Leeds United have already smashed their club-record transfer this summer with the signing of Valencia forward Rodrigo, but could they be about to break it again?
The West Yorkshire club marked their return to the Premier League with an attack-versus-attack extravaganza at Anfield, with Marcelo Bielsa pitting his wits against Jurgen Klopp. The seesawing contest saw Liverpool walk away with all three points in a 4-3 win, but Leeds set out their stall for the season.
They may be a newly-promoted club but it would appear that Bielsa has instilled a top-flight mentality in his players: they are not going to be intimidated by any club, or stadium, even the reigning Premier League champions.
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Not that many thought otherwise, but it’s clear Leeds are not just in the Premier League to make up the numbers. The signing of Rodrigo has already illustrated their intent for the campaign, and they are now in the market for another of Europe’s most sought-after forwards.
Udinese talisman Rodrigo de Paul has been heavily linked with a move to Elland Road this summer, and that potential transfer to West Yorkshire gained serious traction earlier this week after the Argentina international dropped a major bombshell on social media.
After Leeds fanzine ‘The Square Ball’ revealed that De Paul wants to join Bielsa’s side, with the two clubs yet to reach a transfer agreement, the 26-year-old tweeted back: “Yes”, accompanied by a fingers-crossed emoji, before promptly deleting the message.
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) September 14, 2020
So, it would seem that Leeds could be about to get their hands on one of Serie A’s most consistent and intelligent playmakers, but what exactly can fans expect? What attributes does the Argentine bring to the table? And where would he fit into Bielsa’s system?
Rodrigo de Paul: positional versatility a key factor
The lithe playmaker first burst onto the scene in his native Argentina as a left winger, impressing at boyhood club Racing with a repertoire of tricks and skills synonymous with the nation of his birth. Naturally, his performances for a club nicknamed the Academy garnered the attention of Europe’s elite.
It wasn’t long before Valencia came knocking and lured De Paul to the Mestalla for his first tentative steps into European football. Despite the hype surrounding his signature, the precocious South American failed to acclimatise to the demands of La Liga and was eventually loaned back to Racing.
Cast away in Valencia after only two seasons, Udinese gambled on the struggling winger, and well, there was no bedding in period for De Paul, nor were there any teething issues during the embryonic stages of his time at the Stadio Friuli. He took to Italian football like a duck to water.
His first two seasons returned an impressive 17 direct contributions in Serie A (eight goals, nine assists) but it was the 2018/19 campaign that saw his stock skyrocket and led to links with Inter Milan. Despite turning out for a struggling side, De Paul scored nine times and provided a further eight assists. All of which is to say, he finished or played the final pass in 46% of Udinese’s 37 goals.
For a side that finished just five points above the relegation zone that season (and as the division’s third-lowest scorers), De Paul’s top-line output were nothing short of influential. He almost single-handedly dragged the club to safety and all while playing across various roles in an imbalanced side.
In then Udinese manager Davide Nicola’s 3-5-2 formation, De Paul was asked to perform out wide, through the middle and even up front. Such versatility will no doubt have made it into one of the many pages in Bielsa’s dossier on De Paul.
The Argentine forward would likely function as another wide option for Bielsa, a like-for-like Pablo Hernandez replacement (who will be 36 this season), or even as a substitute for Patrick Bamford if the English marksman is enduring a dry spell. This flexibility will have Bielsa purring at the possibility.
Creativity and vision offers Hernandez alternative
As we alluded to, De Paul has slowly transitioned to a more central player and will feel his best position is now through the middle. He has exhibited the kind of creativity that comes naturally to world class No.10s and would offer Bielsa an exceptional alternative to the ageing Hernandez.
With excellent dribbling and flair to complement his end product, De Paul has all the requisite tools to thrive in Bielsa’s system. With Kalvin Phillips mopping up further back and providing ample protection, De Paul would have license to operate more freely and create openings for his attacking teammates.
Last season in Serie A, De Paul created 77 chances for his teammates, the sixth-most in the entire division, as well as 17 big chances, the second-most. He also completed 62 take-ons (11th highest) and made the joint fifth-most ball recoveries (220).
It is that last number that will really stand out for Bielsa. The Argentine wants elite-level quality in his squad, but also players who fit his system, possess the required athleticism to function in his press-and-possess tactical set-up and, ultimately, are willing to put in the hard yards.
De Paul is a superb attacking outlet, but he is a willing worker and that will be highlighted in bold fluorescent yellow in Bielsa’s dossier. Names are irrelevant in the Argentine’s collective environment; just look at Jean-Kevin Augustin, who struggled to adapt to Bielsa’s blueprint last season.
Fans should be excited that Leeds are not only potentially getting one of Italian football’s most creative playmakers, but also someone who would flourish in Bielsa’s high-octane system. His work rate, versatility and dynamism make him a perfect fit for the strenuous demands of El Loco.
How Leeds could line up