Tuchel’s Saul conundrum: Richard Buxton
Spaniard joined Blues to play in midfield, but may be needed on the left for now
Shying away from a challenge has never been in Saul Niguez's nature.
Fearlessness defines the Spanish midfielder; even a burst kidney did little to stop him from continuing to perform at the peak of his powers.
That is unlikely to change despite the Atletico Madrid player's imperfect start to a season-long loan with Chelsea.
|CHELSEA||ZENIT ST PETERSBURG|
Saul's deadline-day switch to the reigning European champions was driven by a desire to rediscover himself, after being shunted from his preferred central midfield role at the Wanda Metropolitano.
But a gap year at Stamford Bridge is arguably a more difficult route to redemption.
His Blues debut in Saturday's 3-0 win over Aston Villa went as flawlessly as Romelu Lukaku's attempt at a knee-slide celebration after he had opened the scoring.
Mateo Kovacic's ability to play his way out of danger from Saul's undercooked pass teed up the Belgian and spared his new teammate near-certain embarrassment and scrutiny.
The Spaniard was regularly indecisive and spluttering in possession. Blues boss Thomas Tuchel had to take him out midway through his botched English Premier League bow.
The German tried to paint the decision as an act of salvation, one designed to protect Saul's fragile confidence.
Chelsea's desire for more control in midfield, however, was a stronger motivation. It was typified by Villa's failure to build on their first-half momentum once Jorginho took his place.
As his side begin their Champions League defence against Zenit St Petersburg tomorrow morning (Singapore time), Tuchel faces another head-versus-heart conundrum.
Necessity forced him to hand Saul a baptism of fire in facing one of the English top flight's most upwardly mobile opposition. N'Golo Kante struggled to shake off his recent ankle injury and Jorginho had just returned from a triple-header of games in the international break.
The importance of the Italian midfielder, also the newly crowned Uefa Player of the Year, has never been greater for the west Londoners than it is now, even with Maurizio Sarri's excessive dependence on him.
Saul's arrival late last month hinted at a potential changing of the guard that would have the Jorginho-shaped void suitably covered when the time came for an eventual phasing-out.
A Group H opener that promises to be a more leisurely affair than Sunday's London Derby with Tottenham Hotspur affords Tuchel a two-fold luxury of trialling that theory and not prematurely thrusting the Italian midfielder back into the spotlight.
With Kante set to miss the match, the Chelsea boss could field a more familiar midfield of Kovacic and Jorginho, denying Saul a second chance to impress, unless he can accept playing outside his comfort zone.
Ironically, versatility was his great undoing at Atletico as it granted Diego Simeone a licence to deploy him in wider roles so others could occupy his preferred central berth.
Tuchel might be forgiven for considering whether the Argentinian knew better than his latest recruit, who grew frustrated with being a utility man for the Spanish champions.
Chelsea's penchant for lining up in a 3-4-3 and Saul's experience on the left side of midfield, albeit under protest, offers a diversity of options to their current repertoire.
Only the 26-year-old's insistence on being treated strictly as a box-to-box operator stands in the way of Tuchel experimenting with finding his ideal role within the side.
Perception and reality are vastly different, as Saul's new employers know only too well. The fresh start he is seeking in England may not be as straightforward as it had seemed.