Atlético's Saul Niguez: 'We Know How We Can Hurt Liverpool'
As it circles Madrid to the south, the M30 motorway emerges from the tunnel beneath the city and heads north-west across the middle of what was once the pitch at the Vicente Calderón, from box to box. Most of the ground has been demolished but one side is just about still standing, the shell of Atlético’s former home. Thousands drive through daily; occasionally, Saúl Ñíguez joins them. Some days he takes friends, aware it will soon be gone. “I tell them: ‘I scored right here,’” he says. “Seeing it hit you. It’s emotional.”
It is Sunday morning at Atlético’s Cerro del Espino training ground, two days before the game that will define their season and possibly beyond and there is a significance to the scene Saúl is replaying, like something was lost when they left. “Only the main stand remains. My friends say ‘get a photo’ and I think: ‘Leave it there, people will come to see it, they’ll come.’ It’s unique, historic. The club needed to change, grow, and it’s hard to say this because we’re at the Metropolitano, which is more comfortable, but the Calderón was different: the magic it generated, the people. Special.
“I always say my best memory is a defeat. At the Calderón against Real Madrid, we won but we were knocked out. And yet the whole stadium stays, no one goes. There’s a deluge and all the Madrid fans have raincoats on. Ours are just in shirts, soaked and they sing in the rain; support us, console us. And you think: ‘Pfff, how can I ever not give everything for these people?’”
That game in 2017 was Atlético’s last European night at the Calderón, a Champions League semi-final. It hasn’t been quite the same since, the concern now that it may not be just the stadium slipping into the distance. Saúl sees the shift, has suffered from it, but he resists. Atlético were finalists in 2014, quarter-finalists in 2015, finalists in 2016 – “losing that was the worst thing that can happen to you in your footballing life,” he says – and semi‑finalists in 2017, beaten by Madrid every time. Since then, they have not passed a knockout round and few expect them to do so against a team who may have better memories of their new stadium than they do. Liverpool claimed their sixth European Cup at the Metropolitano eight months ago.
That night at the Calderón, Diego Simeone said he wished he could clone players such as Diego Godín and Gabi Fernández, sensing an era coming towards the end. This season, that feeling is even more acute. Both have gone and Saúl feels the absence of his former captain particularly keenly. Six players departed in the summer, including Griezmann and Rodri, and although Atlético spent almost €250m they had their worst start under Simeone. Twelve points behind in the league, out of the cup to third-tier Cultural Leonesa, Tuesday is all that is left.
For the first time, there are doubts about the man who Gazzetta dello Sport depicted as Che Guevara. There is an unusual sense of drift in the stands, although there surely won’t be on Tuesday, and the feeling that Atlético are searching for an identity. It is a disconnect between what they always were and those signings suggest they should be, embodied by João Félix – a slight, creative 20-year-old No 10 who cost €126m. If there was to be an evolution, it remains incomplete. Equally, something of what they were sometimes seems to be missing.
Listening to Saúl, someone is missing, the expression of that identity and the captain who allowed him to play his own game. Saúl knows there is a belief that he has stagnated, no longer the marauding midfielder set to lead club and country. In fact, on some levels he shares it. He also explains it, a hint that he has felt misunderstood, maybe even under-appreciated.
He is startlingly candid about the restrictions of responsibility, being “bored” in some positions. He talks of the “need to enjoy football”, to be “let loose”, released to run, but rejects the suggestion he’s at the wrong club. “A couple of years ago, I could do those things. Gabi’s intelligent and although there are other players [now] who are better technically, he made teammates’ jobs easier. I could play to enjoy it.
“Being Gabi isn’t easy: you have to cover everyone. And although people don’t see it, I do that [now]. I feel I’m doing it well. I have to help: on the left, the right, a lot of positions. The team comes first, even if individually I’m not at the same level as two years ago. I’m leaving parts of my game behind and I don’t know that it’s a good thing because you stop enjoying it. I’d like to focus on one position and improve there, learn.”
Maybe it is the security as much as the frustration that enables him to speak this clearly. “I have a long contract,” he says with a laugh. It runs until 2026, with a €150m (£125m) buyout clause. And, he says: “Simeone is the only one who values my work. I play almost every minute. He knows I suffer in positions that are not ideal for me, but he appreciates what I do and I can’t say no to him. I can adapt to any style and I’m grateful to the club: they’ve treated me like a member of the family since I was very young.”
Besides, if Saúl appears suited to a more expansive game, he also insists: “I don’t think evolution is the path. We have to be what we always were, what allowed us to compete,” he says, his pace quickening into a manifesto, more passionate with every passage. “It’s a hard year, a transition. A lot of important people left. Important people came too but they’re young, people who don’t know the club and need to adapt. You have to feel it, believe in it. Don’t think, go. Day after day after day after day, training, training, training until it’s automatic. And if we die, let it be with our own ideas.”
Saúl is 25, but a veteran now, one of four left from the final in Milan in 2016. If they are to return, they will need him. The Champions League is Atlético’s only target and Liverpool are fearsome opponents that he analyses with depth and nuance. “They have those perros de presa [hunting dogs] in the middle who run, press. It’s not just running for the sake of running. They do things that aren’t normal and it looks disordered but it’s ordered, mechanised,” he says. His kind of football, in other words.
“One comes out here and you think: ‘That’s mad, why’s he there?’” he says, marking positions. “But the other man knows and comes from here. [Jürgen] Klopp said they play with their heart, but it’s planned too. One breaks out to press, wild, but they follow. It’s very hard to escape when they come at you like that. It’s incredible. They press like animals, because they know that even if they get turned there will be seven of them running like mad to get back.
“Liverpool are very complete, a great team in every area [but] they find it hardest when you’re deep because they’re very, very, very good in transition. I watched them against Norwich and if it wasn’t for [Sadio] Mané’s extraordinary control, they don’t win. They’ve won lots of games they could have drawn or lost, which tells you something about what they have inside. It’s not luck. It’s work, sacrifice, not giving up a single ball for lost.”
And it’s frightening. European champions, top of the league having collected 103 of 105 points, there is pessimism in Madrid, but Saúl rebels. What do you do with stats such as Liverpool’s? “You break them,” he says.
“There’s no memory in football: what you did yesterday is no use. We had a good run before Christmas then we fell away and it was hard. People wanted to kill us. Do I think it’s unfair? Honestly, yes. But it’s life. People whistle Cholo, important players; the fans are demanding. If we win two or three games, it’ll change again. We know how we can hurt Liverpool their strengths and weaknesses, and we always compete against big teams. We have to make the most of the home game. There will be an incredible atmosphere, more than ever.”
But the Metropolitan still lacks something. “Yeah, time,” Saúl replies. “There have been few moments like at the old Calderón but it’s a great stadium, they’re great people. It’s about epic games, comebacks, wins, big nights against big teams. That’s what builds the magic.”
The Guardian Sport