Rodrigo de Paul's name has been floating around the transfer rumour mill for some time.
Much to the dismay of Leeds United fans, who were seduced by a string of intoxicating YouTube compilations last summer, De Paul's future has finally been decided.
Atletico Madrid, not ordinarily a place for creative midfielders to thrive, confirmed his arrival recently as they look to defend the La Liga title this season. At first glance, the move looks a bit surprising. What exactly will De Paul be bringing to Diego Simeone's side?
A ridiculous dribbler
It is hard to overstate the magic De Paul is capable of with the ball at his feet. Over the past few seasons he has consistently proven himself to be one of the best dribblers in the world.
During the 2020/21 season he racked up a progressive distance of 7,911 yards. These were the second best figures in Serie A and the sixth best in Europe’s top five leagues. This was not a one-off either. The prior campaign he also clocked the sixth best progressive distance numbers in Europe’s top five leagues.
De Paul is adept at carrying the ball into dangerous areas as well. During the 2019/20 campaign his 122 carries into the final third was the sixth best in Europe’s big boy leagues. He only narrowly trailed Jack Grealish in this regard, despite playing considerably less games. Last season he fared even better - only Lionel Messi carried the ball into the danger zone more frequently.
No matter how many opponents are in front of him, De Paul’s lethal combination of seemingly magnetic feet, crazy agility and low centre of gravity means he rarely has any problem finding space in behind them.
Imagining him bursting past players as Atleti transition from their stubborn low block into a devastating counter is enough to make any Simeone stan salivate.
De Paul does not just progress the ball via his dribbling. He is also an accomplished passer, blessed with the vision and technique to create chances with through balls and occasionally, crosses.
Last season he was among the continent’s elite for progressive passes - completed passes which move the ball 10 yards towards the opponents goal from its furthest point in the previous six passes. De Paul racked up 264, the sixth best in Europe’s big five leagues and more than the likes of Joshua Kimmich, Bruno Fernandes and Luka Modric.
This combination of incisive dribbling and passing make De Paul a nightmare to defend against. Get too close and he’ll simply slip past you. However, provide him with too much room and he can pick apart your defence with a well weighted through ball or driven pass fizzed into the striker.
De Paul also completed 20 crosses into the 18-yard box, excluding set pieces, the most of any central midfielder in Serie A. This is indicative of his ability to drift into wide spaces if he has no joy in the middle, adding another string to his bow.
A threat in front of goal
Although principally a creator, De Paul has also scored pretty consistently in recent seasons. Over the past three campaigns he has managed 25 goals - only five of which were penalties.
He is unlikely to receive spot kick duties at Atletico while Luis Suarez is still at the club, so how else has De Paul found the net in the past?
Well, he is certainly no stranger to a wonder-strike. During his maiden season at Udinese, he scored a terrific goal from outside the box, quickly adjusting his feet before thundering a strike well past the reach of the goalkeeper. He repeated the trick in a vital win against Chievo Verona during the 2018/19 campaign. The goal of the season contenders have kept on coming since then as well.
A lot of goals have also stemmed from his attacking the left half-space, before cutting inside and firing or curling an effort home. The most famous example of this came against Genoa back in 2019. What a strike that was, well worth seeking out if you have not seen it yet.
There are no doubts about De Paul's ability on the ball, but can the same be said about his defensive work? This is particularly important for Atleti boss Simeone. One or two slight exceptions aside, there are no defensive passengers in his squad. Discipline and tenacity without the ball is a must.
Statistically speaking, De Paul is some way off where he needs to be in this regard. Last season he averaged 1.24 tackles per 90 minutes, numbers far inferior to the three centre-midfielders Atleti finished the season with: Koke, Marcos Llorente and Saul Niguez. It is the same story for interceptions.
De Paul also registered well below the Atletico average for pressures, although this was more a result of a change of role in the Udinese setup. Previously he has racked up figures higher than Simeone’s midfielder trio managed.
Oddly, despite his apparent deficiencies in other areas, De Paul also registered a similar number of blocks to his new teammates. This suggests that there are reasons to be optimistic about his ability to meet Simeone’s defensive demands.
The extent of this success will depend on how coachable he is. Joao Felix and Thomas Lemar have both struggled to adapt to El Cholo-ball at times, resulting in spells outside the first team. For all of his talent, De Paul will need to respect the system if he wishes to retain a starting spot this season.