Rodrigo De Paul wants to stay at Atlético Madrid. The club want De Paul to stay in the Spanish capital, too. The Argentine confirmed as much when he quote-tweeted a journalist saying there was no problem between the two parties despite some speculation to the contrary.
Matteo Moretto’s tweet said “the club believe strongly in the qualities of the player and have no intention to sell him.” And here’s how De Paul responded last week:
This is a good thing for Atlético. The 27-year-old has been criticized this season for not living up to the billing he received during the summer. Without context, this has been a very poor year for the Argentine, with just two goals and an assist during 40 games in LaLiga and the Champions League.
Diego Simeone fought for his compatriot’s signing last summer, and it was hailed as the transfer of the summer — one of those tailor-made manager/player combinations. Saúl’s departure for Chelsea left a hole in Cholo’s midfield for an energetic and dynamic midfielder.
But while Atlético insist they believe in De Paul as a player, do they really know what his best characteristics are? And if so, why hasn’t there been a bigger effort made to accentuate them?
You’re more likely to see De Paul on the screen jawing at opponents or going in to the referee’s book than contributing a goal, an assist, or a shot-creating action. It’s that unnecessary extra-curricular activity that skews De Paul’s performance this season. But it’s also true that he hasn’t been what Atlético need. Indeed, his one goal and one assist in the league are his lowest totals since 2016, when he played for Racing Club in Argentina. He has scored at least four goals while playing 30 games in the league every year during his career — except for this year.
During the last three seasons, De Paul has had at least 2.25 shots on target for game. That number has plummeted to 0.90 shots on target per 90 this year. But RDP passes into the final third more than he has in the last five years.
Hold on — this is a good thing, surely?
In one way, it is. The Argentina midfielder still has that creator’s need to progress the ball, but he is doing it from deeper on the pitch. And this is where Atlético miss the point entirely about what makes Rodrigo De Paul the player they scouted and signed last summer.
Simeone has taken a player who thrived in advanced positions and turned him into a combative defensive midfielder. It’s a good illustration of how positions don’t always tell us everything. De Paul has been moved around and played as a deeper midfielder since joining Atlético, even if the changes aren’t really reflected in his central midfield position.
Despite his seeming aggressive nature on the field, this is a player who thrives on creation rather than destruction.
We can see below that for Udinese, De Paul received the ball in far more promising areas of the field. At Atlético, there is a focus on protecting the back line rather than pushing forward to ask questions of the opposing defense.
Atlético have gone into reactive move this season. After a poor start in the league, where they did try to be more open, they regressed to the 4-4-2 low block while maintaining some emphasis on holding the ball. Defensively, Atlético have improved and they have been more competitive in recent months, but their build-up remains stagnant, with an aversion to risk and to moving the ball forward quickly.
Simeone turning Rodrigo into a defensive midfielder bears out in the stats as well as the average positioning. His pressures in the middle of the pitch per 90 have jumped from 5.39 last season to 12 this season. He is involved in more duels in general and is hardly a defensive liability, but that can’t be why Atlético signed him. Just because he is willing to do these things doesn’t mean it’s what makes him worth €35 million.
De Paul is the kind of player who wants to move the ball forward when he can, and it doesn’t matter how. He can be a focal point in the final third, he can pass it into the final third and he also loves to take on defenders.
I recently re-read Kees van Hemmen’s article on fake transitions (you should too) and why they are so important. De Paul offers this as a technically-excellent player. Another good example is shown below, with De Paul’s take-ons last season compared to this season. This is a player shackled by the role he is being asked to play.
For a player like De Paul, the aggression comes easily. You don’t need to provoke it or make it the main part of his game. It’s more of a side dish to the hearty and healthy attacking prowess that is the entreé.
What we have seen this season is an inversion of his best qualities. As the season has worn on, De Paul has grown more frustrated, with the rancorous part of his game coming out even more. His yellow cards per 90 and fouls per 90 are at their highest in five years (FBRef don’t provide stats before this). His frustrations are mirrored by the fans, who have grown disillusioned about a player who was supposed to be so much more.
If Atlético want to see the best of Rodrigo De Paul, they have to push him forward and give him the chance to break down defenses. If they wish to continue to play De Paul in the role he currently plays in, they might as well sell him and buy a player who was built just to destroy with an occasional foray into the final third. De Paul was built to do the opposite.