The 28th of May saw Real Madrid win an 11th Champions League trophy. A dramatic late goal from Yannick Carrasco took the game to extra time and as a result penalties, where Los Blancos’ all-time top scorer – Cristiano Ronaldo slotted home the decisive spot kick to give the white half of Madrid the win in Milan. However, after the morale of Diego Simeone’s men dropped following Sergio Ramos’s first half finish, two Spaniards in Koke and Saul showed character and the ability to change the complexity of the game.
The pair both ultimately played in different roles throughout the game, with Koke holding play more in the midfield towards the end of the 90 and Saul enjoying terrorising Brazilian left-back Marcelo on the right-hand side of the pitch at the start before slotting in midfield alongside Gabi as the game progressed. The duo interchanged runs and mixed up play to the maximum which provided open spaces and time for Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres to hold up play. The actions of the two midfielders highlighted the intentions of Simeone as a combined four blocks came from the duo over the course of the 90 and an extensive 10 aerial duels were produced where in fact 60% were executed successfully. This indicates the high work rate intended from the two wide midfielders which supplied the defensive runs used to support and allow full backs Juanfran and Felipe Luis to overlap and produce a substantial 10 crosses which were integral for Atleti to provide new options for attackers in the box.
The future of Simeone is still up in the air this summer, however, the way he has developed Atletico Madrid to be the European powerhouse they are today is astounding. The 46-year-old has thrived off leadership, strength in the back four and enthusiasm amongst his players, this certainly was portrayed during the encounter on Saturday evening. The former Atletico player himself was seen on the touchline soon after a 15 minute cross which was headed home by big game player Ramos in the opening stages of a classic European derby, and although the determination and words of wisdom had not spread amongst the majority of the starting eleven, two individuals stepped up to the mark emphatically to steer the sinking Atletico Madrid ship to safety.
Koke made a mighty 96 passes before being subbed off, that was eight more than anyone on the pitch despite not completing the full 120. Koke’s impressive 89.6% completion rate caught the eyes of pundits across the world including former Manchester United and England star Owen Hargreaves who praised the 24-year-old for his quick thinking and ability to track back into defensive roles. The Atletico star had a very shaky start to the season, however, supporting the rest of his team with a considerable tally of 14 assists since Christmas. The Spaniard most certainly tried to emulate this in the final with four crosses into the box and two chances created. Coinciding with this, Koke’s Spanish counterpart Saul played a key role in breaking down defence and providing options in the latter stages of the game. Saul allowed Juanfran to overlap who ultimately floated the ball onto the foot of a very fortunate Carrasco, who came on to claim his first goal in the Champions League this season.
Saul who has taken a fair bit of fame since the 11th-minute stunner in the home win again Bayern Munich last month has been an incredible winger and due to his performances over the past 12 months, it is clear that he has deserved every praise he gets. However, there was one clear observation one could pick up from the 21-year-old’s performance, it was his contributions and taking risks with his play. As touched upon before, it is hard not to credit the Spaniard for his high enthusiasm and energy he brings to the game especially whilst playing against the top teams. But with an average two take-ons in a wide position and only one chance created you cannot help but challenge the youngster’s ability to contribute and to provide consistently over the course of the 90. From an outsiders perspective, I could not emphasise more that the ability this player has and what he can bring to the game is top standard and only being 21 years of age – contribution and development as a player will come with experience.
As previously mentioned it is Saul’s pace, flair and energy he brings to the match what makes the youngster stand out. The skilful midfielder ran an enormous 15.3 km during the game in Milan and for me what makes this stat increasingly extraordinary is that he nearly ran a whole kilometre more than the second player, Koke (14.5 km). Saul, who is heavily linked to join Jose Mourinho in Manchester this summer, would be a perfect fit to a United side driven by pace and hard workers determined to track back. The young midfielder who has climbed through both Madrid academies has been an asset to Atletico Madrid this season and his fancy footwork, composure and tendencies to make a mockery of his opponents can speak for themselves and read a bright future for the starlet who has been compared to some of the football’s greatest names.
Looking back at the detailed careers of Madrid’s most famed names this season the accomplishments achieved from these two maestros are inconceivable in regard to both their ages and how long they have been performing on our television screens. At 24 years old and claiming the fourth spot behind Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dani Alves for the highest assists ever in La Liga with 52 (per Statbunker), proves a point and shows the willingness Koke has provided over his seven-year spell in the Red and White of Madrid. Coinciding from this, Saul, who has pulled off two blinders in a previous fixtures against Real Madrid and Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, has caught the eyes of teams playing in the world’s biggest leagues and due to this he will be susceptible for a change and will most certainly be a hot topic in the market this seasonal period.
With another season of football completed and Atletico Madrid finishing 3rd in one of the sports most incredible seasons, two potential game changers have stood out to be idealistic throughout games and on the biggest stage of them, all proved to be diligent and enthusiastic whilst on the ball. Now moving on into the summer and the Euros fast approaching the loss in the San Siro was a poor reflection of the actions portrayed on the pitch by the whole starting eleven and in particular Saul and Koke, who I urge all to look out for due to the wonders they can pull off for club and country this coming season.
This article is written by Reuben Rosso, you can follow him on Twitter at @Talk2RossoSport. What are your thoughts? Let us know by dropping a comment via our comments box below. Make sure you follow us on Twitter, Google+, Instagram and like us on Facebook.