The World Cup marked the end of an era for Spain. With the international retirement of Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and David Silva after the tournament, they lost a core group of players that had formed the basis for a generation of great success. The loss of Iniesta and Silva in particular left something of a void in their side.
But no other country in world football produces midfielders like Spain does and in Saul Niguez they might already have the man to take on the mantel left by Iniesta and Silva. Of course, this has been apparent for quite some time. Saul has, after all, been a key figure at Atletico Madrid for a number of seasons now. He is hardly an unknown.
His performances in Spain’s wins over England and Croatia, though, underlined the level the 23-year-old is playing at right now. Saul scored in both games as Spain started their Nations League campaign with maximum points. These were big matches and this is where Saul thrives. He has already earned himself a reputation as a big game player.
It was only two years ago that Saul made his debut for the Spanish national team. He didn’t feature at the World Cup in Russia. For any other country, he would be a stalwart by now, even at such a young age. His promise has been clear for years, with Premier League clubs, most notably Manchester United, rebuffed in their efforts to sign the midfielder as long ago as 2014, when Saul spent a season on loan at Rayo Vallecano. But it’s only now, though, that he is being given the platform to show his talents for both club and country.
Maybe Luis Enrique, Spain’s new manager, sees something of himself in Saul. He too was an athletic midfield operator defined by his creativity as much as his drive. Versatility is one of Saul’s best qualities. He can play all the way across the midfield. Diego Simeone has even used him at full back on occasion, that’s how adaptable Saul is.
But the 23-year-old is so good as a midfielder, playing as part of a midfield three that also consists of Sergio Busquets as the anchor and Isco as the intricate weaver slightly higher up the pitch, why would you play him anywhere else unless absolutely necessary? Saul has waited his turn, has played understudy to greats like Iniesta and Silva. Now, Spain could come to revolve around him.
In the same way Iniesta was a reflection of Spain’s footballing philosophy over the course of their golden years, Saul is the embodiment of their new, faster and more furious approach under Enrique. This is a team that isn’t so focussed on keeping the ball, although their technical ability still means they see more of it than most. Instead, Spain are now a side about causing maximum damage.
This was evident in their result and performance against Croatia on Tuesday. The World Cup finalists were comprehensively dismantled by Spain, with Saul the opening goalscorer and a standout performer. The 6-0 scoreline provided an illustration of New Spain, of the team Enrique is building.
Spain are already favourites for many to win the European Championships in two years’ time. Indeed, they are perhaps the only country in the international game who can challenge Spain for squad depth. But football is about much more than names on a sheet of paper. It’s about relationships and dynamics, and Saul is becoming Spain’s dynamo.
Atletico Madrid are expected to challenge for the Liga title this season. They had a good summer, keeping hold of their best players, while adding quality in the transfer market. Atleti are on an upward trajectory again, as are Spain following their World Cup fiasco. What’s the thing that links the two teams, that can be traced over the same lines of progress? Saul.