Night and day. Black and white. Rodrigo de Paul for Argentina and Rodrigo de Paul for Atlético Madrid. The difference between the two is so clear that to group those three contrasts together doesn’t seem wrong at all.
De Paul endured a nightmare World Cup debut against Saudi Arabia, where Argentina fell to a shock 2-1 defeat and De Paul lost the ball 15 times with a 76% pass completion rate — his lowest in a game he has started since the 3-2 win over Valencia in January 2022.
But since then, everything seems to have improved. The midfielder, donning the number seven shirt, has become a key player for Lionel Scaloni’s team as they have reached a World Cup semi-final against Croatia, with his influence and improvement in form catching the eye around the globe.
Rodrigo De Paul's importance with the Argentina national team cannot be understated. That second goal vs. Australia does not happen without him. He has gotten better in every game. The man is a machine.— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) December 7, 2022
That raises questions for Atlético de Madrid: why is he so different for Argentina and how can Atlético get that version of De Paul?
By taking a closer look at his performances and his role with Argentina, we hope to see some areas that could feed into his club career in Spain, even in the very different context of one thing in particular: playing alongside Lionel Messi or not.
The Messi relationship
Okay, yes, you’re right. It’s much easier to stand out when you’re playing with the best player to ever play the game (excluding Juanfran). But there is more to this connection than bodyguard memes and de Paul having a talented companion — he is actually fueling Messi’s performances for Argentina.
One stat that has shocked many Atleti fans has been de Paul’s distance covered. In the three group stage fixtures, de Paul covered more ground than any other player in the Argentina squad at 32.36 miles. Against Mexico, De Paul ran almost 11 miles. No other Argentina player made it into double digits.
Part of why that is so important is that it allows Lionel Messi to be Lionel Messi. In the group stages, he covered almost half of “de Paul distance” (16.68 miles). It is de Paul’s harrying that allows Messi to ease off on some of his defensive duties and focus on creating moments of magic.
de paul is actually in love with messi he’s so me pic.twitter.com/4ubcXfQG4E— elvira (@daylightoutro) December 3, 2022
That’s reflected in the stats. Excluding holding midfielders, no player in a central role at the World Cup has accrued more than de Paul’s 23 interceptions, 4.28 per 90. For context, it’s the same number as Nicolás Otamendi in central defence with 66 more minutes played. It’s more than the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Marquinhos, Harry Maguire or Raphaël Varane.
“A lot of the time, the analysis that I do while I’m playing leads me to try to make him run less,” de Paul told TyC Sports earlier this year. “To make less wear and tear and to have more space to play with — these are things that cross my mind during the match. So the dialogue with him is constant. We understand each other with a look.”
Yet, it’s a relationship which is built primarily though off-the-ball work. Against the Netherlands, for example, De Paul only exchanged passes with Messi seven times. Their positioning is so similar that it doesn’t feed into a frequent passing relationship.
Below, we can see de Paul’s pass map against the Dutch, and it shows how they position so closely on the field. Passing between them would not help to advance or find space, and so it simply doesn’t happen all that often.
It also further reinforces the nature of their off-ball relationship. De Paul follows Messi almost like his bodyguard when on the ball, but to be the closest active defender. Should he lose possession, de Paul is immediately there to press and push the opposition defenders to regain the ball. Argentina’s intense approach is to not allow their rivals a moment of peace, even when they’ve just dispossessed Messi.
That position also acts as a diversion that allows Messi to find spaces. Many nations have looked to pin Messi down with a man-marker or close zonal marking, but with de Paul so close, dedicating two players to such a limited space will open up space elsewhere for others. Putting only one man on the job means choosing between Messi or de Paul.
A perfect example of that and how it can confuse opposition markers, in this case against the Netherlands with Nathan Aké and Frenkie de Jong, is shown below.
De Paul on the ball
With so much importance placed upon the idea that his role in Argentina is built around his relationship with Lionel Messi, it would be easy to think that de Paul himself hasn’t done much to stand out. But that would be misleading.
Only four men have made more passes than de Paul (up to the quarter-finals) at this World Cup, with 425. For context, the closest figures for players of a similar profile are FC Barcelona and Spain’s Pedri (411) and Real Madrid and Croatia’s Luka Modrić (364).
That trend continues across passes into the final third, where de Paul again ranks fifth across the whole competition. However, it’s also where we start to see a difference. Here, Pedri and Modrić surpass De Paul in quantity. What’s more, they don’t just do it more often and make more of an offensive impact with their passing, but they do so more successfully. De Paul’s completion rate of such passes is 71.07%, while Pedri’s is 91.01% and Modrić’s is 82.26%.
As such, de Paul created just 0.11 expected assists across his first four appearances, or 0.02 per 90. If we again compare with Pedri and Modrić, we see that the Spaniard registered 0.07 per 90 and the Croatian had 0.05, while both also doubled de Paul’s key passes figure.
De Paul clearly has a heavy influence on Argentina’s play and is bossing possession frequently, but he isn’t having enough of a decisive say. This is a far more conservative and reserved version of De Paul than we are used to seeing at Atleti. This season for the Colchoneros, he has averaged 0.25 xA per 90, despite making 20 fewer passes per 90 on average than with Argentina.
Bringing his form to Atlético
The question that Diego Simeone and his staff will be asking as they watch El Cholo’s native country is “how can Atlético Madrid get some of the positives out of de Paul’s form with Argentina into his play in Spain?”
One factor that could prove differential is something Simeone spoke about in September: mentality.
“I see the national team in a state of joy, enthusiasm and very positive,” he said. “That brings with it security, security for the players. I see them with the security that a team has to have.”
With Argentina, there is a clear cohesion and unity that has been missing at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano. A spell with the Albiceleste over an extended period could boost de Paul’s confidence and bring back a different character than the one who left Madrid last month.
Tactically, it seems a tougher ask. One area from which Simeone may look to benefit is the press. Atleti’s pressing has been chaotic for some time, and de Paul has rarely formed part of it. At the World Cup, he has averaged 9.3 recoveries per 90 minutes, with 4.8 per 90 in the opposition half. For Atleti this season, he has averaged 5.2 per 90, with 2.8 in the opposition half. That is a marked difference.
Atlético could have an underused resource here. The midfield has not been relied upon for the press this season, focusing instead on the wide forwards or centre forwards, and de Paul has played centrally. So, it opens up the potential to move de Paul into a different position. The obvious adjustment may be to return to an asymmetrical 4-4-2, with de Paul taking up the wide position on the right. It would be the most similar to the role that he plays for Scaloni.
As can be seen in this animation, de Paul plays in a wider role for Argentina and is not as present centrally. His position is slightly more advanced, defending on the front foot with a higher press. He’s shown to be adept at it, and there’s no better example than Julián Álvarez’s eventual winning goal against Australia — de Paul forced the goal with a high press on goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
De Paul is a talented player, a question that has never been in doubt at Atlético. The issue is that Atleti are yet to get the best out of him for a prolonged period, and he doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as motivated or confident in a red and white shirt as he is in a sky blue and white shirt.
That has factors off the field to work on, but Atleti can also make tactical adjustments to suit de Paul better. His pressing game has been amongst the best of any player at this World Cup, and while it may revolve around Lionel Messi for Argentina, there is no reason why it could not adapt to work at Atlético Madrid.
If Simeone does not opt to do so, and cannot get more of these kind of performances out of his midfielder, we are more likely to see Atlético benefit from his rise in value and cash in, whether that is in January or the summer, rather than hang on to a wasted asset at the peak of his career.