With Manchester City's search for a defensive midfield lietenant now approaching a two year lifespan, it has been a breath of fresh air to see credible links made between the club and Saúl Ñiguez of Atlético Madrid. As one of the brightest talents of Diego Simeone's blockbuster team, we take a look at how this Champions League finalist could be the right man for Pep Guardiola's City team.
It is certainly no secret that City are in the market for a tireless, physical holding midfielder to fill the boots of aging club legend, Fernandinho. The Brazilian's critical role in Pep Guardiola’s scheme needs no explanation. Indeed, it is hugely difficult to imagine a world where City are Premier League champions, centurions, and two-time Carabao Cup champions without Fernandinho’s presence, not just on the pitch but also as a dressing room leader and mentor for the likes of Gabriel Jesus. His importance to the squad simply cannot be overstated.
Sadly, father time is undefeated, and as injuries mount and Fernandinho creeps ever-closer to his mid-thirties, City are wise to be prophylactic in their management of midfield depth.
In the wake of highly-touted target Frenkie De Jong’s $75 million departure to Barcelona, names like Lyon’s Tanguy Ndombele, West Ham’s Declan Rice, and Atlético Madrid’s Thomas Partey have been most frequently floated as possible successors to Fernandinho's throne. The rumour mill continues to turn though, as City's quest to find a successor for their Brazilian bastion approaches over two years.
However, a less common rumor has gained momentum in the last few days as ESPN FC has reported that City are willing to offer Atlético Madrid upwards of $80 million for their 24-year-old Spanish midfielder, Saúl Ñiguez.
Here are three reasons that City should go all-in on the young Spaniard...
Pep Guardiola is arguably the most demanding manager in world football. He mandates that players buy into his system and, in doing so, expects that his top players will adapt to the needs of the squad and at times play out of their favored position.
Name a player in City’s squad, and it’s likely that they have, at some point in time, played well outside of their preferred role. Whether it’s Stones and Bernardo in the midfield or Laporte and Zinchenko at left-back, the most successful players (at least in terms of match minutes) in Pep’s system are those that have internalized his tactics such that they can play out of position and still help the squad win matches.
Saúl brings with him the type of versatility that could pay huge dividends for Pep’s City squad. Obviously, with Fernandinho out, Saul will most likely slot into the holding midfield role. However, if Ferna is fit, Saul can just as easily move up the pitch and play a more attacking role. If David Silva picks up a knock, Saul can pull the strings in his absence. Heck, at this point it wouldn’t come as much of a shock to see Saul at left-back (a position which he has played for Atlético this season).
The point is, while other rumored transfer targets seem more one-dimensional in their defensive midfield roles, Saul has a certain flexibility to his game that I believe would be an excellent fit for Pep’s tactics.
While Saul may not quite have the same youth as other transfer options such as Declan Rice (20) and Tanguy Ndombele (22), he certainly has the comparative advantage in big-match experience. Saul was named to Spain’s World Cup squad in 2018 and has consistently featured in high-profile European matches, including a Champions League semi-final clash against Bayern Munich (in which he scored), the subsequent Champions League final against Real Madrid, and last year’s Europa League final (which Athletico won).
Declan Rice, meanwhile, has never played in any European competition and has only just received his first call-up to the England national team. Ndombele does have some experience with Lyon on the European level, but was left out of France’s World Cup squad and has only one senior team appearance to his name.
Ultimately, what’s clear is that despite being slightly older, Saúl has incredible experience for a 24-year-old. City will undoubtedly continue to fight for Champions League and Premier League glory in the coming years, and this sort of big game experience could be hugely beneficial. Not to mention, at the moment Pep Guardiola is only contracted through 2021. Bringing such youth and inexperience as Rice might prove fruitless if City are forced into a tactical switch under a new manager.
The Gündogan Situation
Much to the delight of City fans, Ilkay Gündogan has churned out some magnificent displays in recent weeks, often filling the Fernandinho role to great, albeit different, effect. With a more nuanced passing style akin to a 'regista', the German has warranted the cult nickname 'Silky Ilkay' with his ability to thread acute moves together without a moment's hesitation.
Things off the pitch, however, are not running quite as smoothly. If recent weeks are any indication, Gündogan is proving troublesome in his new contract negotiations, as the 28-year-old might be keen on a move away from Manchester as he approaches the twilight of his career, possibly to see out the rest of his footballing career in Germany or alongside former boss, Jürgen Klopp.
Gündogan has been cautious in commenting on his expiring contract, particularly in his pre-Schalke press conference where he was quoted saying, “I’m always open-minded for challenges but it is a personal situation. Everyone has to make their own decision. At the moment I try to play as well as possible and at the end of the season we are going to talk again.”
With Gundogan’s future at City far from certain, the acquisition of Saúl Ñiguez makes even more sense because, as mentioned, he can play a myriad of midfield roles and would provide an injection of youth into the standard central midfielder role, if forced to play there.
In short, I believe that Saúl Ñiquez might be the ideal fit for a City squad in search of youth, experience, and the flexibility to play multiple positions of need in Pep’s system. With multiple Financial Fair Play investigations allegedly underway and possible transfer bans looming, City should jump at this opportunity to sure up their midfield depth for the coming campaigns.
What do you think, Blues? Is Saul en route to the Etihad?
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