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  • Writer's pictureOwen Mawer

Rodrigo de Paul: Diego Simeone’s dream which remains a fantasy

When Rodrigo De Paul made the move from Udinese to Atlético Madrid for a fee of €35 million in the summer of 2021, the transfer of such an exciting and dynamic midfielder was initially regarded as a smart piece of transfer business on behalf of Los Colchoneros. But nine months on, the jury remains out on the Argentinian.

At first glance, this move has all the hallmarks of a very successful union between manager and player, an opportunity that the 27-year-old has ground out for himself. The journey that has seen him become a marquee signing in the Spanish top-flight began aged eight, in Buenos Aires.

Despite being born in Sarandí, where the local club is Arsenal de Sarandí, De Paul joined the youth setup for one of their inner-city rivals, Racing Club, a team once managed by a young Diego Simeone in 2006. De Paul worked his way up through the ranks before making his professional debut against Atlético de Rafaela in February 2013, aged 18.

In the season that followed, De Paul played 35 matches and became captain of the side. This, his breakthrough season, did not go unnoticed, as Racing Club were subject to interest from Valencia for his services. The clubs agreed on a €10 million fee and the midfielder completed his move across the Atlantic in June 2014 on a five-year deal.

The former director of football for Valencia, Francisco Joaquín Pérez 'Rufete', said of De Paul upon his signing: “He has talent and potential, as well as great maturity in the game. We believe that Rodrigo has everything to succeed at Valencia and in European football.” How right he was — about the latter part at least.

His Valencia career could barely have got off to a worse start, as he was promptly sent off on his debut for a stray elbow to the face of Aleix Vidal of Sevilla. Under head coach Nuno Espírito Santo, De Paul featured 29 times in all competitions in his first season for Los Murciélagos. During his second season, under the hapless management of Gary and Phil Neville, he found himself out of favour and loaned back to Racing Club in February 2016.

This premature homecoming gave the player time to reflect with family and friends whilst playing in familiar surroundings. At the end of the season, he returned to Valencia only to secure a permanent move away. His ambitions of staying in Europe and proving himself on the continent still burned fiercely. De Paul made a €12 million transfer to Udinese, in Serie A.

What De Paul learned early on at Udinese was the importance of versatility. In his early days at the club, he played mainly as a left-winger but soon drifted into positions all across the front line. More importantly for De Paul, he was getting regular game time and becoming a valued member of the side. In his first season, he made 35 appearances and either equalled or bettered this total in his five seasons at the club.

Serie A football suited De Paul, who used his inherent athletic ability to stride forward with the ball at his feet, turning defence into attack. During particularly cagey matches, he was able to split defences with his long-range and precise passing. By the time of his third season, a settled De Paul was a reliable box-to-box midfielder and enjoyed success in front of goal; he scored nine goals in the 2018/19 campaign and provided nine assists, making him the top goalscorer for the club that year.

Consistent and game-winning performances for club would start to be noticed by country, and he made his Argentina debut in October 2018. His move to Udinese had paid off and before he knew it he was part of the squad for the 2019 Copa América in which La Albiceleste finished third overall.

Back in Italy, i Friulani soon became aware of the acclaim their star was receiving and offered him a five-year contract extension after the tournament to ward off interest from other clubs. In the subsequent campaign, De Paul led by example and became club captain in December 2020, replacing the departed Kevin Lasagna. His leadership attributes were there for all to see and there was now a line of potential suitors following him closely.

Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa was one of the first to test the waters around the Argentine. El Loco was clearly an admirer of his compatriot and wanted him to be the surprise signing for his newly-promoted Leeds side. The transfer links formed the background to Leeds’ return to the Premier League following a 16-year hiatus and soon had the fanbase dreaming of Rodrigo De Paul. The saga lasted the duration of the 2020/21 season, as the likes of Liverpool, Inter Milan, Manchester United and Atlético Madrid made serious enquiries. Despite their interest, De Paul remained focused on Udinese and his own game, with the 2021 Copa América very much in sight.

Udinese finished 14th and their captain was selected again for his national team. Any news of a transfer would have to be delayed. At the tournament, De Paul was a reliable figure in the heart of midfield and opened the scoring in the quarter-finals against Ecuador, a game that ended three-nil to the Argentines.

An insatiable Argentina reached the final, and De Paul started the game against their hosts Brazil. The indispensable midfielder provided the moment of the match with a well-calculated long ball from deep in his defensive half, which put Ángel Di María through one-on-one. He slid it past the keeper with a cool finish for the only goal of the game. Thanks to De Paul’s efforts, Argentina won their 15th Copa América title, a staggering 28 years after the previous one.

After success with the national team, it was time for De Paul to decide on his future, but it seemed that he’d already made his mind up. He was soon unveiled as Atlético Madrid’s new signing only a few days after winning the Copa América. For De Paul, to play under the legendary Simeone was a no-brainer: “To be coached by one of the world’s best managers is incredible. His career and achievements speak volumes and will never be forgotten.” Aside from showing his new coach plenty of respect during his first interview with his new club, he explained further: “We [Simeone and De Paul] understand and feel football in a very similar way.”

Yet, the fairytale move hasn’t quite gone according to plan in his first season at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. 34 appearances into his career in Madrid, he has registered just one goal and two assists. That works out at an average of a goal involvement every 716 minutes, compared to one every 170 minutes in 2020/21, every 208 in 2019/20 and every 207 in 2018/19.

It is still early days, though, and he is being eased into his new surroundings. His performance in Atleti’s 3-2 defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League was one of his finest for his new team. He pressed high, was strong in the challenge and showcased his vision to make a killer pass. On another night he would have got at least two assists.

For now, his role is a perplexing one. Many Atleti fans are baffled by the way in which Simeone is squeezing the round peg of De Paul into the square hole of Atlético’s midfield. Whereas he has excelled as a playmaker for Argentina, operating as a traditional number 10, he is being deployed in a much deeper role at Atlético. With more defensive responsibilities and more work to do, his vision has not yet enabled him to open up quite as many opportunities.

There have been tensions off the pitch too. MARCA reported in January that there was unrest in the dressing room, with De Paul having struggled to integrate and only enjoying a good relationship with fellow Spanish-speaking South Americans, Luis Suárez and Ángel Correa. Even now, Diario AS have reported that a meeting of the club’s players saw all except de Paul agree to a pay cut in the case of failure to qualify for the Champions League. At least, until the rest of the squad convinced him.

There is something about De Paul that just doesn’t quite seem to be clicking at Atlético Madrid. He seemed to tick all the boxes, but while on-pitch challenges can be worked on (just ask Thomas Lemar and Yannick Carrasco), off-field issues are often difficult to work out, and it’s something that Simeone hasn’t been patient with in the past.

If he can nail down and overcome these obstacles early on in his Atlético career, De Paul has a real opportunity to be at the heart of the future of Simeone’s midfield. When looking at how players like Koke, Saúl Ñíguez and Thomas Partey all improved as midfielders under the coach, there leaves a great deal of excitement to see the heights De Paul can reach with ‘El Cholo’ guiding his progress. De Paul himself will be looking to redeem himself from his uninspiring spell at Valencia all those years ago. Here’s hoping Spain will see him at his best for the coming years.

To see what becomes of De Paul at Atlético Madrid, follow us at @LaLigaLowdown on Twitter.

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