“Who is this guy?”
On the last day of the January transfer window in 2020, Fiorentina signed a 21-year-old Brazilian defender named Igor Julio dos Santos de Paulo from SPAL on loan for €1.4 million, with an opportunity to make the move permanent at the end of the year for a fee that could rise to €5 million if he met certain incentives. The response of the Viola fanbase was a collective, “Huh.”
He’d played on the left of a back 3 and as a wingback for the Spallini and thus seemed like a good, versatile fit for Giuseppe Iachini’s tactics. He’d come through the prestigious Red Bull academy system but they’d happily shipped him to the newly-promoted SPAL for just €3 million; give that Ferrara isn’t considered an epicenter of calcio excellence, he looked like a middling prospect.
He’d done okay for the Estensi in his first year in Italy, starting 15 of 20 league games for Leonardo Semplici, although the team context—25 goals conceded in 17 appearances—didn’t paint him in the rosiest of terms. The conventional wisdom was that this Igor guy would serve as a backup to Cristiano Biraghi and maybe Martín Cáceres, then maybe compete with Luca Ranieri and/or David Hancko for a roster spot the next year. Instead, he showed some surprising juice as a wingback: his dribbling, incisive passing, and sheer physicality raised some eyebrows amongst Viola fans, leading to conjectures of an expanded role the following season.
With Iachini back at the controls, though, Igor didn’t progress as we might’ve hoped, failing to beat out Cáceres for a starting berth. While he made 21 Serie A appearances and continued to wow with his athleticism (he moves way more fluidly than anyone that size has any right to), his suspect positioning and mental lapses made it pretty clear that he was outside the BeppeBall circle of trust.
A new season and a new manager just raised more questions for him over the summer. We weren’t sure if Igor was a central defender, a fullback, or maybe even a holding midfielder. With Nikola Milenković and Lucas Martínez Quarta expected to man the middle of the defense, he looked set to work as the top backup, but the acquisition of Matija Nastasić threw even that role into doubt.
While he started out behind LMQ in the pecking order, Igor’s battled his way into the XI, leapfrogging the Argentine over the past couple of months to establish himself as one of the first names on Vincenzo Italiano’s team sheet. It’s an astonishing trajectory for a player who’d played only sporadically as a centerback previously, and his explosion onto the scene only underlines his remarkable work ethic.
So what makes Igor so good? The eyeball test says it’s his physical strength—watching strikers try to bump him off the ball is like watching a mosquito try to push a freight train around—and his silkiness on the ball—he consistently dances out of tight spots and finds line-splitting forward passes to attackers’ feet. But, you might ask, do the statistics back that up?
As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve put together a table contrasting Igor’s numbers with those of Milenković and LMQ this year. I’m using Fbref as my source and have gotten all numbers into a per 90 format to allow for easier comparison. And now for the usual warning: statistics don’t tell the whole story. Centerbacks especially are notoriously difficult to quantify since so much of the job is based around positioning rather than action; without access to player tracking data (and if you want to give me an Opta account, I’m listening) there’s always the chance that we’re missing a lot of really important information here.
There are a few things to take away from all these columns. The first is that Milenković’s role is obviously different from that played by Igor and LMQ; the former is more of a sweeper while the other two spend more time stepping forward to press (although Big Nicky’s not afraid to chase a striker very, very deep either), and that leads to higher tackling and passing numbers for the non-Milenković defenders.
Martínez Quarta’s all-action approach is pretty stark here. The dude just gets through an insane amount of work every game, both with and without the ball. While Igor’s no slouch either, the Argentine is head-and-shoulders above him in so many of these categories. That’s all great, but I’d draw your attention to the fouls and cards. LMQ’s full-throated approach, combined with Italiano’s petal-to-the-metal tactics, mean that the centerbacks are often under a lot of pressure individually. Avoiding fouls and cards, then, is of paramount importance, and LMQ is a liability in that department compared to Igor, who rarely fouls.
Having a defender who’s good on the ball, happy to step forward while Milenković stays deeper, doesn’t foul, and has insane recovery speed (the blocks are often a function of someone thinking they have time to shoot or pass, then having Igor steam into the picture to break it up) is exactly what Italiano wants right now. That Igor’s left-footed, and thus able to offer some options in possession that the right-footed Martínez Quarta doesn’t, is just the icing.
What’s next for Igor?
While this all paints an extremely rosy picture of the Brazilian, he’s got quite a ways to go before he unseats Marquinhos with the Seleção. Per the numbers, he’s really poor in the air, barely winning half of his aerial duels despite being fairly tall and comically strong. From watching him, I think some of his struggles on high balls are a result of not understanding the angles of airborne passes, which is something that will come with more experience. His overall positioning can be shaky too, as he sometimes switches off and allows runners to go right by him unchecked. He’s also over-confident on the ball sometimes, trying to dribble out of tight spaces or thread a pass when he’d do better to just thwack it long.
Still, it’s astonishing how far he’s risen in the past 6 months, going from second- or third-string to keeping an Argentina international nailed to the bench. His athleticism and skill mean that he’s ideally suited for Italiano’s style of play, and he’s even shown signs of being able to play as more of a sweeper, allowing him to operate next to a more blood-and-thunder like LMQ; with Milenković possibly on the move this summer, that’s a big deal.
I wasn’t wholly convinced by Igor even at the start of the season, but he’s done everything imaginable to change my mind. He probably needs to sustain this level and get better in a couple of key areas before he’s under any serious consideration for the national team, but he’s well on his way. If he can improve this much in less than a season under Italiano, imagine what he could do after a year or two with the tactician. The sky is the limit.