There is an Argentinia proverb that states ‘The dog that barks all the time gets little attention.’
It teaches calm and patience. The noisy dog is the one that has not been taught these qualities, and so will be ignored. Yet there is something to be said in football for the dog to bark all the louder if they are to be noticed.
Rodrigo de Paul is one such beast. He possesses all the tenacity of a hound scratching at his cage, willing to be released. Yet whilst his national proverb preaches composure in the face of ferocity, this Argentinian has harnessed both poles.
The Young de Paul
De Paul’s story starts in Buenos Aires in 1994. He would develop through the youth ranks at Racing Club and make his senior bow in 2012.
That he replaced Mauro Camoranesi in his first appearance was a fitting piece of foresight. Capped over fifty times by Italy, Camoranesi was a versatile midfielder that could play centrally or wide. De Paul’s own progression would take an eerily similar path.
Having played two seasons with Racing, De Paul was transferred to Valencia. He had caught the eye of fellow Argentine Roberto Ayala, sporting director at Valencia at the time.
Yet it was not to be an easy transition. Aged just twenty he was raw and untamed, whilst the club were about to embark on a tumultuous period. De Paul was sent off in his first appearance and despite his manager branding him “the best Argentine talent to come through in five years”, it never came to fruition.
Gary Neville would be appointed as manager in 2015. This highlighted the deficiencies in the club’s vision, and with it saw the young midfielder loaned back to Racing. One goal in over thirty appearances at the Mestalla simply did not reflect his potential.
Udinese would come calling in 2016 at the end of a return loan pell to Racing. This is where the Rodrigo de Paul story really begins.
Finding home in Udine
Udinese have been one of Italy’s middling teams for the best part of three decades now. A top flight side since 1995, they have risen as high as third, and fallen as low as seventeenth.
This yo-yo act has made them a tricky bet to hedge. Capable of climbing the table one year, to staving off relegation the next. Within this time an impressive roll call of talent have shouldered the black and white of Udinese.
Antonio Di Natale. Alexis Sanchez. Antonio Candreva. Bruno Fernandes. Gokhan Inler. Allan. Juan Cuadrado. Samir Handanović. All have played at Stadio Friuli in the last decade.
Yet that these talents have come and gone largely explains the inconsistency of the club’s finishes. Since 2013/14 Udinese have finished no higher than twelfth (in 2018/19).
Rodrigo de Paul has been at the club since 2016, and it is frankly testament to his role that they remain in the division at all.
Becoming the Man
De Paul was entrusted with the number ten shirt upon arriving at Udinese. It had been Di Natale’s since 2004, with the Italian scoring 191 league goals in a club record 385 appearances.
The darling of the club bid farewell, and passed his shirt onto a new signing in de Paul. Immense responsibility for a player that was yet to find his true calling in Europe.
In his first season, the Argentine was mostly deployed in the final third as a right winger or attacking midfielder. It yielded four goals and two assists as they finished thirteenth. Udinese would slide a place further the following year, however de Paul’s output would step up by a further five assists.
Sixteen goals and fourteen assists would follow in the preceding two seasons. No squad player has come close to this overall contribution since his arrival. Whilst mid-table mediocrity is by no means ideal, there is a degree of gratitude towards their star player for allowing them to aim this high at all.
The levels on which to appreciate Rodrigo de Paul are vast and varied. Firstly there is the granular, statistical performances.
Once again Udinese sit close to mid-table in 2020/21, in twelfth position. Yet de Paul’s output has obliterated the competition.
Thirty seven key passes puts him second in the league. Eighty two final third passes is bettered by only four others. 108 progressive passes is second highest across Serie A, with forty four crosses ranking him third by this metric.
From this one can observe a world class distributor. Probing and attacking the defensive line with pentrative pass attempts, adding thrust and potency to an attacking outfit that has scored only fourteen league goals.
This year he at least has had creative responsibility shouldered by Roberto Pereyra. His fellow Argentine has assisted four goals in the league, over a quarter of the team’s goal total.
De Paul is nevertheless creating huge numbers of shots via his build up play. His sixty eight shot creating actions (SCA) are second only to Hakan Calhanoglu, the league’s best creator this year.
Propensity to break forward from deep shows in his 3891 progressive carry yards. No player has carried further, with second placed Theo Hernandez more than six hundred yards behind.
The burden of creative expression, goal scoring and moving the ball upfield is one few would be able to handle. Yet de Paul’s thriving under such conditions is testament to a rare talent, but also mentality. A warrior like mindset to pull his team behind him.
The eye test
For all the statistical merits of Rodrigo de Paul being a supreme midfielder, to watch him is yet another attack on the senses.
Under six foot tall, de Paul is not an immediately obvious presence on the field. A short crop of jet black hair and a deep set brow, the Argentine is unfussy on the eye. Ink sprawls down both arms, and even creeps down the length of his left leg. Expression and artistry under a somewhat unassuming facade.
On the ball he is measured and composed. Light, deft touches made at comfortable if unspectacular speed. De Paul bustles through tackles impressively, using his shorter frame to hold off pressure. He will lurk and withdraw between the penalty area and halfway line.
Finding him is the team’s primary aim. Upon receiving the ball he will break forward before releasing a through pass for a forward or wing back, or lash a shot at goal. Udinese play in a strict 3-5-2 with de Paul on the right of the three central midfielders. Coming from this angle, and driving towards the centre, allows the wing back space to run into on the overlap. That it also presents him with the right angle to fire across goal makes for another cute side effect.
The Argentine’s efforts on goal are on average 24.0 yards. As much as his role is to carry the ball forward from deep, his jackhammer right foot is essential to Luca Gotti’s attacking plan.
Should he not shoot, a sliced/wedged dink into the penalty area invites an aggressive header. Squint and it may just be Kevin de Bruyne in his favoured right sided space.
Udinese are not a high nor aggressive pressing side. Instead they will sit deep, soak pressure, and utilise their number ten’s carrying to burst forward. De Paul too is not a proficient presser, and instead aims to occupy useful spaces to be found in, and trigger the transition. Just over two defensive actions per ninety in 20/21 reflects his more passive defensive nature.
A new pasture
Those with any degree of interest in Italian football will have had an eye on de Paul since he first pulled on the black and white. However it is in the last three years that he has truly begun to push back the envelope on his potential.
The summer of 2020 saw the first major interest in the Argentine. Leeds United, promoted back to the Premier League, were within reach of securing his purchase. It seemed a perfect match. Marcelo Bielsa’s aggressive vertical style was in need of a direct central carrer. De Paul was the perfect template. Yet the move fell through despite enormous interest from the player himself.
Few moulds of player command the respect nor aclaim as the progressive central midfielder. The likes of Tanguy Ndombele, Ryan Gravenberch and Amadou Haidara are testament to this. De Paul has a few years of experience on these young talents, and would immediately improve a host of clubs across all levels.
The snobbery that occurs amongst the top clubs’ recruitment in recent years has long been staggering. Were the likes of Arsenal to look beyond the tried and tested names they so frequently resort to, they might move into more promising pastures.
Why is de Paul still at Udinese?
There once was a time where a star of a mid-table club would have to merely bide their time. The hungry, ambitious nature of the clubs above them would surely see them move. Yet recent years have seen a reticence from the bigger teams to ‘poach’ talent in this way.
It may be that they are unsure how their output will translate. It is one thing to perform at exceptional levels in a lesser team, where your talent shines brighter, and the play is channelled through constantly.
See Jack Grealish at Aston Villa. Wilfred Zaha at Crystal Palace. Domenico Berardi at Sassuolo. Each are their team’s talisman, responsible for the team’s attacking function (Sassuolo less so than the other two clubs).
The same may be said for Rodrigo de Paul. His numbers are too good to ignore. He is clearly a brilliant midfielder, both in a creative and a progressive sense. Yet would this be the case in a team where he was not the dominant talent?
This seems a redundant argument, yet it is the only one that makes sense. Whoever does take the plunge on the Argentine will be the envy of their competitors. It will be begged as to why others didn’t.
The loudest dog may be afforded less attention. Yet it may also be the one with most to say, exclaiming its’ case to be heard.
This is Rodrigo de Paul. It is time to loosen his leash.