The path between Stamford Bridge and Madrid has been much travelled in recent years, by Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata, by Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, by Mateo Kovacic and now Saul Niguez.
If Chelsea have had a profitable business trading with Real and Atletico Madrid of late, they look positioned to benefit from borrowing.
If Niguez was one of the last signings of the transfer window, there are reasons to suspect he may prove one of the best. For a loan fee, Chelsea acquired a La Liga winner at his prime: at 26, Niguez has made 340 appearances for Atletico. The option to make the move permanent next summer means there are parallels with the try-before-you-buy deal for Kovacic; coincidentally, the newcomer has taken the Croatian’s old No 17 shirt.
He fills a gap in an otherwise enviously strong squad. Thomas Tuchel has two players for virtually every position, but there was a vacancy for a fourth midfielder for the dual roles that give the defence so much protection and the team so much control. Given N’Golo Kante’s increasingly regular absences, it was imperative it was filled.
And Niguez has the characteristics to settle in. Playing for Diego Simeone’s Atletico rendered him an un-Spanish Spanish midfielder. He won the most tackles in La Liga in 2017-18 and the second most two seasons later. He has ranked highly for pressures and blocks. His efforts off the ball, coupled with his work ethic and his positional discipline, render him a Tuchel-type player.
That Simeone, normally a fervent believer in 4-4-2, played a variant of 3-5-2 for much of last season, gave him a grounding in a variant of Chelsea’s favourite formation. Niguez does not bring the startlingly high pass completion rates Kovacic and Jorginho offer but, compared to the Italy international, he is less of a regista and more of a worker.
“I am a team player,” Niguez said last week. “I always play for the team. I could define myself as a box-to-box midfielder. I like defending when needed.” Atletico’s twin defeats to Chelsea in Europe last season underlined their attributes to the newcomer. “When a team wins the Champions League you can tell how strong they are but when you face them, you realise how hard they work,” said Niguez, who started both legs.
He is a better fit for the deeper role than the more attack-minded Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who both look likely to be marginalised. Chelsea’s otherwise largely successful window ended with both trapped at Stamford Bridge, with Barkley deprived even of a squad number.
Niguez starts as fourth in line when two of those ahead of him, in Kante and Jorginho, are being touted as potential Ballon d’Or winners. “The three midfielders who are playing are at a high level,” he said this week. “It will not be easy to play, but if I put my mind to it and fight it, I can get it.”
But Kante came off at Anfield with an ankle problem. Chelsea face seven games in 22 days, with some – against Tottenham, Manchester City and Juventus – in particular the sort that requires a high-class alternative who can be parachuted in if needed.
The sense is that Niguez ticks every box. Perhaps he needed a fresh start: a talisman for Simeone was benched at times last season. But, as Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta illustrate, Tuchel shows a capacity to revive careers.
A battle-hardened warrior who comes equipped with tactical nous should suit him while a midfielder who said his two ambitions were to make history with Atletico and play in the Premier League has realised one already. The other could happen against Aston Villa on Saturday.