Club football was put on the back-burner during a summer of few jaw-dropping transfers — and with the Euros, Copa América and the Olympic Games all in play. But that didn’t stop Atlético Madrid from doubling-down on their expansion into possession-based football, as the club has signed Rodrigo De Paul, a seemingly perfect fit for Diego Simeone’s evolving philosophy.
De Paul scored nine goals and provided nine assists at Udinese last season, has experience in LaLiga and just recently won the Copa América with Argentina. At 27, he is in the prime of his career.
“The squad has welcomed me with open arms,” De Paul said on Tuesday. “I’m really happy and trying to adapt and get used to the team.
“I’m convinced internal competition will make all of us better. I’m here to compete and to help the team.”
Rodrigo De Paul. The Interview. ⚪ pic.twitter.com/LWb04OEIze— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) July 27, 2021
So where do we start when analysing what De Paul can contribute and where he fits in Simeone’s plans?
Atlético won LaLiga last season after a switch to a 3-5-2 formation. They have an array of talent in midfield, but Cholo struggled to find a settled 11 and the attacking cohesion required in the second half of last season, given the ability in the squad.
João Félix hasn’t yet found his best form in Madrid, Thomas Lemar improved but remains inconsistent, and Koke’s orchestration was required further back after Thomas Partey left at the start of last season.
De Paul fixes the cohesiveness issue straight away.
“I’d say No.10 is his best position, but he’s shown himself to be adaptable and capable of playing wider or deeper and still being able to influence a game,” Italian football journalist Conor Clancy told Into the Calderón. “He’s a player for any match, really.
“If his side are dominating possession, that’s when he’s probably at his very best. He’s brilliant at finding spaces to exploit with a pass.”
It was a struggle at times for Atlético last season in attack, and there is no player in the current squad who created more last season than De Paul. As a dribbler, the Argentine is closer to competing with Lionel Messi than any of Atlético’s midfielders. Simeone’s aversion to risk-taking might hamper those numbers next season, but we are still talking about an elite creative midfielder in De Paul.
If Simeone sticks with his 3-5-2 and two wing-backs, there is a place in the team for a midfielder beside Koke and Marcos Llorente. This is likely where De Paul will fit in with Lemar, Félix and Ángel Correa fighting for the last attacking spot beside Luis Suárez.
That both makes sense and doesn’t, and we are more likely to see a blend of the traditional 4-4-2 with a midfield four of Llorente, Koke, De Paul and Lemar/Félix behind two attackers. The bad news, for now, is that we don’t know yet what Simeone is planning — but the good news is he has a multitude of options .
“With good forwards playing alongside him at Atleti, I’d imagine that his assist stats are going to skyrocket. But even if it’s a game wherein Atleti are playing deep and looking to counter, he has a lot to offer there,” Clancy said. “He usually makes good decisions in possession and can be lethal on a break as well.
“I think his best trait is that of a classic No. 10 in that he’s able to dictate the pace of an entire game and have it played on his terms.”
The graph above shows an elite ball carrier. The graph below shows an elite passer into the final third.
“He’ll help Atleti most in situations — like we saw countless times in the second half of last season — when opponents just aren’t giving them anything and they can’t carve out chances,” Clancy explained. “He’ll create those chances for them and, with Suárez there, they’ll likely lead to goals. I think he’s a great signing.”
De Paul’s ability to play in a variety of positions helps Simeone as he ventures deeper into tactical terra incognito. But more important might be his ability to progress the ball in different ways. Atlético don’t lack attacking talent, but it has often been a struggle to get the ball to those players. De Paul solves that problem from day one, and he could be the key to unlocking the untapped potential in Simeone’s forward line.