9th February 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
Despite Atletico Madrid losing their enthralling contest against Barcelona 2-1, their dogged manager, Diego Simeone, was still unmistakably proud of his team.
"I remember the fact I feel proud of the team I had on the pitch, it was incredible," he said after the game.
"There was a good 10 minute spell from Barcelona, but we controlled the space well, just not the ball."
It must be said, for the first half especially, the Argentine was spot on his assessment. Lining up his team up in a 4-4-2 formation had obviously been a decision he'd put much thought into prior to kick-off, and judging from the way Barca were made to suffer throughout the first 27 minutes courtesy of Atleti's magnificent, systematic pressing, he unquestionably made the right call.
"4-4-2 allows you to press higher, 4-3-3 lets you press and recover. This formation allowed us to get closer to [Sergio] Busquets and when we regained the ball we had more space for [Antoine] Griezmann. The result is not what we want, but the image is what we want."
On top of limiting the impact of Busquets, they also did a brilliant job of cutting the supply line to the likes of Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic when Busquets and Barca's defenders attempted to pass out from the back. Atleti's relentless early barrage just never let Barca settle on the ball, with their in your face pressing giving them little time to execute their passes with the clarity and precision we've become so accustomed to seeing.
Moreover, as soon as a Barca player looked up, Atletico's masterful organisation meant all they saw was a sea of unviable passing options, for the away side were so quick to pick up their marking assignments and get close to their direct opponents. It was a remarkable sight indeed to see such cohesion and adherence to Simeone's plan from his players.
One man who deserves special mention here was Saul Niguez, who Simeone described in his post-match comments as "tremendous".
Stationed out on the right side of midfield, Saul's battle with Jordi Alba served as a fascinating first-half subplot. The honors, however, when both teams were at full strength, definitely belonged to Saul. And not just because he out played Alba, dumping him to the ground in the process, before firing in a delightful cross that Koke duly stroked home to give his team the lead on 10 minutes.
The 21-year-old aggressively harried and harassed his adversary in situations where Luis Enrique's men passed out from the back, which in combination with Juanfran's hard marking of Neymar and Gabi's blanketing job on Iniesta, made life extremely difficult for the home side to get any traction or fluency in their build-up play down this flank.
In addition, Saul further displayed his defensive intelligence by dropping onto Iniesta whenever Barca had possession on the opposite side of the pitch to close off any passing avenues to the gifted midfielder. Crucially, if Barca did manage to successfully cycle the ball over to the Mattress Makers' left, Saul would rapidly jet across and cover Alba, content to leave Iniesta knowing full well that Gabi would shift across to mark him. Although this sort of synchronisation ultimately couldn't be sustained throughout, due to fatigue and the unfortunate red cards, it was a remarkable testament to El Cholo's attention to detail and his players' ability to carry out his message.
Even when Atleti were shorthanded, Saul still worked his socks off, setting a fine example for his colleagues to follow in terms of intensity and work-rate. Once Atletico went down to nine men, after Diego Godin's dismissal, Saul still refused to give up, as he always tracked back to support his teammates, while also operating as a nuisance to the Barca backline by making sharp runs in behind and by using his aerial strength to manfully strive to hold the ball up as he waited for support.
To additionally illustrate his vigorous defensive exertions, look no further than statistics from Whoscored that state he completed an inspirational five tackles, three interceptions and four clearances. Furthermore, although his defensive contribution outweighed his attacking output, the technically proficient Saul still supplied two key passes (including his assist) and made two successful dribbles.
Saul's commitment, both mentally and physically, to the cause was absolutely first-class, putting in a shift that embodied Simeone's philosophy beautifully and once again showed why he's one of the most talented young midfielders in Spain.
Ever since Tiago, who started the season so incredibly well, went down with an unfortunate broken leg, Saul has emphatically nailed down a coveted starting spot in the Atleti midfield, filling the void left by the experienced Portuguese wonderfully.
As a consequence of his promising form, reports have suggested that Manchester United are interested in acquiring his services. Saul's father was quick to squash the rumour, however, saying: "He has always said he wants to succeed at Atletico Madrid. Saul's release clause is €45m. The kid is happy at the club, they are counting on him, the team is doing well."
With this in mind, and considering how well he's developed and matured under the expert tutelage of Simeone, Atletico is clearly the best place for him to continue his career.
Expect Saul's attitude and dedication to his craft to take him right to the top of the sport one day. Working within the confines of El Cholo's Atleti will undoubtedly give him every chance to get there.
Saul Niguez: Atletico Madrid's Superbly Talented Young Midfielder
9th February 2016. By Edward Stratmann.