It was a signing completed with just minutes of the summer transfer window to spare – and one celebrated by Chelsea supporters and championed by the club. “He is a proven winner, a player with huge experience and we know he will be very well-suited to the challenges that face us on all fronts in the coming year,” said Blues director Marina Granovskaia.
The player in question? Saul Niguez, who joined Chelsea on a season-long loan from Atletico Madrid. The arrival of the midfielder was viewed as the final piece of the puzzle. “He completes our squad as we compete for honors in five different competitions this season,” added Granovskaia.
There were several reasons for that optimism. Saul arrived having made 340 appearances for Atletico; his experience at the top level was beyond doubt. Yet he had a point to prove after a difficult 2020/21 campaign at the Wanda Metropolitano in which he had often been shunted out to left wing-back by Diego Simeone.
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At 26 years old, there was ample time and opportunity for Saul to kickstart his career. “It frustrated me to not see what I could achieve on the pitch,” the Spanish international admitted in an interview with Ibai Llanos on Twitch shortly after his move to confirmed. “I was feeling stuck, and now I hope I can unblock myself.”
Two years earlier, Saul was being hailed as the answer as to who followed in the footsteps of Xavi and Andres Iniesta in Barcelona’s midfield. The La Liga giants were linked with a move for the Atletico academy graduate but were quoted £ 100million for his services, a fee they were unwilling to pay.
In the loan that brought Saul to Stamford Bridge, Chelsea agreed to a £ 30million option to make the switch permanent this summer. Had their gamble paid off and the Spaniard rediscovered his best form, it would have been a stroke of genius on the part of the club’s hierarchy. Unfortunately, that scenario did not play out.
Saul’s debut against Aston Villa lasted just 45 minutes before he was brought off. “He was struggling, and I take responsibility for that,” said Thomas Tuchel after the 3-0 win. “It was hard for him to adapt to the physicality and, in general, I had the feeling he struggled with the intensity and pressing.”
After a couple more outings in the Carabao Cup, in which Saul appeared more comfortable in the Chelsea midfield. He was handed his second Premier League start against Watford on December 1. Once more, the Spaniard was brought off at half-time by Tuchel after an underwhelming display.
Off the pitch, Saul settled into the Chelsea squad well. He was close with Spanish teammates Kepa Arrizabalga and Cesar Azpilicueta, the latter of whom offered constant support and reassurance during the midfielder’s difficult early months in English football.
It was not until late December that Saul showed something resembling his true self. And after he looked sharp in the Carabao Cup semi-final first-leg win over Tottenham, Tuchel offered words of encouragement. “It’s an important moment for him, and I have the feeling he digested the experiences at the beginning when maybe he did not expect it like this,” the Chelsea head coach explained.
“He is not the first player to struggle from the switch. What he does is good because he is open and fully focused, totally committed to the team. So I am very happy with his performance. Today was a huge step for him.”
However, after those comments from Tuchel, Saul started just four games in central midfield over the remainder of the campaign, one of which was the dead rubber against Watford on the final day of the Premier League season. It was clear the German did not trust Saul.
He will return to Atletico this summer, having played just 1,209 minutes of first-team football for Chelsea, the equivalent of just thirteen-and-a-half matches. Unsurprisingly, the Blues never made an attempt to trigger the £ 30million option in his loan deal.
“He has a contract with Atleti, and I have no other news,” Aaron Niguez, Saul’s brother, explained in an interview with SER Deportivos last month. “He is Atlético, and everything that is not Atlético sounds strange to him. I do not think he’s ever left 100% of Atletico Madrid. It’s my feeling and my opinion.”
Back at the Wanda Metropolitano, Saul will have the chance to reinvigorate his career. Chelsea, meanwhile, have to count the cost of another mistake in the transfer market; their move for Saul last summer came after it was decided Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni was not ready to make a switch to Stamford Bridge. The Frenchman is now joining Real Madrid in a deal worth up to € 100m. A lesson must be learned.