By Philippe Stengel and Max Taylor
Football is a simple game. Silverware-winning sides have a multitude of players that contribute to their success, struggling sides don’t, and on the rare occasion, a team can attribute a large portion of their accomplishments to a single individual — a one-man-team, a carry job, a Jack Grealish at Aston Villa last season, or in this case, a Rodrigo De Paul at Udinese.
Rodrigo De Paul has a very interesting CV. Although he’s now played 21 times for the Argentinian senior side, the 26-year-old is still at the Serie A strugglers. His recent performances, however, have caught the attention of a number of clubs and fans alike. An all-action and versatile midfielder, progressive and creative chart topper, and on the verge of entering his prime, we believe he’s more than ready for a big move. We explain exactly why below:
The Lowdown on Udinese
Led by Sarri’s former Chelsea assistant Luca Gotti, Udinese have been wildly uninspiring this year. They almost exclusively line up in a 3-5-2 system, and despite a solid defensive foundation (they have conceded the third-least expected goals allowed in Serie A) and a fantastic creator in De Paul, Udinese have failed to convert chances into goals and points this season. As a result, captain and striker Kevin Lasagna (who has underperformed his xG this season by -5.9, the worst rate in Europe’s Top Five League’s) was recently sent out on loan until the end of the season.
De Paul’s Profile
Since joining Udinese before the 2015/2016 season, De Paul has become an ever-increasingly important member of the Serie A side, from budding young midfielder to senior Argentinian international and club captain. De Paul predominantly lines up on the right of the midfield three in Udinese’s 3-5-2 system, tasked with progressing the ball from deep into the final third, and relied upon as the primary chance creator in the side. The radar below, created by @Edvin_TH, highlights just how effective he is in his ball progression and creation, while also providing an insight into the qualities he lacks – which we’ll take a closer look at later on. He does his best work when drifting between central positions and the right half-space, picking up smart pockets and relentlessly advancing the ball into dangerous areas via dribbles or passes.
De Paul has generated attention this season for his excellent, chart-topping ball progression and creative numbers. As mentioned earlier, his role in this Udinese side reminds us of Jack Grealish’s at Aston Villa last season; we hate to use the phrase, but he’s star-figure in a one-man team. Every Udinese move seems to run through the Argentinian; at times, his teammates look devoid of ideas and resort to finding De Paul – regardless of his position on the pitch.
De Paul’s Qualities
His most impressive trait is his ball progression. Both on the dribble and by way of crisp, vertical passes, De Paul is so effective at making himself an option in the build-up or in transition, before receiving the ball and driving his side forward from deep into attacking areas. The Argentinian has averaged 9.8 progressive carries and 4.49 carries into the final third per 90 this season, which both rank in the top five in Serie A. The slideshows below portray two scenarios in which De Paul receives and then progresses the ball from deep: he exhibits a positive, purposeful first-touch, the speed and gait to beat his marker, and the awareness of space to identify gaps to drive into.
De Paul also chooses the right moments to release sooner, receiving the ball in smart areas before executing incisive forward passes for teammates. His 7.42 progressive passes p/90 rank 6th in Serie A this season, while he’s also equally effective further up the pitch – averaging 5.61 passes into the final third and 2.58 into the penalty area. The Argentinian is relentless in his intent to progress the ball quickly up the field – and is constantly the influential figure in moving his side into dangerous areas. In doing so, he often attracts a multitude of defenders, opening up space for teammates in the process. Sides are aware of the ability he possesses, are forced to over-compensate in an attempt to slow him down, and are subsequently out of position when De Paul finds his teammates in space with a penetrative vertical pass.
De Paul has also displayed an ability to dictate and progress play against deeper blocks, and is comfortable receiving the ball from his center backs before executing dangerous lofted balls in-behind the opposition backline. His range of passing is impressive, and as the key figure in Udinese’s side, he fulfills a number of midfield roles — that of an 8 when progressing play, that of a 6 when spraying measured passes from deep, and that of a 10 when creating chances in the final-third.
With just one recorded assist this season, De Paul’s creative stats, from afar, don’t exactly jump off the screen. When delving deeper, however, it’s quite clear that De Paul is a fantastic chance creator that has been criminally let down by teammates. 5.9 expected assists (2nd in Serie A), 4.99 shot-creating actions p/90 (5th), and 2.68 key passes p/90 (4th) suggests he’s one of the outstanding creative players in the league. Sam/@GoalAnalysis (a must-follow) backed up this perception with his recent scatter plot, which highlighted that De Paul is one of the unluckiest creators in Europe. Constantly providing, constantly let down.
The slideshows below show exactly why De Paul is so effective in advanced areas. A mix of great spacial awareness and intelligence in possession means he picks up smart pockets between the lines before finding teammates with intricate, disguised through balls. He also often showcases great ability in tighter areas of space, combining neatly with teammates with lovely moments of combination play. His set-piece expertise is also a notable aspect of his game – his ability from corners, free-kicks, and penalties would come in handy for most sides.
De Paul has a tendency to drift towards the right half-space in possession, and often delivers inviting crosses into the six-yard box or smart cut backs to onrushing teammates. We’d argue he’s most dangerous in these areas, as he constantly locates really dangerous pockets of space between the opposition’s left-sided midfield and defensive line. It’s such a difficult area for teams to defend, and De Paul’s reliable end product makes him such a threat in these positions.
Speaking of end product, his goalscoring abilities are just as noteworthy. He not only possesses an intelligent knack for arriving into the box at the right moments, but has great range from distance, gets his shots off away quickly, and generates serious force with little backlift. Precise curlers, powerful drives, and inventive placements, he’s got a diverse selection of finishes in his skillset.
Areas to Improve On
When a player has the ball so often, it feels normal that the opposition will look to nullify him more so than anyone else. That being said, De Paul occasionally overcomplicates his decisions – rather than a simple layoff, for example – and gets himself into trouble. While this would probably improve in a side where the over-reliance on him is diminished, this is a trait De Paul needs to remove from his game.
De Paul’s defensive effort should also rightfully be questioned. While he often presses high when the opposition builds from the back, he isn’t consistent and seems to lack the willingness to do the dirty work. In the GIF below, you’ll notice how easy his opponent goes around him before creating a goal-scoring chance. In the modern game, and at a higher level, this lackluster defending isn’t acceptable.
On the Verge of a Move?
Over the last few seasons, De Paul has consistently proven that he’s one of the better all-round, versatile midfielders in Europe. A creative presence, a dictator from deep, and a progressive monster, De Paul’s diverse profile makes him such an intriguing option for so many sides. We don’t know yet where he’ll end up, but whoever does sign him will be making an extremely smart purchase.