If Saul Niguez’s Chelsea future seemed uncertain before taking to the pitch at Vicarage Road on Wednesday night, Thomas Tuchel soon cleared things up.
After another dismal first-half showing, the Atletico Madrid loanee was uncerimoniously hooked at the break by the German head coach, the second time in as many Premier League starts.
It was supposed to be his renaissance, an opportunity to seize with Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante both ruled out with injury. Instead he delivered another alarmingly inept display.
For the second time this season, Saul Niguez (second left) was substituted at half-time
Being hooked by boss Thomas Tuchel is becoming an alarmingly familiar feeling for loan signing Saul
Replacing him with Thiago Silva, Tuchel was asked about the central midfielder after the narrow 2-1 win against Watford.
‘I don’t know where he goes from this performance,’ was the boss’s frank response.
‘He was on a yellow card so we had two options – take Marcos [Alonso] off, who also had a yellow card, and try Saul as a wing-back.
‘I had this in my mind before the game, if something happened to Marcos. I thought maybe it was not the right match to try things with new positions so it was him to change the shape a little bit and have Thiago [Silva] on the pitch with his organising.’
It is the latest setback in what has been a sorry spell in west London for the Spain international, who has made just seven appearances all season despite being fit and available since his move from LaLiga.
For all the excitement surrounding his last-minute deadline-day move, the mood around his Stamford Bridge hopes has fallen severely flat.
His display on Wednesday was worryingly poor, his output likened to that of previous midfield flops for the Blues such as Tiemoue Bakayoko.
Heading back into the changing rooms, Saul had completed just eight passes. Along with his yellow card, he had just 19 touches to show for his 45 minutes of effort – fewer than every other Chelsea player other than the more attacking duo of Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic. Certainly not the numbers required of a midfielder looking to dictate play.
It was no improvement on his first start in the top flight, a highly forgettable 45 minutes against Aston Villa in which he surrendered possession on no fewer than 10 occasions while also winning just one of his nine duels with Villa players.
He has been given chances elsewhere on the Chelsea fixture list, but in truth the Spain international has failed to assert himself.
The Atletico Madrid loanee was taken off at the break, with Thiago Silva replacing him
Chelsea boss Tuchel said at full time he ‘doesn’t know’ where Saul goes from here
Saul started both of Chelsea’s Carabao Cup clashes at Stamford Bridge this term, but was subbed before extra time in both. There were short cameos in the home Champions League clashes against Malmo and Juventus – games in which the hosts were already home and dry by the time he was introduced.
The same can be said of his only other Premier League appearance, a needless two-minute spell at St James’ Park where he came on in the 88th minute, Chelsea already 3-0 up.
In fact, despite his move at the beginning of September, Saul has still played more minutes of LaLiga football this season (200) than he has in the Premier League (92), having started each of Atleti’s opening three matches of the season before moving to England.
His lack of playing time has led to some uncomfortable questions for Tuchel, who has had to fend off suggestions that the player was forced upon him by the Chelsea hierarchy.
Asked about his own involvement in the move, the 48-year-old was adamant. ‘A club signing? No, we don’t do this,’ he said on the eve of the Watford clash.
‘Until now we didn’t do club signings and coach’s signings. We do signings because we decide together because we believe it’s a good pick and a good addition to the squad, and this was exactly the case.’
The Spain international’s first league start for Chelsea ended in similar fashion against Villa
That was a big disappointment after his eye-catching summer loan signing from Atletico
Before Wednesday, the German had always sought to defend Saul and his lack of impact on the pitch – ‘every single player needs his time to adapt’ was the mantra previously relayed to the press.
But Saul has been given his time, and still there is no progress in sight. It is clearly a source of frustration for Tuchel.
With a season-long loan, time is still on the Spaniard’s side. Other opportunities are inevitable. At this rate, however, so too is a swift return to the Spanish capital next summer.
Ahead of the derby trip to West Ham on Saturday lunchtime there really is only one conclusion Tuchel can make: better drop Saul.
Saul has struggled for minutes this season, largely restricted to cup appearances for the Blues