Saul is the 'future' not just for Atletico Madrid, but for Spain too
Jose Antonio Niguez, "Boria," spent nine years in three different divisions at the Martínez Valero stadium, scoring over 50 times for Elche: a man who, in his own words, would "bust his soul for a goal."
His eldest son Jony, who is 33, plays there now: he scored on Thursday night as Elche went through to the next round of the Copa del Rey. And his second son Aaron, 29, plays for Real Oviedo but has been at Elche too: he helped bring them up to Primera for the first time in a quarter of a century, playing there for a year before heading to Portugal.
Like Jony and Aaron, Jose Antonio's youngest son was born in Elche on Spain's east coast and is an Elche fan. He has a tattoo of Our Lady of Elche, another of the church near the home where he prayed and where he played, and another of the city's famous palm groves, which are unique in Europe. Inked on his arm is another: a badge, half-Atletico Madrid and half-Elche. Saul, 23, is a season ticket holder at the Martínez Valero too, but had never scored there... until this week.
On Wednesday night he did what he does so well, dashing into the area, arriving late to score, his header thudding down off the turf and into the net.
Saul says he will play for Elche "one day" but this wasn't this day. He has a contract at Atletico Madrid until 2026 and says that there's a reason for that: he is not planning to leave any time soon. He had been to the Martínez Valero once before, in the Copa del Rey in 2017, when he admitted that he'd felt a little "tense" in the hours building up to the game against the team he supports; on Wednesday, he was playing for the Spanish national team. If he was tense, he didn't look it. He rarely does.
Listening to him talk, he rarely sounds it either: there's a conviction about him that's striking.
"It will be special," he'd said before the game. Standing there, arms aloft before the supporters having scored, it felt more special than even he had dared imagine. "I'm very proud," said his dad, who was back in the same ground two days later watching Jony score in the same goal at the same end.
When he was little, Saul played with Aaron, five years his elder. That's part of it, he thinks; part of what made him the player he is. Watching Aaron and Jony is part of it too, looking and learning from them up close, introduced to the good and bad of the game.
Aaron was some player. Saul followed him closely: he was a skilful no. 10 at Valencia, wanted by Barcelona. "Chelsea were interested... everyone was," Saul recalls. But Aaron tore knee ligaments and it went from everything is wonderful to no one is interested. Saul pleaded with his brother to get back to his level, to work hard and fight to be a footballer again, and at the highest level. But it was all he could do, he replied, to get back to playing at all. Aaron had played for Spain at the U-21 level. A U-19 European champion in 2007, he was the creative heart of his team but he never earned a senior cap.
Saul was always going to be good; he knew. Being the youngest helped, accelerating his development. He was 15 when the first offer came from the Premier League -- it was to play first team football. He made his debut at 17, and he played for Spain at every level from U-16 up, like his brother Aaron. A European champion at the U-19 level, a runner-up with the U-21s, winning a golden boot from midfield, unlike Aaron he's now played 12 times for the absoluta, the latest coming at his "home" ground.
But it's not just that he has played for them; it is that he looks set to lead them. And lead them now.
This summer, Saul sat on the bench at the World Cup, watching as Spain were knocked out. He had publicly questioned the decision to sack Julen Lopetegui and didn't play a single minute, but he says the two things are not related. Under new manager Luis Enrique, he started both games -- against England at Wembley and vs. Croatia in Elche -- and in both of them, he scored the opening goal. Both times, he arrived in the area, his timing impeccable, to provide the finish.
With those goals, many have seen the image of a new Spain and a shift in style. "Llegada" is the word most often applied to Saul: the ability to arrive from deep. A player in the mode of Bryan Robson, David Platt or Frank Lampard, to cite just the English parallels.
"Timing is the basis of everything," he has said. He says he can see the space, the moment, the opportunity opening in front of him: "that's where I have to go, there's a goal there," he tells himself. It is, he says, a question of legs and eyes: the vision to see it and the athleticism to make it.
Diego Simeone told Saul before one game that it didn't matter much if he didn't have a lot of contact with the ball. "Don't touch, just enter," went the apocryphal line. The attack goes one side, Saul arrives from the other. That was a while back, admittedly, and it works: over the past two years, no Spaniard has scored more Champions league goals and some of have been astonishing, too. Luis Enrique this week said: "He's a player I like a lot; he doesn't only have great technique, he also has an extraordinary physique."
Asked if Saul was like he had been as a player, Luis Enrique replied "Nah... and anyway, he'd be a much-improved model."
Many have suggested that Saul is the model of the new Spain: Luis Enrique's Spain. He's tall, strong and aggressive, willing to shoot from distance, more dynamic and more direct. Vertical, they call it. The very fact that he plays for Atletico can seem to identify him as something different, as if football is entirely binary. This week, Pep Guardiola recalled the moment that Simeone came to watch his Barcelona side train and afterwards said: "Nah, that [bit] is not for me; I don't like it," which, Guardiola said, is great. That's a point worth making here too.
Another word that's been used a lot is matiz: nuance. And that's the thing: some have presented Saul as a break from Spain's identity but this is nuance and also isn't new. Not entirely, at least. It might be a rupture for some, but it is a restoration for others. Either way, it's better to call Saul. With time, Spain might be what he decides it is. Maybe he will have to define his role in order to define Spain's play.
In the meantime, Saul has a role to define at Atletico too. Or perhaps he doesn't; maybe that's the point? His leadership for Spain, who did not call up Koke for the first time in five years, will only increase the sense that he's ready to take an extra step with Atletico, where he has already grown indispensable albeit in a different role. Where does he best fit? Right or left (neither of which have tended to be very right or very left at Atletico)? Forward or back? And how, anyway, are Atletico going to play?
Simeone has shifted too, inclined towards a midfield three like Spain. There, Saul can play either side. Atletico's difficult start to the season -- they're already five points behind Madrid and Barcelona -- also plays a part here. Will they stick? Or will they, as we have seen in previous seasons, get back to what they know? And where would Saul fit then?
The answer, on some simple level, is anywhere. Rather than a place, he seeks to be the protagonist. At Rayo he played as a centre-back. He admitted that he too often found himself out of position when he played in a deep central role, dragged forward by the desire to get forward. He was lured by the pull of the penalty area, the "anxiousness" (his word) to do more than he should. Yet Julen Lopetegui had prepared him to replace Sergio Busquets when needed and on those occasions when he has played there, he has impressed. "Better to have one player uncomfortable than four," Simeone said when Saul lined up as a full-back last year.
And so, because the team needed it, he did it. Saúl might have been uncomfortable, but he did it and well.
"He has all the qualities to be one of the best midfielders in the world," Simeone has said. The question mark may be whether "to be" should be replaced with "and is." Is he prepared to wait? At what point do his needs become the team's needs? At what point they should play for him, for their own benefit? "They say players peak at 28; I wanted to be there at 22, 23," he says.
There was once a conversation with his Spain U-21 coach in which he underlined the need to be released, free to head up the pitch. It was better for all of them. Could that be usefully replicated now? There's a question: whether he should be released or whether he's better within more reduced parameters, concentrated in certain areas and on certain things. Should Saul specialise when it comes to his skills? He can do it all and with time, all the more so: there is talent but there is also the temperament and intelligence to learn. But should he?
"All" includes the qualities to do Spain do, too. In an interview with El Mundo before heading to Wembley, Saul insisted that Spain play the way they do -- understood as a possession game of touch and technique -- because it suits them. Atletico, he said, play in a totally different way but that's because that suits them too. He believes he suits both. Atletico and Spain. Opposite ends, or so it's assumed. But the same man in the middle.
For all the talk of Spain breaking from the past, Saul embraces it too. It's worth revisiting an interview with him in El Pais from March, a profound analysis and description -- above all, an appreciation -- of Busquets, a deep understanding of everything he does. The talk of timing, space and decision making, the thought process, the positioning, the calculation, could have come from Xavi Hernandez, the ultimate ideologue. But this was Saul talking: another thing he does well, incidentally.
It was Koke who was thrust forward as the new Xavi but who never quite fit. Could Saul be that heir instead? Can he do some of what Andres Iniesta did? It is their positions that Saul has taken so far in his career and no, they are not the same but there can be some similarities. Against Croatia, the ball came through him 88 times; this isn't a player just waiting to arrive, it's a player who is there too. Everywhere. "He knows how to read the game, he's good in the air and very intelligent: he's a complete player," Luis Enrique said.
In that El Pais interview, Saul talks of three players above all: Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets. David Silva is also studied and praised. Saul talks about how when he plays in Busquets' role, he has to think, that the mental fatigue is great, whereas for Busquets it "comes naturally."
Great, but not insurmountable. He's tough too, hard as hell, determined as they come. Saul played with a catheter; for two years, after every game and every training session, he literally pissed blood. He told a doctor to just take his kidney out as he just wanted to get on with his career. He demanded more from his brother and, above all, from himself.
"Saul is buenisimo," Simeone said this week. "He can be whatever he wants to be."
Maybe, one day, even what he always wanted to be: an Elche player.