Rodrigo De Paul scout report: How does versatile midfielder fit Simeone’s title-winning Atletico jigsaw?
Atletico Madrid have officially confirmed the acquisition of Rodrigo De Paul, a former Serie A and Udinese star who’s now making a move to La Liga. The midfielder will be looking to secure a position in Diego Simeone’s league-winning squad as the Rojiblancos march towards their title-defending campaign in 2021/22.
This tactical analysis will be a scout report on De Paul, looking at his traits and how they could fit Atlético Madrid’s tactics. The analysis will not focus so much on his kit but rather its suitability with the new club.
Before diving into the tactical analysis, we first have to understand the type of player De Paul is. Aged 27 and standing at 1.8 metres, the former Udinese star is a very versatile and dynamic midfielder. By nature, he is usually deployed on the right side of the midfield but can easily play in the roles of a no.8, no.10 and even as a deep-lying regista. This versatility will most certainly please Simeone, as will the rest of his skill set.
De Paul is an elite midfielder on the ball and one of the best in Serie A when it comes to progression and creativity. We can see as much in the graph below which compares De Paul with other midfielders in Italy, showing the stats in percentile rankings.
In terms of attacking and passing metrics, De Paul almost has no equal and his player profile looks scary, to say the least. He’s an elite chance creator with excellent vision and a large palette of different kinds of passes in his locker. His technical ability means he can easily beat the press through a dribble and then run with the ball into the final third.
Equally, he can progress the ball via his passing too, as can be seen from the stats. The only notable ‘weaknesses’ in the graph concern the accuracy of his passes. However, considering he’s a very high-risk, high-reward type of passer, this doesn’t come as a surprise. De Paul will attempt to play forward on most occasions and will try to access the danger areas even when they don’t seem accessible at first.
Defensively, he is not overly impressive but still provides decent central coverage as well as aggression in the high press.
But how exactly is Simeone going to utilise him at Atlético Madrid? Let’s get into the tactics now.
We’ll split our analysis into two major parts, covering two different formations Simeone is likely to choose for the upcoming season. The first one is the more likely option – the 3-5-2. For a big part of their title-winning run, Atlético Madrid deployed this system with wingbacks and a back three. It worked extremely well as it gave them solidity, control and verticality at the same time.
In such a setup, we’re seeing three midfielders and more often than not, they’d be Koke as the pivot and no.6 and Marcos Llorente and Saúl Ñíguez as the right and left-sided no.8s respectively. With Saúl linked with an exit, primarily an exchange for Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann, it’s likely De Paul takes his place in the lineup. Koke and Llorente are undroppable so in a 3-5-2, the Argentine is likely to be on the left side of the midfield trident.
But before looking at his particular skill set, we have to understand what Simeone usually wants from the left-sided central midfielder or rather, what’s Saúl’s role in the system. Below we can see a fairly standard structure and connection between the midfielders in a 3-5-2. Koke is the deepest and connects the thirds while Llorente and Saúl drift between the lines, the former making bursting runs forward and wide while the latter drops deeper or occupies the backline in the half-spaces and the central zones.
Saúl, however, as opposed to De Paul, is a left-footed midfielder, meaning he can perform certain actions more easily on the left side. For example, his relationship with the wingback, Yannick Carrasco, is key here. The left centre-midfielder has the task to complement the wingback’s movements as much as possible.
When Carrasco cuts inside, Saúl needs to be able to hold the width and progress down the flank. For a right-footed player, this could pose an issue as De Paul specifically favours his right and for that reason, despite having a wide starting position, will almost exclusively cut inside into the half-space.
Below we can see the setup with Saúl overlapping as the wingback tucks in centrally. This helps Atlético occupy the backline and force them narrow, creating space for the overlap.
De Paul can stay wide, as we’ve already mentioned in the analysis, but he’s unlikely to keep the width but rather, he’ll stay outside the block and then either progress with a run towards the centre or use his incredible passing range to send his more advanced teammates into space.
We can see such an example down below. De Paul receives the ball from the backline just around the halfway line of the pitch, drifting wide but still staying behind his wingback. Once in position, the Argentine deploys a piercing pass towards the final third that breaks the lines and finds a teammate. This is another big difference between him and the player he’s (most likely) replacing.
While Saúl also has a good repertoire of passes in his locker, he’s more inclined to stay wide and make runs off the ball than De Paul is. The former Udinese midfielder will almost exclusively want the ball to his feet, dropping deeper to receive and then either progress himself or lay it off quickly.
Let’s take a closer look in the following image. De Paul shows for the ball and manages to receive it in a pocket of space before turning, running towards the final third and then deploying a lofted cross into the box.
This is very important as it deviates from the usual tactics we see on the left side of Atlético’s structure. Saúl usually shows for the ball, sure, but if Mario Hermoso decides to advance on the ball or if Koke is the one dropping and then progressing, Saúl will make a decoy run through the half-space.
And this is not an isolated case either. Whenever Carrasco drops deeper, as can be seen in the image below, the left centre-midfielder is expected to rotate accordingly, offering a vertical passing channel but also aiming to exploit the wingback’s movement and dragging of the marker.
It’s not that De Paul is not able to do this but being a very ball-dominant player who makes runs with the ball as opposed to without it, it may take a while for him to adjust. Alternatively, this change may also completely alter Atlético Madrid’s left side of the pitch. Generally speaking, they prefer to progress down the left with Hermoso’s vision and Carrasco’s great movement so De Paul could have a major role in that moving forward, seeing how his progression abilities are almost second to none.
However, what is more likely to happen is the Argentine dropping outside of the opposition’s block to receive the ball much deeper. In fairness, that doesn’t deviate from Atlético’s usual tactics as Saúl can and does do the same in certain situations. Our next example shows him do exactly that as he drops into the backline, allowing the centre-back to move up slightly.
Moreover, it gives him a clearer view of the pitch to pick out a pass from the deep.
But these long balls are De Paul’s speciality and one of the greatest weapons in his impressively broad skill set. He will regularly do the exact same, dropping deeper and effectively replacing the defender in Udinese’s structure.
While Atlético have Hermoso for that, De Paul’s precision and chance-creation from the deep can only aid their build-up. Below, he swaps places with the defender and then immediately deploys a piercing through ball, cutting through the half-space and entering the final third.
These kinds of passes, be it vertical line-breakers or diagonals, can be extremely effective when paired up with opposite movements of Luis Suárez and Llorente or Carrasco’s runs down the flank.
While not exactly playing to all of his strengths, the 3-5-2 can still suit De Paul’s style of play. After all, Udinese have utilised the same system themselves, the only difference being the side of the pitch for the 27-year-old.
Being right-footed in such a role in Atlético Madrid’s tactics means he won’t exactly be able to do those quick one-twos with the wingback we see below as often or as precise as he’d like to but the added progressiveness and press-resistance will be a welcome sight.
While it’s likely Simeone stays with the formula that works, the return of the 4-4-2 should not be so easily discarded. And quite intriguingly, it could be a formation that would allow De Paul to thrive in his natural position. Remember that his position on paper doesn’t matter that much but the role very much does.
Once again we’ll take Saúl as our case study for the 4-4-2. At times, Simeone would play him as the wide midfielder on the right but his role was similar to the one De Paul performed at Udinese. Below is a comparison between their heatmaps. Note that for Saúl, we’ve used a heatmap stretching a couple of seasons back to get a much larger sample than just 2020/21.
When acting as the wide midfielder in a 4-4-2, Saúl still occupies the half-spaces and drops deeper to receive and ease progression in the build-up phase. You can imagine why this is the ideal scenario for De Paul as it allows him to occupy the right side of the pitch while blessing the team with all of his best attributes.
It seems like in a 4-4-2, Saúl essentially mirrors De Paul’s role as he drops for the ball through the half-space, allowing the full-back to overlap. This is very important to know because it tells us how Simeone wants his wide midfielders to operate. If Llorente was playing in that role, he’d act in a completely different way to Saúl.
That’s why in that system, he is usually part of the forward two. Notice below Saúl’s movement and general positioning in a 4-4-2 system.
De Paul is no stranger to playing in a 4-4-2 structure but that usually happens with Argentina, not Udinese. And in such a system, he is once more allowed to drop out of the opposition’s defensive structure and receive in a much deeper area of the pitch.
This allows him to utilise both his incredible passing and running skills while still catering to the attacking-minded full-back, likely Kieran Trippier, who would be overlapping on the right.
This movement towards the ball as opposed to drifting wide and away from the ball on the left of a 3-5-2 system is a major difference between the two. Saúl can also be seen receive between the lines in pockets of space but his movement is used as a decoy or to drag markers and free up other targets.
We can see a similar thing below as he drops towards the ball but instead of receiving, he vacates the space between the lines so that Llorente can exploit it and control the pass from the backline. Of course, good as he is, Saúl doesn’t have De Paul’s close control and press-resistance, meaning the Argentine can be the one receiving from the backline in such situations and then still progress forward.
Once again we go to Argentina for a direct example for De Paul in a 4-4-2 wide midfielder role. Notice in the following image how his movement also has the very same ideas – either attract the marker to free up space for his teammate or receive from the backline and progress himself.
This also puts him in his preferred area of the pitch from where he’ll deploy piercing key passes or just charge into the box.
The truth is that Atlético Madrid don’t necessarily have a profile akin to De Paul’s in their squad and it’ll inevitably force changes to the structure. But at the same time, despite Llorente occupying his favourite position, the Argentine is likely to do well regardless of where he’s deployed, such is his versatility.
In the 3-5-2, he maybe won’t offer as much width and off the ball presence but his tendency to drop and progress can be extremely compatible with the movement of his strikers and other runners in the team. As for the 4-4-2, while less likely, this structure could see him deployed in a more familiar role.
But, the caveat is that Cholo would have to tinker with the team once more, reverting to the old system and deviating from the formula that works. Either way, seeing De Paul in the Rojiblanco kit will surely be a joy. He has the quality to lead Atlético Madrid to their title defence but will he really do it?
Only time will tell.