Mediocre or misunderstood? A case for Barcelona's Paulinho
When Barcelona signed Paulinho, the move was subjected to a lot of criticism, partially because it was believed to be a third party transfer, and that the player wasn't in the plans of new manager Ernesto Valverde. But, the transfer was ridiculed mainly because of his unfortunate stint at Tottenham Hotspur, where he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory.
However, football is a team sport where players have to compromise all the time, and often, the failure of an individual is related to whether or not his skill set is sufficient enough for him to play in a certain type of role. And if we examine closely, then I suspect, it becomes apparent that he wasn’t properly used by three Tottenham managers.
All of this was a cry from what had been promised to the English supporters by the media back then. Billed as someone who was fast, strong and had bags of stamina, his style seemed like the perfect fit for Premier League’s physical and direct approach. However, even though he did play regularly, Paulinho’s performances on the pitch proved to be an anticlimax and he could never live up to the hype.
Paulinho’s failure at Spurs can be traced back to plenty of reasons. However, the reason for most of the barrage of abuse that he did receive had to do with the fact that he never really stood out in a game save for the time he went on to score a wonderful backheel winner vs Cardiff City.
He did have some pretty bad performances, like the one against Burnley and against Liverpool where the Merseyside outfit played a pressing game. But mostly it was about how he never really stood out while being on the pitch. And that had a lot to do with the fact that he wasn't deployed in the right setup at Tottenham.
Playing him as one of the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 meant that Paulinho’s greatest strengths were curtailed. He was never going to be the lionhearted midfielder who would win every 50-50 duel. That is because, as a footballer, Paulinho doesn’t really excel in a lot of things other than making brilliantly timed late runs into the box. In a way, his style was similar to Frank Lampard, but only from an attacking perspective.
To bring the best out of him in an attacking sense, he needs a ball-player to play alongside him in the midfield to pick him out with a pass whenever he makes a run within the lines of the opposition or takes up a position within the half spaces. This also is the answer to the question on how Paulinho performs so well for Brazil.
Renato Augusto acts as the perfect foil to Paulinho and feeds him with passes as he takes up positions between the pressing lines. With Augusto in the team, Paulinho’s primary job is to find space to exploit, and get to the end of crosses, through balls, and be a threat from set-pieces.
However, Spurs simply didn’t seem to understand the player that they signed and that showed in the way they kept on playing in a system that played to his weaknesses rather than strengths. That and the socio-cultural issues that make the job of acclimatising for a lot of South American players, took its toll on him too.
Barcelona knew that they were taking a huge risk when they signed him from The Chinese Super League. The tag of a “Tottenham reject” never does sit well on anyone else’s shoulders and the fact that they were going to do so for someone plying his trade in China seemed even more dumbfounding.
Had Paulinho failed to hit the ground running, the Barcelona board would have faced a lot more flak. Fans, especially, didn’t take too kindly to Paulinho more so because his arrival was preceded by Neymar’s departure and he seemed like an underwhelming signing. Making the choice wasn’t an easy decision for Paulinho either. He was already well settled in China and he wasn’t going to get a salary hike for joining Barcelona.
Not to forget the fact that his previous two experiences of him playing in Europe were soul shattering. One of them was a stint in Lithuania where racism almost made him consider retirement and the other was the previously described stint at Spurs. However, he did make the hard choice and signed for Barcelona. And till now, the way Valverde has used him points to the fact that he knew exactly what he was getting when he signed Paulinho.
Contrary to popular expectations, Paulinho has fit right into Valverde’s midfield system, scoring twice, and assisting once in the total 6 games he’s played for Barcelona in the Liga. One of those two goals was a crucial winner off the bench in an away fixture vs Getafe.
Already showing signs of striking up an understanding with Leo Messi, Paulinho may not be the midfielder most fans were looking forward to but has proved a lot of them wrong, at least for now. He has often been the guy who has plugged the holes within the team and has shown real intelligence with his movement and has brought balance to the side.
While not being the most aesthetically pleasing player, he brings a lot to the team in the form of work ethic and his movement often creates space for other illustrious players to play into. And given how Rakitic’s form is slowly disintegrating, it seems likely that Paulinho’s role within the squad will grow as the time come.
So, even though Paulinho doesn’t fit the clichéd phrase that is often associated with midfielders with a brilliant first touch and metronomic passing in the middle of the park, he has shown that he can do a “job” when called upon and do it well. At least until now.
He provides a contrasting skill set and adds squad depth to the team and going by his rich vein of form for the national team and the performances he has produced for Barcelona whenever he has been called upon, Paulinho seems to be well on his way to leave millions of critics on social media with eggs on their faces.