From Alexis Sánchez to Márcio Amoroso, from Juan Cuadrado to Mauricio Isla, few teams have a better track record than Udinese Calcio when it comes to spotting raw South American youngsters, developing them into premium talents who are prepared for the top level, and selling them for a massive profit.
Their dedication to scouting unrefined talents from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and developing them into better players certainly paid off in the summer of 2015.
Argentine midfielder Roberto Pereyra joined Juventus on a permanent deal for a fee of €14 million after spending the previous season on loan at La Vecchia Signora.
Brazilian midfielder Allan joined Napoli for a fee of €11.5 million, becoming an essential cog in Maurizio Sarri’s side before leaving for Everton, whilst his compatriots Douglas Santos and Naldo left the club for €3 million each.
Colombian striker Luis Muriel headed for Sampdoria for €12 million, whilst just a few months later Venezuela winger Adalberto Peñaranda ended up at Watford for €10.6 million.
They have continued to export and sell South American talents for hefty sums, with Uruguayan winger Nicolás López joining Internacional in 2016, Brazilians Guilherme, Lucas Evangelista, Edenilson and Gabriel Silva leaving in the following two years, and Venezuelan winger Darwin Machís joining Granada in 2019.
The summer of 2021 saw the Friulani continue this trend and lose perhaps their two most important players. Argentine goalkeeper Juan Musso left for Atalanta for €20 million, whilst his compatriot Rodrigo De Paul headed for Atlético Madrid following a stellar display to lead the Albiceleste to glory in Brazil’s Copa América.
Born in Sarandí, Greater Buenos Aires, Rodrigo De Paul joined the academy of Racing Club de Avellaneda at the age of eight, rising up the ranks before making his debut on February 10, 2013, replacing Mauro Camoranesi in a 0-3 loss to San Martín de San Juan.
He quickly became a starter, registering 6 goals and 6 assists in 56 appearances, before joining Valencia on May 9, 2014 for a fee of $6.5 million.
De Paul’s time in Spain started off on the wrong foot; after replacing Paco Alcácer in the 65th minute in the season opener against Sevilla, he was sent off just a minute later after elbowing Aleix Vidal.
Nevertheless, the Argentine became a valuable supersub under Nuno Espírito Santo, recording 2 goals and 4 assists in 29 appearances as Valencia finished fourth in the league.
The following season, on the other hand, was not as kind to Los Che; De Paul started Valencia’s first two league matches, but he would play just 59 more minutes before Nuno was sacked on November 29 following a 0-1 loss to Sevilla.
And whilst he did start back-to-back matches against Real Madrid and Real Sociedad under new manager Gary Neville, he soon found himself below the pecking order and decided to return to Racing on loan for the remainder of the season.
Upon his return to Europe, De Paul was promptly shipped out to Udinese, with Valencia accepting a loss of €1.7 million on the €4.7 million that they had paid for him just two years prior.
After narrowly avoiding relegation in 2014/15 and 2015/16, the Friuliani have gradually established themselves as a mid-table side in Serie A.
Players like Bruno Fernandes and Piotr Zieliński have departed Udine, eight separate managers have come and gone since the start of the 2016/17 campaign, and the club’s recruitment and ambition has suffered as the Pozzo family ownership has turned the bulk of their investment to Watford.
But Udinese have punched above their weight on the back of De Paul, who has gone from strength to strength in Italy: 9 goals and 7 assists in 2018/19, 7 goals and 7 assists in 2019/20, and 9 goals and 11 assists in 2020/21.
It makes for impressive reading, but not quite as impressive as his underlying stats: amongst midfielders in Europe, De Paul ranked first for expected assists (xA), progressive runs, successful passes in the opponent’s area, and successful dribbles in December 2020.
Rodrigo de Paul in questo inizio di stagione (per 90'):
▪️1° centrocampista in Europa per xA
▪️1° centrocampista in Europa per corse progressive
▪️1° centrocampista in Serie A per passaggi riusciti vs area avversaria
▪️1° centrocampista in Serie A per dribbling riusciti pic.twitter.com/LxxVC2A9u3
— Calcio Datato (@CalcioDatato) December 14, 2020
After another bottom-half finish in 2020/21, it seemed a mere formality that De Paul would depart Udinese and join a side playing in European competition. Whilst the likes of Juventus, Leeds and Inter were interested, it was Atlético Madrid who won the race for the Argentine, who signed a five-year contract.
“He started really well, then missed a few games here and there. In the last couple months, I feel like he has sort of been lost in the chaos at Atleti. He has a few bits of real quality here and there but at times a bit indisciplined,” says La Liga Lowdown journalist Ruairidh Barlow.
“He can be a bit loose with pass selection. Sometimes he goes for the Hollywood option when perhaps it isn’t necessary. So far I’d also say he’s only really excelled with a bit of space to work with, which to be fair is his game. As in, if he can play passes in behind or if there are gaps in the midfield, he looks better and struggles more with a deeper block.”
At first, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Atlético had won the league title, edging Barcelona and Real Madrid to their first triumph since 2013/14, and they were eager to add a player with his creative ilk and fierce work rate and dedication to combine with Marcos Llorente, João Félix, Luis Suárez and Ángel Correa in the final third.
Moreover, De Paul’s gritty, physical performances throughout the Copa seemed readymade for his compatriot Diego Simeone’s style of play. Atlético Madrid, who had sold Thomas Partey in the previous summer window, were desperate for a midfielder of his characteristics, and pulled the trigger to sign the Argentine on a five-year contract.
After coming off the bench for Thomas Lemar in the second half of the league opener, where Atlético defeated Celta Vigo 2-1, De Paul started the following match against Elche.
Los Colchoneros took the lead early on after Geoffrey Kondogbia poked the ball off Lucas Boyé, setting De Paul up to take a touch and unleash Ángel Correa on goal with a perfectly placed through ball.
When former Leeds goalkeeper Kiko Casilla failed to accurately judge the direction of the ball and allowed Correa to scamper through on goal with an empty net to shoot at, the Argentine striker made no mistake from close range.
Atlético would proceed to win this match 1-0 and the following one against Celta Vigo, whilst De Paul would start in Argentine’s following two victories against Bolivia and Venezuela.
That form quickly dried up for Simeone’s men, as Atlético started September off with a draw against Athletic Club, a 2-1 win over Getafe and a 1-0 loss to Deportivo Alavés. Whilst they had done fairly well in Europe, drawing 0-0 to Porto before defeating Milan 2-1, the cracks were starting to show in La Liga.
De Paul started in Atleti’s following match against Barcelona but lasted just 45 minutes before being hauled off for Kieran Trippier in a 2-0 victory, whilst he started as Argentina defeated Peru and Uruguay in the World Cup qualifiers as well as drawing 0-0 to Paraguay.
Although they capped off the month with a 3-0 win against Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis on Halloween, Atleti suffered a torrid October under Simeone, losing to Liverpool and drawing to Real Sociedad and Levante in the league.
Atleti did manage to advance to the knockout round by the skin of their teeth when they defeated Porto 3-1 on the final matchday, and face a daunting matchup against Manchester United.
December proved to be even worse for Los Rojiblancos, who lost to Mallorca, Real Madrid, Sevilla and Granada to slip further down the league table.
They began 2022 off on the right note with wins against Rayo Vallecano and Rayo Majadahonda, but they relapsed in form by drawing to Villarreal and losing to Athletic Club and Real Sociedad.
De Paul started in the double pivot alongside Koke as Atleti defeated José Bordalás’ Valencia 3-2 on January 22. Despite entering halftime with a 0-2 deficit, Atleti were bolstered by the super substitute performances of Ángel Correa and Matheus Cunha and came out winners 3-2 with two goals in extra time.
He headed off for Chile to take part in Argentina’s World Cup qualifier, with Argentina opening the scoring thanks to an assist from De Paul who set up Ángel Di María’s goal, followed by goals from Ben Brereton Díaz and Lautaro Martínez to seal a 2-1 win.
The Argentine returned for a crucial match in the hunt for the final Champions League spot — not the league title as would have been the case in recent years — and started in midfield against Barcelona on February 6.
Atleti took the lead in the eighth minute via Yannick Carrasco, but they were nevertheless blown out of the door as the Blaugranas came out victorious via goals from Jordi Alba, Gavi, Ronald Araújo and Dani Alves.
Despite the underwhelming result, De Paul stood out as one of Atleti’s top performers with five key passes, completing four out of six long balls, three out of three crosses, six out of 11 ground duels as well as winning three tackles, two interceptions and three fouls.
The 27-year-old was nevertheless dropped to the bench in the following match against Getafe, which saw Atleti come close to an early lead in the ninth minute as Luis Suárez was felled by goalkeeper David Soria in the area.
Soria, however, had the last laugh, diving to stop El Pistolero’s low, driven strike before stretching back to scoop up the rebound before it dared to spin backwards into the goal.
They would have to wait just 10 minutes before their opener as a chorus of deflected headers saw Correa sneak into the area and convert from close range.
Atleti doubled the lead as Marcos Llorente, deputizing for the injured Daniel Wass at the right back position, timed his run to perfection and slammed in a cross for Thomas Lemar who deflected it to Matheus Cunha who tucked home the second.
Getafe got one back as Jakub Jankto’s inswinging cross met the foot of Borja Mayoral, the first time a Getafe player had scored against Atleti in 11 years, the first in the Simeone era.
When Cunha handled the ball in the penalty area, Enes Ünal squared things up from the spot. Getafe were given another lifeline as Lemar blocked a cross from Damián Suárez with his hand, allowing the Turkish to score his second past Jan Oblak.
Nevertheless, Atleti managed to escape the first half level as Lemar raced towards the left wing to pick up a deflected pass and fired a cross into the area. The cross sailed past Suárez and Cunha but met the head of Correa, who calmly fired in the sixth goal of the first 45 minutes.
Getafe and Atleti found themselves on level pegging in the 58th minute when Felipe Monteiro, aiming to beat the younger Mauro Arrambari to the ball at the edge of the center circle, decided to stick his boot into the mid-section of the Uruguayan midfielder and received his marching orders.
Forced to reshuffle his ranks, Simeone brought on Mario Hermoso for Luis Suárez before making a triple substitution 14 minutes later as João Félix, Rodrigo De Paul and Šime Vrsalijko came on for Cunha, Kondogbia and Correa.
Quique Sánchez Flores responded with changes of his own, bringing on striker Jaime Mata for center back Stefan Mitrović and subbing off Óscar Rodríguez for fellow January pickup Gonzalo Villar as well as taking off Jakub Jankto for Jonathan Silva.
The Colchoneros were given a chance for redemption in the 89th minute after receiving a free kick, which saw Rodrigo De Paul curl the ball past a sea of players and into the head of João Félix, whose pass reached center back Mario Hermoso. The ex Espanyol defender stabbed at the ball to control it, before smashing in a bicycle kick to snatch a late victory.
As they prepare for Wednesday’s match against Levante, who sit rooted to the bottom of the La Liga table with a mere 11 points from 23 games, 13 away from safety, Atleti face a staggeringly different task ahead of them: instead of fighting for the title, they’re challenging for the final Champions League spot.
Following their nail-biting victory against Getafe, Atlético Madrid sit fifth in the table, albeit level on 39 points with 4th place Barcelona and one point ahead of Real Sociedad.
Their crosstown rivals have opened a 15-point gap on them atop the league table, whilst second-place Sevilla and third-place Real Betis sit comfy with 50 and 43 points, respectively. Other teams such as Villarreal (36), Athletic Club (34) and Osasuna (32) could be capable of closing the gap and joining the party.
After hosting bottom dwellers Levante, Atlético will pay a visit to Osasuna before hosting Manchester United in the first leg of their Round of 16 duel.
Having lost to Real Sociedad in the previous month in the Copa del Rey and lost to fellow Basque side Athletic Club in the Supercopa de España, the Champions League represents Atlético’s sole chance of silverware this year.
Atlético Madrid started off the Simeone era as a European powerhouse, defeating Athletic Club 3-0 in the 2012 Europa League Final and advancing past Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea before losing to Real Madrid in the 2014 Champions League Final.
After being knocked out of the Champions League at the quarterfinals stage by Los Blancos via a late Chicharito goal, it seemed they were cursed.
They nevertheless bounced back in 2015/16, edging past PSV, Barcelona and Bayern Munich before once again losing to Real Madrid, this time on penalties, on football’s biggest stage. They encountered the same fate the following season at the semifinal stage, before crashing out of their Champions League group in the 2017/18 season for the first time under Simeone.
Having been tossed out of one competition and thrown into another, Atleti brushed past Copenhagen, Lokomotiv Moscow, Sporting and Arsenal in the Europa League before defeating Marseille 3-0 in the Final. It was their first European trophy in 6 years, and it promised brighter skies for Los Rojiblancos.
The club came second in a group of Monaco, Borussia Dortmund and Club Brugge before losing to Juventus, who overturned a two-goal deficit to win 3-2 on aggregate. Once again, the opponent’s assassin was Cristiano Ronaldo, who fired in a hat-trick to lead Juve to the following round.
Atleti faced Juventus again in the group stage the following season, with Ronaldo failing to find the net in either fixture. They managed to see off Liverpool in extra time, but they were nevertheless unable to progress further as USMNT midfielder Tyler Adams gave RB Leipzig a shock victory in the 88th minute.
The Rojiblancos finished second in their group in 2020/21 and were eliminated at an even earlier stage as Chelsea comfortably progressed and reaped revenge for the 2014 elimination. They now face a similar foe in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, this time for Manchester United.
Like Atlético, Ronaldo had been suffering a historic low with a 587-minute scoreless drought, his lowest since 2008/09, but he was able to put an end to his woes by scoring in a 2-0 win against Brighton. In order to keep the Portuguese marksman silent, Atleti will need De Paul to be solid as ever, whether as a starter or an impact sub.
By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Fran Santiago – Getty Images