OPINION: Thomas Tuchel went out of his way to protect a much-maligned figure on Friday, but those pleas only further solidify a transfer failure.
“Does he struggle? Yes, he struggles.”
Was Thomas Tuchel’s honest response to questions over the form of Saul Niguez at Stamford Bridge since his summer loan from Atletico Madrid.
“Was he the first player to struggle in the Premier League? No and he won’t be the last one. We protect our players and I will protect our players always.” Tuchel explained in an extended passionate defence of the 27-year-old.
“Is that fair to him? No, also it is not. Put it into context and you will have a more moderate picture and reaction. I understand people are disappointed after yesterday but reactions like this are the reasons why I am not involved on social media.”
That last section on the social media abuse of players is well-founded and persistent, even to players who have performed at extraordinary levels for Chelsea in recent years.
The list of players scapegoated by toxic sections of online fandom is too long to reel out here.
Saul, for all his struggle, should be defended against that behaviour as strongly as any other member of the squad. He is a Chelsea player, a human being and the constant spiral online into more abusive forms of football debate puts soo many off engaging
Though as should always be clear is the distinction between awful things said online and fair criticism.
Saul has played in a Champions League final, won league titles, played for his nation and for several years was recognised as one of Europe’s standout midfielders.
When Chelsea acquired him on loan, even with the noted struggles of his last 12 months for Atletico, supporters expected a base level of decency.
We are not dealing with a rookie, but clearly, a once confident player who has lost his way and is struggling to rediscover what gained him a decent reputation in the first place.
But whatever way you spin it, Saul’s loan has been nothing short of a disaster.
His two Premier League starts against Aston Villa and Watford were cut short within 45 minutes due to similarly terrible performances lacking quality, tactical intelligence or athleticism.
Very little about Saul’s showings in blue can be complimented, with the high ceiling being very average against Zenit to woeful at other times.
You can have sympathy for Saul being thrown onto play an unnatural central attacking role against Everton as Tuchel lacked attacking options due to COVID. But his invisible marking for the set-piece that resulted in Jarrad Branthwaite’s equaliser is hard to excuse.
Chelsea hoped Saul’s loan would bring in a competent fourth choice who could compete with N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho over the season.
For Tuchel’s defence of Saul, the German arguably landed a more damning blow of his player in Friday’s press conference when asked about his midfield options for the trip to Wolves.
“If you want my honest opinion, Jorginho is a doubt because he is in pain. Loftus-Cheek is a doubt because he is in pain. We don’t know if they can travel. We may start with Mateo and N’Golo. It might not be fair or possible on them.”
Stating you would rather risk two unfit players over the one brought in to fill this exact role says enough about Tuchel’s assessment of Saul.
After his 45 minute display at Vicarage Road Tuchel was lost for answers, “I don’t know where he goes from this performance”.
This all takes us back to the summer transfer window where Saul only became a midfield target in the remaining days of it. Very much feeling like a marriage of convenience than the club actively pursuing him as a long-term target.
Although it has been reported by The Telegraph the club’s head of international scouting Scott McLachlan pointed to the fact he had been scouting Saul for at least two years.
The scout championed his talents and “suitability for the Premier League”.
Pauses for thought.
During the summer and previous windows other younger and more permanent options were linked. One from East London the other plays in France, I think you should know both names by now.
But both offered a more concrete and ambitious prospect to truly revamp an area of the pitch many felt needed reforming, even with the Champions League triumph.
Four months into the season and those fears have been realised, a consistent injury headache over N’Golo Kante, causing extra precaution. An extended absence for Mateo Kovacic since October when the Croatian was coming into the best form of his Blues career.
Jorginho has been stretched to breaking point due to the aforementioned loanee not being trusted, whilst the excitement of Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s early-season revival has slightly dwindled.
It was in exactly this situation a new face could emerge and inject fresh energy into arguably the most vital area of the pitch, or at least one that has undermined the Blues Premier League seasons before.
Niguez was supposed to be that figure, but more it feels like the short-term loan made on deadline day has only heightened an issue that should have been resolved in the summer of 2020 under Frank Lampard.
Lampard was a clear advocate for a new defensive-minded midfielder, but the emergence of a new target after Tuchel’s arrival offered the opportunity for the club to pounce on a more fringe name could have been as impactful.
It was clear Chelsea held talks during the summer but even after Monaco’s helpful elimination from the Champions League, it was reported there were fears internally that player wasn’t ready to make such a jump.
Those fears have been realised but with Saul Niguez, a player who looks severely out of his depth at Chelsea and a move that arguably hindered Lampard’s regime might be a sadly defining point in Tuchel’s quickly deteriorating title charge over Christmas.