Hipster Footballer Of The Week: Rayo Vallecano's Saúl Ñíguez
As part of a new series for Sabotage Times, I am going to be picking out a player you can watch on the television, or indeed an illegal stream, at some point this week. Focussing largely on younger, exciting talents who are playing somewhere other than England, it will hopefully add grist to your hipster mill for those pub-based knowledge-fests that we all like to participate in. To get us started, here’s a player who has been winning props for his defensive solidity and tactical nous in a team renowned for its devil-may-care style of attacking play: Rayo Vallecano’s Saúl Ñíguez, also known simply as Saúl.
Rayo Vallecano are quite trad-hipster, a sort of Spanish St Pauli. They have a vocal left-wing, anti-Fascist support, led by Spanish band Ska-P, whose song Como un Rayo is an anthemic fuck you to everyone else in Spanish football. Based in Madrid and living in the shadow of the other two teams, one of whom is basically the anti-cool, all money and glory and David Beckham, Rayo see achievement largely in terms of not getting relegated. In a bold move, they appointed Paco Jémez as their manager in 2012 to improve the team’s success. And he did just that, the former Rayo player leading them to their highest ever finish last season (only 8th – don’t get too excited).
Jémez is glorious: committed to playing exciting, attacking football, his attitude is best summed up by the quote “if you’re going to lose by two, what difference does it make if you lose by four?” This might seem antithetic to a former centre-back, but he learned a lot from the stylish Deportivo side of the mid 90s who exceeded expectations in La Liga and in Europe and were one of my favourite Football Manager teams of all time. Paco pushes his teams almost self-immolatingly high, playing a vigorous style, often setting his wing-backs so far up the pitch they’re basically midfielders. Sid Lowe described his Rayo team thus: “bold, dynamic, and aggressive”. What’s not to like?
But what of Saúl? He is most often played as a defensive midfielder or, as Paco calls it, a midfielder. Robust and snappy, he does love a booking or two, but his commitment to harrying and tackling is excellent and provides a solid base for Rayo’s quick transitional style of play. He is strong in the tackle, adept at interceptions and clearances, and excels in the air, despite not quite making six foot tall. At 19, he has already represented Spain at every youth level, which is often the sign of quite a good player. Saúl is, sadly, not actually Rayo’s own, but is on loan from Atlético Madrid. He is a product of their pretty awesome youth production line, which he joined, in traditional style, when Real released him at 14 for not being a wealthy import. His stay at Rayo is like a hipster induction before he rejoins Atléti, themselves quite the team. But for now, watch him fly the flag, old-school style, for Los Franjirrojos.
Playing for hipster team? Achingly so, are Rayo: 10
Mentioned as young talent by World Soccer? No, but anyone with this much Spanish recognition soon will be: 0
Linked with Arsenal for no particular reason? Yes, emphatically, in January: 10
From same nation as club? Very much so, like much of Rayo: 10
Positive reference from the Guardian? No, but Sid loves a bit of Rayo generally: 4
Level of obscurity: Two appearances for Atléti in 2012 before the move to Rayo, so unless you <3 Spanish youth teams, you won’t know him: 9
Has Twitter decided to discover him? Yes, but mostly in Spanish, so they could be saying anything as far as I know: 6
Hipster hobby? “Spending time with friends” - shit: 0
Overall: 49/80 – while still hipster juvenilia at the moment, you can win the admiration of all your chums by plugging Saúl now, before next summer’s inevitable move to Arsenal, Chelsea, or Liverpool.
Watch Saúl and Rayo concede five goals but win everyone’s hearts against cross-town behemoths Real on Saturday 29th March at 21:00, Sky Sports 2.