Barcelona are in advanced talks with Atletico Madrid over a potential swap deal that could see Antoine Griezmann move back to Madrid, with Spanish midfielder Saul Niguez going in the opposite direction. The Catalan giants have been in the pursuit of an elite central midfielder for a while now. They had almost secured the dream signing of Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum but saw Paris Saint-Germain hijack the deal at the death.
Niguez has been part of La Liga for almost a decade now. The Spanish midfielder made his league debut back in 2012 and established himself in 2014 after a loan spell with Rayo Vallecano. He has not looked back since, going on to play a pivotal role in Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid revolution. Despite his relatively young age, Niguez has made over 450 appearances since turning professional.
The Spaniard surprisingly signed a nine-year contract with the Colchoneros back in 2017. But his relatively poor form last season, along with the arrival of Rodrigo De Paul, has put the 26-year-old’s Atletico future in doubt. In Saul Niguez, Barcelona have found the perfect alternative for the Dutch midfielder.
Saul Niguez: Barcelona’s Alternative for Georginio Wijnaldum
An All-Round Midfielder
The Spaniard is a bit of everything. He is capable of providing quality on both ends of the field in offence and defence. He can play an advanced or withdrawn role according to the wishes of his manager. A playmaker, destroyer, creator, or as a wide midfielder, Niguez can literally play anywhere in midfield.
A closer look into his statistics reveals how good he is on offence and defence. Niguez has scored 43 goals and made 20 assists in his Atletico Madrid career, averaging 0.2 goals or an assist per 90 minutes. The figures may not be outstanding, but considering Simeone’s defence-oriented style, the figures are impressive. Primarily a central midfielder, goalscoring is not one of his first objectives. Despite that, the midfielder still averages a decent two shots per 90 minutes, with one in two being on target.
Niguez has averaged more than 1000 passes in each of the last five seasons in La Liga at an 80% completion rate. The success rate might be a bit low for an elite midfielder, but it comes down to Simeone’s direct approach. What the numbers do indicate is Niguez’s availability in midfield and his ability to find and exploit pockets of space. The Spaniard also possesses a wonderful passing range and is adept at playing with either foot.
He is also a bit of a risk-taker. The midfielder likes to keep hold of the ball rather than always spray it around. An intelligent player, Niguez has the technique and patience to make timely passes. But, he rarely dribbles past opponents and averages little more than just a dribble per 90 mins.
As mentioned before, Niguez’s biggest advantage is his ability to find and exploit space. Taking into account the 2020/21 La Liga season, the Spaniard made just over 400 touches inside the attacking third, with 58 of them inside the penalty area. Comparing it with the more attacking Joao Felix, you see the midfielder making more touches inside the attacking third and just two fewer touches than Felix inside the penalty area.
Being an all-round midfielder means that the player has to be equally good on both sides of the pitch. Saul Niguez is a tireless workhorse. He has had almost similar touches in both attacking and defending thirds during each of the last five La Liga seasons. The numbers speak for themselves and show the hardworking mentality of the Spaniard.
Niguez averages 2.5 tackles, 1.5 interceptions, and 1.7 clearances per 90 mins in his career. The numbers are more than good to back his box-to-box capabilities. Coming through Simeone’s system, Niguez is also well versed in the dark arts. The midfielder provides a steel backbone to any side that he plays in.
More than his on-the-ball statistics, the Spaniard is equally good off the ball. Playing under Atletico Madrid’s defence-oriented system has seen Niguez develop a better understanding of defending. The midfielder has developed a knack for applying pressure at the right time. He also developed to be better without the ball as he is with it. He is one of those players who does any job depending on what his manager asks of him.
Saul Niguez is a manager’s dream. The Spaniard is capable of playing in around seven different positions. He played as a makeshift central defender in his debut La Liga season while playing on loan for Rayo Vallecano. He has played as a wide midfielder, central midfielder, attacking midfielder and a left-back during his time with Atletico Madrid. There are a handful of players that could play all the positions that he has played in.
It’s more than just the positions. Niguez is a wonderfully talented, intelligent player who has a tactical acumen that allows a manager to deploy him in any position to carry out any set of instructions.
Comparing Saul Niguez and Georginio Wijnaldum
Georginio Wijnaldum and Saul Niguez are similar players. Both are capable of playing in a variety of positions but only Niguez has any experience of playing in defence. Wijnaldum, though, is a much better attacking threat. The Dutch midfielder had over 92 goals and 40 assists by the time he was 26-years-old.
Wijnaldum is a bit safer with the ball and has a better pass completion rate compared to the Spaniard. He is also a risk-free player and hardly loses the ball. Niguez, though, is better in defence, averaging more tackles and interceptions than the PSG midfielder.
Niguez and Wijnaldum have comparable statistics when running with the ball, with Wijnaldum having a slight edge over the Spaniard. Both players are adept at playing as a left-sided centre midfielder in Koeman’s 4-3-3 draw. Both can do the dirty work and have a mentality that can inspire their teammates. But Niguez, being almost five years younger, looks to be a better choice.