A Jekyll and Hyde performance from Chelsea against Wolves seemed to hinge on one key aspect: the introduction of Saul at half-time.
Bruno Lage’s men were the dominant force in the opening 45 minutes, restricting Chelsea to zero shots on target as a depleted Thomas Tuchel side looked disjointed and dispirited heading into the tunnel, with Trevoh Chalobah struggling to get to grips in an unusual midfield role.
That tactical manoeuvre was not an experimental decision from Tuchel but one of necessity, as a number of his typical midfield units were either returning from injury or unavailable. There were even question marks as to the full fitness of N’Golo Kante, who only recently returned from a knee injury and started here.
Chalobah, who collected a booking in the first half with a reckless lunge after conceding possession, was withdrawn at half-time. In his place, Saul was introduced, a character who has been an intriguing source of debate on the Stamford Bridge terraces… and not a positive intrigue.
There is a fall-from-grace aura about Saul these days. A midfielder once reportedly courted by Pep Guardiola for Manchester City given his passing precision, dribbling virtuosity and intelligent positional play, has since looked like a fish out of water since trading Atletico Madrid for Chelsea.
In the fleeting opportunities Chelsea fans have seen the Atleti loanee play, he has looked a shadow of his former self, unable to acclimatise to the hustle and bustle of Premier League football; at times laden-footed as though trudging through treacle — a direct contrast to his once fleet-footed ways in Madrid.
However, in the thick fog of an English December in the West Midlands, Saul was a beam of light. Chelsea looked a different beast in the second half with his introduction. There was an authoritative air about their pressing, retention of possession, and almost an arrogance about their style.
Wolves did not have a single shot in the second half. From creating moments and clear-cut opportunities in the first half, notably Daniel Podence’s marginal disallowed goal and Leander Dendoncker’s scuffed free header, to not a sniff at Edouard Mendy’s goal after the restart.
Saul, for his part, came on and made more interceptions (three) and tackles (two) than any other Chelsea player, despite playing just 45 minutes. His 91% passing accuracy was the best of any non-defensive player on the pitch (goalkeepers included), while he managed nine final-third entrees, the third-most of any Chelsea player.
Those are mightily impressive numbers for a player who just entered the turf, not least when players like Kante, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic played the full 90 minutes. Saul was almost Jorginho-esque in the way he circulated the ball across the turf.
Of course, there were one or two jittery moments when Saul conceded possession, one or two moments of daydreaming when Wolves’ press capitalised on the Spaniard’s lackadaisical movement and careless reading of the game, but for the most part the positives massively outweighed the negatives.
Saul didn’t have to do much for this to be marked as an improvement. He has set the bar so low that even five successive passes would be deemed a breakthrough. But, this was a showing of real intent and purpose. He was thrown into a hugely-intense game, and he held his own (and then some).
He was the ‘heart and Saul’ of Chelsea’s midfield in the second half. If he can completely eradicate the sloppy moments, he will be a huge asset to Tuchel. Is this just the beginning of Saul finally coming good?
Time will tell. Forty five minutes is not a sample size worth overanalysing, but it was a huge, huge improvement, and Chelsea’s own second-half improvement coincided with his showing. Tuchel will be hoping this is a breakthrough moment for Saul.