Manchester City are reportedly closing in on Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez as Pep Guardiola searches for his long-term Fernandinho replacement.
The role of Fernandinho in the Man City side has shot from understated to paramount in recent months, showcased by their loss of form during his time on the sidelines in December – the Brazilian has won more duels (158), made more tackles (52) and won more aerial duels (64) in the Premier League than any other City player this season.
Guardiola confirmed the Citizens have drawn up a four-man shortlist in seeking out his replacement. To truly do this, though, they must bring in a player who is an all-rounder; someone who can shut down opposition counter-attacks, protect his back-four from aerial bombardment and be the passing link between defence and attack.
“I think with the way we play we need a guy who has of course physicality, is quick in the head and reading where our spaces to attack are. As many things as he can do, the better. I know it is not easy to find one player who can do everything.”
Pep Guardiola, on replacing Fernandinho.
It’s all well and good, then, that Saul has become the main candidate to emerge from the shortlist.
The Atletico Madrid man sits second on the club’s charts for tackles (62), duels won (174) and recoveries (152) from outfield players in La Liga this season so far, while – just like Fernandinho – he has also won more aerial duels (72) than any other player at his club.
The 24-year-old is intelligent enough to sense danger from a mile away but robust enough to cut it out once in position. However, as mentioned, City are looking for more than just a primitive destroyer to shield Aymeric Laporte, John Stones and co.
They need someone who can receive a pass from those esteemed ball-playing centre-backs, making sure Guardiola’s men maintain dominance in midfield.
The most adept player in the world at this No.6 role is undoubtedly fellow Spaniard, Sergio Busquets, whose ability on the ball has hit even greater heights since the departure of Xavi from Barcelona in 2015.
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But Saul could easily become a hybrid of the two aforementioned players. During a 2018 interview with El Pais, the Spain international spoke of the Catalan duo as two of his main influences.
“‘Do I give the ball or not?’ Maybe while you’re thinking, that pass has already disappeared and you have to find another pass line,” he said.
“That, Busquets does very well. Xavi was the best because he had the ball and if he did not see it, he would turn again and find another equal pass line.”
Saul did admit that Busquets has the edge when it comes to mental speed but he certainly makes up for that in the physical department.
On the ball, he isn’t quite hitting Xavi-esque levels just yet, but the signs are good. In a Diego Simeone side that often sits in a narrow 4-4-2 and prefers to play their football in the opposition half around Antoine Griezmann, he has still managed to complete 808 passes in La Liga this season – the fourth-highest at the club – while only Koke (195) has played more passes into the final third than Saul (160).
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During Spain’s 2-1 Uefa Nations League win over England last year, Saul played alongside Busquets and Thiago in a three-man midfield and was a dominant force in every sense of the term.
The Elche-born man was the live-wire and point of transition with more touches of the ball (83) than any midfielder on the pitch, while only Thiago (56) completed more passes than Saul (55) in that position.
He dragged Spain forward with two dribbles – only Dani Carvajal completed more – and this, coupled with the late arrival into the box for his goal at Wembley, shows that not only could he indeed be a Busquets-Xavi hybrid, he can also channel an inner-Iniesta when required.
Guardiola has fielded German maestro Ilkay Gundogan in a number of tactical roles this season – including as deputy to Fernandinho – while he also used the Brazilian himself as a pseudo-centre-back during a 3-1 win over Arsenal in February.
Possession is king, flexibility is a must and intelligence is a pre-requisite. Saul ticks every single box.