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Better Call Saul? Man United’s Midfield Conundrum

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The transfer window isn’t even open yet and the current season hasn’t even finished, but Manchester United have already been rumoured to a whole host of names over the past few months. One of the most recent names to have been resurrected is Saul Niguez, who has been intermittently linked with the club for the past few years.  

The latest in his situation is that although many believe Atletico Madrid might need to sell, given the financial impact of coronavirus, the reported cut-price may now be out of the question.

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Whilst there seems to be no issue surrounding wages, there is a £135m release clause in Saul’s contract – it is up to United to decide whether to go big, or divert their attention elsewhere.

Shades of Ander

So, what is he like as a player? Well, first off, I have long been an admirer of Saul – in fact, upon the departure of Ander Herrera (an extremely ill-advised decision, in my opinion), the Atletico midfielder was one of the first names that popped into my head, and there is plenty more correlation between the two.

Like Herrera, Saul is a player I would describe as absolutely everywhere: he is just as good at breaking up play as he is creating it, and it is this duality that reminds me of him.

When he arrived at United, Herrera was very much brought in as an attacking midfielder, but under both Louis Van Gaal’s and Jose Mourinho’s regimes, he dropped into a deeper, more defensive role. He excelled in this capacity too, the best example of which being his iconic man-marking job against Eden Hazard in 2017.

Mercurial Man

This is one of the first comparisons to be drawn with Saul, as although he technically operates as a more defensive midfielder, you still see plenty of moments when he unleashes his innate, attacking flair. He is an extremely dynamic player: more of an amalgam of a six and eight than any outright sweeper or box-to-box midfielder. This is mainly down to Diego Simeone’s extremely tactical setup.

Although the base of the formation has largely been a 4-4-2, they combine compactness and well-drilled defending, with adaptability; they are adept at switching approaches mid-game and Saul is at the heart of it. Whilst he may not be quite as dogged and, perhaps, old-school as Herrera, he certainly gives off the same kind of tenacity.

Moreover, whilst I thought Herrera was always excellent at reading the game and dictating the tempo, there is no doubt that Niguez has those qualities and, arguably, more than his Basque counterpart.

The most exciting aspect of his game is his dribbling ability – a thrives in picking up the ball from deep and running at players at full tilt—sometimes to his detriment. Regardless, even with the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba (for who knows how much longer), United still need a midfielder that is willing to drive with the ball and take risks, and you only need to see a few of his solo slaloms to know he ticks that box. 

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What’s more is, he does all of this at a greater pace than Herrera and with more frequency. Aside from a few extra goals for Atletico B and during his loan spell at Rayo Vallecano, Saul has notched 38 goals and 18 assists since 2013. These might not look like astronomical numbers, but it’s still an impressive tally from a defensive midfielder who didn’t cement his first-team spot until 2015.

Too many cooks spoil the broth

There is no doubt Saul would bring a great deal of talent to the table, the problem comes in rotation and United’s, still, somewhat unclear squad size at the start of the 2020/21 season. Of course, I am all in favour of competition for starting places – something United haven’t truly had a healthy version of for some time – but should we sign the likes of Grealish and Pogba decides to stay, a number of players would have to be dropped.

For instance, Fred and Scot McTominay, two of United’s best performers this season, would effectively default to fourth, fifth, maybe even sixth choice, depending on the system. Once again, strength in depth is key, but this level of competition over what is just one or two central/defensive midfield positions, seems rather unsustainable. This only gets more complicated when you take into account the forward line and the prospective arrival of Jadon Sancho

It seems to be every Red’s dream to have a front three of Rashford, Martial and Sancho. However, that would most likely be in a 4-3-3, meaning there would be even fewer spots than, say, a diamond, that might better accommodate a sudden wealth of midfielders. Therefore, the dilemma is whether to change systems just for the sake of squeezing new additions, or simply shoehorn new players at the expense of others who many might feel have more than earned their starting spot.

Like so many things at United these days, a lot of this depends on Paul Pogba. One moment the club are hopeful he will sign a new contract, the next he is still Real Madrid bound. Whatever the truth may be, I believe the outcome of this deal will hinge on his future and, should both manage to sign contracts at United, I fear it might cause more problems than solutions. 

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To summarise, whilst this move would be fantastic if everyone was prepared to fight for their spot every week, in reality, I think it is one too many players battling over too few positions to keep happy. Once again, squad depth and rotation is great – especially when you’re stretched across multiple competitions – but I think this situation might involve too many marquee signings and too many egos to remain tenable. As much as I love Saul, I think Sancho and Grealish would be plenty.

Agree? Think someone else should be on United’s list of targets? Let us know in the comments.

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