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“I care a lot about Leo, and I know he cares a lot about me,” said Rodrigo De Paul on the eve of the World Cup. “Off the pitch we are close because we have fun, we are friends. And I have a good time with my friends.”
Lionel Messi has long been the talismanic figure of Argentina. The symbol of hope. The man, the immortal, the only celestial being capable of lifting Argentina’s third World Cup. Everything is geared around Messi.
Indeed, one of the grounds for their favourites tag heading into Qatar was the idea that, at long last, Argentina could empower him. As last year’s Copa America win vindicated, Messi was enabled.
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“Leo had an impressive Copa America,” De Paul added, typically glowingly. “We were looking at the stats on Instagram and he was leading in all of them: assists, goals, fouls won, dribbles, shots on goal.
“On the morning of the Copa America final, while I was having my first mate, I said to him: ‘You know that if we lose today at the Maracana, it could be your last game’. Everything was churning around inside me, I don’t know if it was anxiety or fear, I was running around the room. And I saw him calm, ‘If this guy is like this, I have to be calm’, I thought.”
Arguably, De Paul is more responsible for giving Messi what he wants than any other player in the Argentina squad. His role in the team, as simplistic and compromising as it may seem, is to help Messi.
Social media is awash with theories of De Paul acting as Messi’s “bodyguard” — the man tasked with placating him, both in a tactical and physical sense. But it is important to note that De Paul’s bodyguard description does not refer to him being an enforcer. It simply highlights the fact he is always with Messi.
Despite his often wayward passing and a sub-par season at his club, Atletico Madrid, De Paul has played every minute in Qatar.
“El Pequeno (the little man) is a normal guy,” smiled De Paul. “He feels he’s in a place where he can be Leo and not Messi. We get up very early and we always drink mate. We have a habit: Leo, Papu (Gomez) and I start, then Fideo (Di Maria) appears, then Lea (Paredes) and Gio (Lo Celso) and then Nico Otamendi. If you get up earlier, you have to do something else. There is an order of arrival.”
De Paul took his companion duties to another level against Australia…
As the captain leads his team-mates out for their warm-up, there is De Paul, closely following…
When they are stretching, De Paul positions himself next to his protectee…
As team-mates put the finishing touches on their preparations, Messi walks towards a ball near the corner flag…
Predictably, De Paul (centre) is not far behind, forming a passing triangle with Messi and whoever else is nearby…
In the three group games, De Paul covered more miles than any other Argentina player (32.36 miles) and nearly twice as much as Messi (16.68 miles). In the crucial victory against Mexico, De Paul ran 10.934 miles — over a mile more than any other team-mate.
This is particularly pertinent on a structural level, given he tends to play near Messi, who has walked more than any other player in the tournament.
In what turned out to be the winner against Australia, it was De Paul’s pressing that hurried Australian keeper Mat Ryan into a heavy touch for Julian Alvarez’s goal, running beyond a static Messi.
In short, De Paul takes the physical hits to keep Messi unscathed. The difference in their demands, encapsulated in that passage, continues to be stark.
“A lot of the time, the analysis that I do while I’m playing leads me to try to make him run less,” said De Paul. “To make less wear and tear and to have more space to play with — these are things that cross my mind during the match. So the dialogue with him is constant. We understand each other with a look.”
De Paul recovered the most loose balls of any Argentina player (18) in the group stages and is proving to be Lionel Scaloni’s perfect foil in allowing Messi to flourish. De Paul had also touched the ball more than any other player at the World Cup (336), yet still registered an expected assisted goals rate of zero.
He attempted 22 passes into the final third but only three of them found a team-mate inside the attacking 18-yard box. His ball progression and/or tangible impact in possession was conspicuous in its absence.
Ultimately, though, De Paul’s role transcends the work he does with the ball. The fact he wears the No 7 shirt when playing in central midfield is an oddity in itself and, in some ways, reflects how De Paul is not supposed to be the archetypal midfielder.
Messi, still the most liberal and inventive passer in world football, made the most progressive passes of anyone in the group stages (26) — De Paul is not there to mirror those strengths. His importance to Argentina, rather counter-intuitively, is because he offers the very antithesis to them.
Under Scaloni, the Atletico player has been deployed to the right of central midfield, either in a double pivot or as a No 8 in a three. Messi’s inclination to cut inside the pitch on his favoured left-foot drop means they occupy similar areas.
“On the pitch, I’m an 8 and he’s in 10 — there’s a small gap between us,” said De Paul, prior to the tournament. “If, after a training session, I see him go off on his own, I take a shower, go upstairs, make mate and after an hour, I just knock on the door. And then he’s fine. With time you understand the moments.”
And yet, on the pitch at least, the pair do not combine often. Passing networks from the first three games show that only against Poland did they link to notable effect. It was the only one in which Messi and De Paul were in the top five passing networks between team-mates, making up 2.5 per cent of the team’s total passes.
This is due to certain set patterns of play. In the example below against Poland, the ball is switched to the right. This prompts De Paul to make a run forward, freeing up space for Messi to receive.
De Paul stations himself ahead of Messi as play is developing. Against Poland, such movements were commonplace. Argentina were able to progress into the attacking third with De Paul remaining a nuisance without touching the ball.
The purpose of this is for De Paul’s presence to cultivate space for Messi to drive into, which invariably accelerates Argentina’s attacking moves. Here, Messi is able to commit two Poland players towards the ball before switching the play to Marcos Acuna.
De Paul is there to enhance Messi and compensate for his pressing, possession losses and lack of space.
Messi receiving and orchestrating play from deep is shown again soon after. De Paul takes his directive and moves forward, with Messi having time to receive.
As Messi dribbles, De Paul actively makes an effort to move out of his way.
When Messi is tackled, De Paul is on hand to react to the turnover. He ends up conceding a free kick, but manages to avoid Argentina being broken on.
“Playing with him (Messi) is like playing Truco (a popular South American trick card game) having the ace of spades in every hand,” said De Paul. “If you know beforehand that you are always going to have that card, you play more at ease, more calm. It seems to me that this happens because there is a friendship, a good energy between us.”
Messi’s growing influence in Qatar is reflected in Argentina’s progress into the quarter-finals. The hope is that his bodyguard can shadow him until the very end.
(Top image: Sam Richardson for The Athletic, images: Getty Images)
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