup.
“I spent a lot of time thinking during the summer, but now is not the time to talk about the past because it doesn’t matter,” Saul said. “Even though I didn’t play, I had an unforgettable experience at my first World Cup.”
Saul made his international debut under coach Julen Lopetegui in September 2016 after he had not been called up Vicente del Bosque for that year’s European Championship. He has made 12 national appearances in total.
Before his strong performances over the past week, Saul started his season in August by scoring a spectacular volley in extra time for Atletico’s third goal in a 4-2 win over Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.
Saul will now hope his scoring run with Spain will carry back over to Atletico when it hosts Eibar on Saturday. Atletico, which finished second in the league behind Barcelona last year, has only one win in three matches and is already five points adrift the defending champions and Real Madrid.
Spain won the 2010 World Cup in between European titles in 2008 and 2012 by deploying its unique “tiki-taka” style, which prioritized keeping possession and picking teams apart with precise passers like Iniesta, Silva and former Spain players Xavi Hernandez and Cesc Fabregas.
But that once-successful formula had lost its unbeatable status before proving completely outdated at the World Cup in Russia. The nadir came when the team, coached by Fernando Hierro at the time, completed more than 1,000 passes — a large portion of them completely harmless — before succumbing to a far-less talented Russia in a penalty shootout.
Luis Enrique has shaken up the team since, putting a new focus on speed, youth and fitness — all qualities embodied in Saul.
All three of Saul’s goals this season were first touches from crosses and culminated quick attacks. He used his left foot to score Atletico’s winner in the Super Cup, his right foot against England, and a powerful header against Croatia.
As Saul defined himself, he is a “player that works hard for the team, and above all a player who arrives to the area looking to score.”
That type of muscular midfielder charging into the box in a second wave behind the forwards is the opposite of the compact, lightweight playmakers that defined Spanish soccer for more than a decade.
While acknowledging that Spain is changing, Saul said the foundations of a team built around a strong midfield — regardless of its strengths — still remains.
“I don’t know what will happen in the future, but Xavi and Iniesta made history with our national team and made us the best team in the world,” Saul said. “What we have coming up now is another type of player, but our playing philosophy is what they and (coach) Luis Aragones established at the start of this run.
“It will be difficult to repeat what they did, but we will try to win a title.”
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