Paulinho- Not Barcelona Quality But Better Than You Think He Is
Paulinho’s mooted move to Barcelona has been one of the surprise transfer stories of the off season. The ex-Spurs man is currently plying his trade in China with Guangzhou Evergrande and has apparently piqued the interest of the Spanish giants, who are looking for reinforcements in central midfield.
The move has raised many an eyebrow in England. In 2013, the midfielder joined Tottenham Hotspur from Corinthians, with a reputation as a bombastic goal scoring midfielder. He looked as though he would live up to that billing in the early weeks of his Spurs career, grabbing a stoppage time winner at Cardiff City in September 2013.
But his career in London petered out and he fell into complete disuse under a new manager in Mauricio Pochettino. His former national team coach Luiz Felipe Scolari still appreciated his value however and took him to the rapidly growing Chinese Super League with Guangzhou Evergrande. The size of the transfer fee yielded a reaction somewhere between laughter and mild shock in England, where the Brazilian had become something of a punchline.
The ex-Corinthians man, his confidence sapped from him, melted away from the international scene. He lost his place in the starting XI, before being omitted from Dunga’s squad completely. It was assumed by many English fans that Paulinho had bitten off more he could chew by coming to the Premier League, but seasoned watchers of the player still felt that a developing league in China was beneath his capabilities.
Indeed, England felt like a good match for Paulinho when he arrived in 2013. He is the sort of all action, box to box vintage that typically feels at home in the hustle and bustle of the Premier League. The problem was, Tottenham didn’t seem to understand the player that they had bought. Like many others of his ilk (Ramsey, Lampard, Gerrard), you need to build a midfield that suits Paulinho’s qualities.
Whilst not in the same bracket as the aforementioned British midfielders, Paulinho is quite similar. Save for his perceptive late runs into the box, he does not especially excel at anything, but nor is he notably inferior in any one area. He does a fairly solid job in central midfield, but needs to play alongside a ball player. Somebody that frees him from building the play, so that he can concentrate on his off the ball running.
When Spurs sacked Tim Sherwood and hired Mauricio Pochettino, the Argentine coach had no use for a midfielder in Paulinho’s mould. Pochettino favours powerful midfielders that can carry the ball, like Wanyama and Dembele. In another setup, at another team, Paulinho could have been a success in England.
It is to his credit that Paulinho took his jaunt to China seriously. Playing under the avuncular, familiar presence of Luiz Felipe Scolari, the midfielder has acquitted himself well in the CSL, even if money was likely the motivating factor behind the move. He has subsequently won his place back in the Brazil side, but let us not pretend that his performances in Asia are at the root of the recall.
The Seleção hired Tite, coach of Corinthians during the height of Paulinho’s form. Tite has very exact specifications in his central midfielders and he knew that recalling Paulinho offered him a tactical shortcut, given the limited amount of time he can spend with his players. The 29-year old has been reunited in midfield with his former Timão teammate Renato Augusto, who also plies his trade in China.
Renato Augusto is the perfect foil for Paulinho’s qualities and both players intrinsically understand Tite’s sophisticated midfield shape. Tite usually plays without orthodox wingers. Instead Neymar and Philippe Coutinho are encouraged to drift in-field from wide areas, with Renato Augusto and occasionally Paulinho plugging the gaps that they leave.
Because of this, Brazil play without a traditional, central number 10, which allows Paulinho to indulge his greatest strength- arriving into the box unnoticed. In this framework, he is an excellent player and one comfortably good enough for a good European club. His form has been impeccable upon his return to the Seleção and his goal against Argentina in November and his hat trick in Montevideo in March are undoubtedly what has attracted Barcelona’s attention.
If news of Barcelona’s interest drew gasps of exasperation, then Paulinho’s decision to mull over their offer has invited total disbelief. But it is not a straightforward decision. He has settled well in China, playing under a manager with whom he has an excellent relationship and who plays to his strengths.
Were he to move to Barcelona, he would undoubtedly be a squad player, which is not an attractive prospect for a man that has just won his international place back in time for next year’s World Cup. Paulinho’s career suffered in his peak years because he moved to the wrong European club, it’s a mistake he is understandably not keen to repeat.
And let’s face it, given the salary he earns in China, it is doubtful that he would be looking at a pay bump to sit on Barcelona’s bench. Whilst this Barca side are not the arch proponents of tiki taka they once were, his style certainly does not seem to marry with the Catalan side. In truth, Paulinho would be well advised not to accept the move.
However, a move to a decent sized European club, if he wants one, playing in the Champions League would not be an inaccurate representation of his abilities. He may reflect that he is fine where he is, where he can play under a compatriot who indulges him. His place in Brazil’s starting XI is clearly not under threat while he is playing in China and, yes, the salary is very good.
Paulinho’s case reminds me a little of Fred, the much derided striker who has actually enjoyed a very successful career. He played well at Lyon in France and has continued to be prolific in Brazil with Fluminense and now Atlético Mineiro. While clearly not in the vintage of Ronaldo or Romario, he was actually a half decent striker for Brazil for a while.
The problem is that he spent 8 months on the sidelines prior to the 2014 World Cup. When he returned to the team, their attacking shape had changed and what resulted were a series of listless performances on the biggest stage. Fans in Europe have assumed that this is typical of Fred’s level, when in reality, his World Cup performances were anomalous.
Paulinho’s move to Spurs did not work out and, as his confidence dipped, so too did his performances. As such, observers in England have taken these indifferent displays in an ill-fitting team to be emblematic of his quality. He has quietly rebuilt his career in China and while not quite Barcelona quality, Paulinho is a far better player than you think he is.