Links have been typically contradictory suggesting Liverpool are, or aren’t particularly keen on Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez. He might not end up joining, but his profile is perfect for the Reds’ eventual midfield addition this summer.
An all-time great at the heart of the Liverpool team, the Dutchman helped win the Premier League and Champions League and had a huge role in the dressing room, captaining the Reds many times and being one of the manager’s trusted lieutenants on the pitch.
Questions have been asked over whether he needs to be replaced, given the other squad options: Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcantara, James Milner, Curtis Jones, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are still plenty of options, numbers-wise, and they could be supplemented by others from the fringes of last year’s squad.
But the short answer is yes, the Reds likely need to fill the void Wijnaldum leaves behind, on both a technical and tactical level.
Saul, currently of Atletico and previously of the Spanish national team, ticks every box going and then some.
Right to look at the left
Why can some of those players not fill Wijnaldum’s job? Well they can, after a fashion, but it would require changes to the team which would upset the general balance of what Liverpool have done for a few years now.
By and large, the No8s in Klopp’s 4-3-3 fulfil marginally different roles on and off the ball, although broadly they do the same jobs: support a high press when possible, cover the full-backs against sustained pressure, join counter-attacks up to the edge of the attacking area, recycle possession midway inside the other team’s half when the Reds can dominate territory.
But the right side is usually the slightly more adventurous, creative and forward-thinking player – that’s where Thiago plays, where Jones starts, Oxlade-Chamberlain drives from, Henderson roves in, Keita gets game time – compared to the left of the pair, which is the more reserved, tactically disciplined, ready-to-sit No8 more often than not. In other words, where Wijnaldum dominated and Milner filled in when that type of extra leadership and coaching was required on-pitch.
As such, it makes a ‘Saul’ more likely than a ‘Renato Sanches’: Sure, Thiago could switch across to the left, maybe even is more dynamic from that channel, but it upsets the balance of the team.
Think of the full-backs: Yes, Trent gets high, but he playmakes from deep as often as he sprints down the wing to cross, whereas Andy Robertson‘s game is the constant, driving race high on the outside to stretch play and create cutbacks. So, in turn, the right eight links and finds space higher in the channel; the left eight sits and tucks in when required.
That makes Saul – left-footed, defensively inclined, tactically astute and yet still capable of being an attacker when the balance of the match calls for it – a perfect candidate to fill the void.
A very particular set of skills, acquired over a very long career
Scary! Especially when you knew you had possession of something Liam- erm, Gini, wanted. Like the ball.
If you let the ball go now he would not look for you, or pursue you, but if you didn’t he would look for you, he would find you, and he would tackle you. And then turn, and turn, and turn again, eventually finding space to surge into, freeing Liverpool onto the counter-attack or backwards to maintain possession.
See, Gini’s ball retention and power to evade challenges was only part of it. Also important was his control of the game: at his best he was just as effective whether the Reds needed to up the tempo and exploit spaces, or kill the game by not letting the opposition have the ball.
His timing in this has often been vital to the Reds, just like his big-game mentality and his willingness to do anything for the team – as is evidenced by the multiple positions he has played when required and his regular availability.
Describe all these traits to any Wanda Metropolitano regular and they’d be nodding along, knowing precisely who it reminded them of.
Saul might be a ‘midfielder’, but it barely scratches the surface of what he has done under Diego Simeone.
The classic Cholo 4-4-2 for a long time saw Saul play in off the right side, coming infield onto his left foot, narrow and hard-working and ready to win the ball as much as use it. Later, with trust and experience, he moved into the middle, dominating games and showing his full range of passing as well as ability to carry the ball across the ground quickly.
But it doesn’t stop there either: he has played at the base of a midfield three for them and as the support act just off the striker.
He has played at left-back and left wing-back with some regularity, too – and before he even broke into the Atleti team regularly, a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano saw Saul thrive as a ball-playing centre-back. Truly, there is little his technical skillset does not allow him to do.
To get the best out of him, give him space and the ball and watch him surge past players, dragging the team up the pitch and finding the right pass at the end. But doing it won’t come at the expense of his positional play, his capacity to fill in for others and his 90-minute-long mission to cover every blade of grass on the pitch.
Add more than we take away
Liverpool never really want to lose good players, but it happens – the trick is then to move on in a slightly better way.
Sometimes, that’s replicating what has left and adding an extra attribute: losing Fernando Torres wasn’t ideal, but replacing him with Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll was, in theory, a solid way to make the revamped attack have a new dimension.
Alternatively, a big departure can simply offer a way to restructure and renew entire methods of play: Philippe Coutinho‘s departure, say, leading to a more fluid attack where creativity and goals were spread throughout.
Saul, then, could do that. Even if you consider him the equal to Wijnaldum in every way, perhaps merely being left-footed makes him an addition, in terms of bringing first-time clipped passes from the channel and added balance on that side of the pitch.
But he isn’t the only one who might be able to offer such a trade-off – Eduardo Camavinga, for example, might bring the technical and physical attributes along with a reduced fee due to his contract situation, plus the long-term possibility of moulding him into the exact type of player Klopp wants for the role.
Others we have been linked with and likely won’t sign – Rodrigo De Paul, Florian Neuhaus, Youri Tielemans – all have their own similarities and differences (perhaps: upgrades) in specific areas which could see a change after using Wijnaldum there for so long.
It isn’t to say they are better, but simply that they offer the change to refresh the manner of dominating the centre of the park and continuing to make it tough for teams to stop Liverpool playing well and winning games.
Saul ticks every box, and then some. If it doesn’t turn out to be him that Liverpool sign, the ideal of what he brings is not likely to be too far from the eventual truth.