The latest player to answer our 10 questions feature is Saul, the Spaniard on loan from Atletico Madrid, who opens up on the challenges of adapting to new surroundings, his footballing family and how he's using the Tube to explore London.
Even by his own admission, Saul's start to life in English football was a bumpy one but the 27-year-old feels more settled by the day and is hoping to take his chances over the final four months of the campaign to impress those watching on at Stamford Bridge.
He had featured 14 times in four separate competitions for the Blues before the winter break, with his most recent start coming in our FA Cup thrashing of Chesterfield last month, and will be looking to be involved again in the fourth round this weekend as we welcome Plymouth Argyle to south-west London.
That kicks off our match action in February, a month that will also see Thomas Tuchel's side fly out to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup, resume the defence of our Champions League crown with a last-16 tie against Lille and compete in the first domestic final of the season in the Carabao Cup against Liverpool.
Every man will have a part to play between now and mid-May so Saul is determined to be among that number, as he explains in this wide-ranging exclusive chat...
Saul, it’s been five months since you signed on loan from Atletico Madrid and arrived in English football. How do you see the season so far?
The beginning wasn’t easy for me. I have changed my whole life, moving from Madrid, leaving Madrid with my family, changing language and culture, even the small things like driving on the other side of the road!
Everything has changed - the stadium, team-mates, my whole life. The truth is it hasn’t been easy but I’m very grateful to my team-mates and the club for making it easier for me to adapt. My English is improving and everything is becoming a bit easier.
Personally, I would like to have played more but I also understand that this team won the Champions League last season so it is difficult to get into the team. I feel good and every day I’m feeling better and prepared for when the head coach needs me.
This is also the first experience for you and your family outside of Spain so five months is a short period in terms of being able to fully adapt…
My family haven’t had it as easy as me because I leave the house to train and I spend time with my team-mates who I speak with, whereas my family are alone. They know we have to adapt but it’s not easy. The beginnings are always difficult but things do get better bit by bit.
For me, I’m focused on playing football and understanding the ideas of the head coach above all. In my first match, I was a bit disorientated because I was used to doing things differently and it was a bit strange for me.
I hadn’t had much time to train with my team-mates and when I first started many of them were away with their national teams so it was a difficult start but I want to say thank you to the Chelsea staff, who have always transmitted a sense of calm during this period of adaptation. I really want to show the player I am and repay their confidence in me.
What have you found to be the biggest differences between La Liga, where you played eight seasons for Atleti, and the Premier League?
They are totally different. Over there, it’s much more tactical, whereas here it’s more physical and a bit crazier. There’s more back and forth, it’s less about having control of the game and more about entertaining the fans. You can do things here that you really can’t do in La Liga.
For example, I was talking to my friends the other day about Eden Hazard. When he was here, he was easily one of the best players in the world and then he goes to La Liga and has his own difficulties because it’s a totally different game.
Here he had more one-vs-ones and two-vs-ones but in La Liga, because everyone knows how good his team is and how good he is, other teams make it much more difficult for him. Here it’s happening a bit in reverse, although I think it’s a bit easier to adapt from La Liga to the Premier League than from the Premier League to La Liga.
Working with a new coach must also have been a big change for you after being with Diego Simeone for such a long time…
The biggest example at the start is with the marking as here it is about man-marking in the midfield, which allows the back five to move more and be more fluid. At Atletico, it’s zonal marking so if your team-mate goes forward then you close the space behind and you don’t mark the man. Whereas here you don’t close the space, you focus on the man.
So it was completely different and quite difficult for me because I couldn’t quite do what the head coach wanted me to do but I’m very lucky that Thomas speaks very clear English with an accent that I can understand. I’ve also been learning English so I can understand better what the head coach wants and adapt myself.
How about off the pitch? How have you found life in London?
It’s completely different! In Spain, people told me that it gets dark earlier here and the weather isn’t great but for me that’s really not a problem because it also gets cold in Madrid. What is really most difficult is that here I rarely see the sun or clear skies, whereas in Madrid it can be very cold but the sky is blue and there’s a lot of sunshine, which also brings a bit of warmth.
This means that you can go out a bit more and it’s a bit more relaxed but equally it’s a bit of a complicated time anyway with Covid so it’s a bit harder to go and see people. Sometimes I take the Underground to go to Selfridges or Westfield or Oxford Street and it’s a bit easier for me than in Spain because people are more respectful here and don’t bother you.
In Spain, people are a bit more fanatical and they get a bit closer to you so it’s harder to go out in the same way. I haven’t played as much here so the people don’t know me as well, which means I can take the Underground without any problems and I like that. I have a stop next to my house so I can really enjoy the city without getting in a car and getting stuck in traffic.
You have plenty of compatriots in the Chelsea dressing room, and others who can speak Spanish, which must have been very useful early on in helping you to settle in?
When I decided to make a change, I had a few options and at Chelsea I knew there were Spanish players, including friends who I have known and played with for a long time. There was also the option to go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone. Imagine going to a team where there were no other Spaniards.
The two options can be good. On the one hand, it’s easier to be happy here, but on the other I don’t learn English as quickly because I spend more time with Spanish people and there are many people in the club who speak Spanish. You have both sides where something can be positive but at the same time a bit negative.
After training, the Spanish can translate for me but that can also be difficult in the moment if I don’t understand the phrases such as ‘man on’ or ‘time’ myself, or if I don’t know if I’m supposed to turn or not. It takes a bit longer but in the end it’s just about adapting.
I’m enjoying it despite not playing as many minutes as I would have liked to. You have to understand the position of the head coach, that he trusts his players and I have to keep working so that he trusts in me. The only way I can change anything is by continuing to work and, when I have the opportunity, to take it because in the first months I didn’t take that opportunity. I’m focused on the work, I don’t give up and when I have the opportunity next and deliver, then I can ask a bit more of the head coach.
We know you have already had challenges in your life and career, including a nasty kidney injury to overcome, so how do you see this challenge now or is it something different?
It’s a different thing but when you leave your home and join the champions of Europe, it’s obviously a big challenge. You can only put two out of Jorginho, N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in a midfield four, and two of them were nominated for the Ballon d’Or!
I knew what I was coming into and despite not playing all of the minutes, my intention is not just to play but to learn and to grow. In the end, playing with such good players makes you grow and it makes you a better player. Learning English will help me for the rest of my life so this experience is not only about football. I’m adapting and growing as a person and a player.
Yours is a real footballing family, with your father and two older brothers all having professional careers in the game. One of your brothers, Aaron, even played on loan at Rangers in Scotland so did you speak to him much about coming to the UK and Chelsea?
Yes, of course. Whenever I take a decision in life, whether it’s a sporting one or otherwise, I always speak to my family as they are so important to me. Now that they are a bit further away, it’s difficult but thanks to technology I can communicate with them daily.
I needed to get my head out of the Atletico Madrid world for a while because I have been there since I was 12 so everything affects you much more. If the fans whistle at you, it affects you much more because those people are your people and when you have difficult moments you live them differently.
It’s complicated, and leaving was complicated, but I took it as a challenge to compete with the best players in my position and I don’t have any fear in doing that. I feel good and if I’m as I should be, I know I can do a lot to help Chelsea.
You’ve said you haven’t played as many minutes as you would have liked but we have the Club World Cup, the Carabao Cup final, the FA Cup, the Champions League knockout stages and the Premier League still to play for. How do you see the rest of the season from here?
We had a difficult month in December, which is normal, but we can only judge the season at the end. Right now, we’re in a final and we have another potential final at the Club World Cup. In the Premier League, we’re not where we want to be but all we can do is keep working and play game by game and see where we finish.
It’s the same for the FA Cup. We need to take the opportunity to compete in a cup that everyone in England has told me is very important and we’re in the final of the Carabao Cup as well so it’s an exciting season, even if we’ve been in a bit of a complicated moment. We need to stick together and get rid of any bad atmosphere that came from bad results but the group is united.
Finally, with the Club World Cup looming next week, how do you feel as a player about being involved in that tournament?
It’s a tournament where I feel lucky to be playing in it. I wasn’t in the team that won the Champions League, which is an incredible feat, and I have the opportunity to participate in the Club World Cup which not all teams or players get to play in.
It’s really about enjoying it and realise that we’re there because my team-mates won the Champions League. We have the chance to win it but each game will be difficult. It’s a beautiful tournament and it will be difficult to compete against all the other champion teams, so it would be great to add the trophy to our cabinet.