Rodrigo De Paul is one of the players who stands to benefit most from Gary Neville's appointment as Valencia's new head coach, and the Argentinian will hope to make an instant impression by providing a telling contribution in the club's decisive Champions League match at home to Olympique Lyonnais on Wednesday.
De Paul was born in Sarandi in Greater Buenos Aires and began his career on the pitches of the local side Deportivo Belgrano, just three blocks away from his family home. At eight, he was accepted into the youth system of Racing Club -- one of Argentina's big five -- where he progressed up through the ranks as a central attacking midfielder. After a spell in the reserves he made his first-team debut in February 2013 under the orders of Luis Zubeldia.
The then-18-year-old produced a spectacular long-range strike in his second start away to San Martin de San Juan a month later and was a regular in the first XI between then and the end of the campaign. He carried that status into the following season, and by the end of the Torneo Final had become a key attacking influence in a side that also featured current Atletico Madrid forward Luciano Vietto. By then, his next move had already been agreed.
De Paul turned down offers from Arsenal, Inter Milan and Udinese to join Valencia in a €5 million deal that was completed in the summer of 2014. He got off to a difficult start with a red card just a minute after coming onto the pitch for his debut away to Sevilla in the opening game of the season, but he gradually found his feet and began to show glimpses of real talent in a series of mainly substitute appearances during his debut campaign in La Liga.
Strong displays in pre-season and a couple of promising early-season performances on the left side of the midfield three suggested that this could be his breakout year, but he then found himself inexplicably frozen out by coach Nuno Espirito Santo. He saw just 11 minutes of action between Oct. 4 and Nuno's resignation on Nov. 29 and was left out of the match-day squad on numerous occasions. A January move seemed likely.
But Nuno's departure and the arrival of Neville -- who has promised that all of his players will "start with a clean slate" -- has changed the situation.
"I didn't have the confidence of the coach but my teammates and the supporters were always behind me," De Paul noted after returning to the side with a very solid display in Saturday's draw at home to Barcelona, and he will now hope for further opportunities to repay that faith over the coming months.
De Paul is a natural, head-up dribbler capable of cutting in dangerously from the left and firing powerful and accurate efforts on goal. Whether positioned out wide or deeper in midfield, he glides forward confidently with the ball at his feet and is always alert to the positions of those around him. While he links well in tight quarters, he does, however, need to add more consistency and variety to his passing in order to be more regularly decisive.
- A swift and confident dribbler
- Good touch and vision
- A powerful shooter
- Very one-footed
- Inconsistent passing quality
- A little predictable at times
Tackling: Displays a decent knack for winning the ball on the very limited occasions he is taken on one-on-one, with sufficient nimbleness of foot to nip in and do so cleanly.
Marking: He has worked hard to improve the defensive aspect of his game but it is still not something that comes naturally to him. Willing and able to track back quickly when possession is lost but can lose track of runners in and around him when positioned deeper as part of a set defensive block.
Heading: Stands at under six foot and is not really a threat in the air, as illustrated by the fact that he had just two headed attempted on goals over the course of the last two and a half seasons. Loses around three-quarters of his aerial duels.
Close control: Possesses a good first touch and displays great confidence in his ability to keep the ball under control at pace, which allows him to keep his head up and stride forward with purpose and a clear view of the picture ahead of him. Has sufficient strength and pace to move infield from the left into shooting positions.
Passing: Generally links well in tight quarters and has already struck up a promising partnership with Jose Luis Gaya down Valencia's left flank. Displays good awareness of the positioning of his teammates but the quality of the resulting passes varies. Occasionally make things unnecessarily difficult for his teammates by lofting passes that could have been played along the ground, while he can also over-telegraph when linking infield.
Positioning: Most dangerous when he receives the ball on the break or with an overlapping full-back or other runner in tow to create space ahead of him. Less effective against packed defences and rarely makes off-ball runs in behind. While he is still difficult to halt, this does make him a little predictable at times, and more variation would add significantly to his game.
Crossing: Capable of providing both low and drilled and precise and high deliveries into the area, and usually does so with good quality. Although he is far from a prolific crosser of the ball, they did produce three of his four assists last season.
Finishing: Regularly looks to cut inside from the left into shooting positions and strikes the ball cleanly and accurately having done so, generally aiming for the corners. Has averaged well over two shots per 90 minutes during his time in Spain to date and while he has only scored once, his shooting numbers suggest that he should be capable of making a more significant contribution given increased game-time.
What the experts say
Former Racing coach Reinaldo Merlo: "His greatest strength, without a doubt, is the ability he has to strike the ball with a great deal of power."
Former Valencia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi: "Rodrigo is the best prospect to come through in Argentina in the last five years."
Some nice bursts from wide areas, slotted in centrally with ease, also did share of defensive work. RDP should be cornerstone of this team.
- David Cartlidge (@davidjaca) December 5, 2015
During his time at Racing, De Paul would regularly use his free time to return to Deportivo Belgrano to assist with training sessions and provide advice to the young players hoping to follow in his footsteps.
De Paul is a well-centred individual, has good technical qualities and gives the impression that he still has a lot of untapped potential waiting to be unleashed. He has shown himself to be equally comfortable as a winger as he is in carrying the ball forward from a deeper midfield role but it may be that he needs to focus on one of the two positions in order to iron out his weak points and make the most of his ability.
The 21-year-old is already a fan favourite at the Mestalla and it will be interesting to see just how prominent a role he is able to claim once Neville has settled in and other players have returned from injury. He would certainly do his hopes of further minutes no harm by producing a decisive performance on Wednesday as Valencia go in search of the three points they need to have any chance of progressing to the last 16 of the Champions League.