Chelsea have made minimal signings in the 2021 summer transfer window and it’s left them a little light in central midfield; but that could be about to change.
Yes Romelu Lukaku is a magnificent signing and feels very much like the final piece in the jigsaw in attack, but that ignores the fact football is about more than just the 11 players on the pitch and in order to compete for big titles; a great squad is necessary.
Now, of course, Chelsea have a great squad. One of the best around actually. Marina Granovskaia is one of the best executives in the game today and has assembled for Thomas Tuchel a wonderful group of complimentary players with one key flaw: central midfield.
Well, central midfield depth. Obviously N’Golo Kanté and Jorginho are both world-class and dominant as starters, but the season is long and Chelsea’s level drops clearly when one of them is replaced by Mateo Kovacic. The Croat is a great all-rounder but doesn’t have the complimentary specialisations that make Kanté and Jorginho such a formidable duo, in particular he is a poor replacement for Kanté.
N'Golo Kanté was named UEFA Player of the Match in four out of Chelsea's seven #UCL knockout games last season:
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 26, 2021
Chelsea have other options there but none are great. Yes Andreas Christensen, Trevoh Chalobah or Reece James could step up and play there but, again, not with the pressing ferocity of N’Golo Kanté and besides, the departures of Kurt Zouma and Fikayo Tomori mean that Tuchel will be reluctant to move Christensen from his position as Chelsea’s defensive anchor (alongside Antonio Rudiger).
Mason Mount could also drop back, and while he would press more, it wouldn’t be quite the same and moreover would make Chelsea more open as the Englishman’s pressing in-front of the midfield (and his tracking back to make it a central three without the ball) is also key to the Blues being so defensively robust.
They needed a body in there, but who?
Better call Saul!
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 31, 2021
Five years ago, a 21 year-old Saul Niguez looked like he was going to be the next big thing in Spanish midfielders. Here was a guy who could do it all; tackle, intercept, run, pass, dribble and shoot. Anyone who saw him waltz his way through the Bayern Munich defence and calmly slot it home with his left-foot could have been fooled that they were watching Leo Messi. And yet that same Saul rose into the air like Cristiano Ronaldo a year later to thump home a header and knock Leicester out of the Champions League.
Things haven’t panned out as many hoped for the man who once played in defence for Paco Jemez at Rayo Vallecano (ask your big brother), as he has chafed against the stagnation of Atletico Madrid as well as abuse of his positional versatility by Diego Simeone.
His coach has used him all over the place, rather than letting him pick one position and make it his own. And as a result Saul has never really fulfilled his immense promise. There were rumours he’d join Barcelona or Liverpool earlier in the summer, but those stories faded and he seemed destined to stay at Atleti.
Saúl has now scored in a Champions League semi-final against:
Great start for Atletico. pic.twitter.com/0fdJ6mdYvb
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 10, 2017
But late on deadline day, Matt Law of the Telegraph reports that Chelsea are “cautiously hopeful” of securing him on loan with an option to buy. And suddenly, things are looking very bright for the Blues.
If Chelsea get this deal over the line they will be securing a player of immense potential. Sure, he’s stalled out lately but you don’t lose talent like Saul had. You just need the right coach and situation to harness it.
Saul is unlikely to be a good back-up for Jorginho, that will remain Mateo Kovacic’s domain, but for N’Golo Kanté? Saul has played under Cholo Simeone and Paco Jemez he understands how and where to press opponents, he has the physical drive to do it as well. Since the start of 2017/18, only Casemiro (385) has made more tackles than Saul (374) in all of La Liga.
Moreover, Kanté carrying the ball forward after winning it has become a key feature of Chelsea’s play and guess who can do that too? Saul! And of course what he has that even Kanté doesn’t is an eye for goal. If he’s allowed to play the same way Kanté does, all those shooting positions that the Frenchman wastes or passes up will become goalscoring opportunities under Saul.
If Chelsea can secure the signing of Saul, they would have plugged the only hole in their otherwise impossibly great squad and you would have to consider them the inevitable Premier League champions. Right now if N’Golo Kanté gets injured their whole system loses a lot of its bite, but with Saul on board they would have too much quality in literally every position. They would be unstoppable.