Barcelona: Paulinho has proved his doubters wrong

After Paulinho's poached brace against Deportivo La Coruna, Callum Rice-Coates looks at how the Brazilian has risen above the incessant pessimism to impress at Barcelona.



“I always dreamed of this moment,” said Paulinho when he had arrived at the Nou Camp last summer. “It’s something I wanted a lot and luckily it ended up happening.”

Unfortunately for the Brazilian midfielder, it wasn’t something the club’s supporters wanted or expected. Back then, they would have wholeheartedly agreed with his suggestion that a move to Barcelona had involved an element of “luck”.

Now, though, there are few complaints. Instead, there appears to be a quiet, if reluctant acceptance that Paulinho is perhaps, just maybe, not such a bad player.

Largely, it is due to his impressive goal-scoring record: he got two in Sunday night’s 4-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna to take his tally for the season to six in just eight league starts.

It is perhaps not surprising, however, that Paulinho has proved effective for Barcelona thus far. The 29-year-old was signed for a reason, not just a frivolous acquisition made in desperation (although fans might be forgiven their scepticism given the club’s predicament at the time).

Early doubters

The price seemed excessive – admittedly €40 million still does – but that was not down to Paulinho. Nor was it he that lay at fault for Barcelona’s much-maligned transfer policy.

The incessant pessimism surrounding Paulinho’s transfer, even before he had made an appearance, would have been enough to damage the confidence of many players. He was ruled out having had no chance to prove himself.

“Paulinho could still be good: the rush to bury him feels a little unfair to me,” wrote Sid Lowe on Twitter, days after confirmation of one of the game’s more unusual big-money transfers. “He won’t be good,” came the first reply, encapsulating the widespread perception in four words.

But that’s the thing: he has been good. Maybe not excellent or particularly eye-catching. But good? Without question.

Exceeding expectations

What many did not comprehend upon his arrival was that Paulinho may offer something different. His style seemed so far apart from that of Barcelona’s: a powerful, direct midfielder with limited technical ability, about as far from Xavi or Andres Iniesta as it is possible to be.

It’s his differences, though, that have proved his greatest strength. When he has played, Paulinho has offered a unique energy, acting at times as a distraction for opposition defenders, creating space for his more gifted attacking teammates.

When Neymar departed for Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona fans craved a high-profile replacement and the adequate use of the funds at their disposal. They were soon greeted with Paulinho, a midfielder best known for an unsuccessful spell in the Premier League with Tottenham.

He had moved to the Chinese Super League in 2015 and, as a result, relative obscurity. But with Guangzhou Evergrande, he impressed whilst, on the side, becoming a valuable part of the Brazil team that qualified so convincingly for the upcoming World Cup in Russia.

“Perhaps Barcelona do not see him as a Spurs failure but a vital member of a Brazil team who were first to qualify for the 2018 finals,” John Duerden wrote in the Guardian. Perhaps they had acknowledged his form in China, too.

Playing second fiddle

While Neymar exited amid suggestions he was unhappy at playing second fiddle to Lionel Messi, Paulinho has embraced his duty as a facilitator. 

“I like to do the running for him and later, he can be decisive,” the Brazilian said last month. “My job here is to help [Messi] continue to be the best player in the world.”

He has done that job unassumingly and without complaint. For Paulinho, there is no greater honour than donning the Blaugrana shirt: it has been evident from his very first game and it is not surprising given how unlikely it had seemed up until the very moment his signing was confirmed.

Paulinho has proven himself more than just a facilitator, though. He offers coach Ernesto Valverde something truly different: physical power, explosive energy and a tendency to make perfectly timed late runs into the box. 

It is the latter of his traits that was so evident against Deportivo on Sunday. Twice he followed up rebounded shots, finding himself uncannily well-placed to tap home into an empty net.

There are few players in La Liga who can match what Paulinho provides from midfield. He is a midfield poacher – Barcelona’s wildcard, if you will. 

Used effectively, as he has been so far this campaign, he may soon be accepted as a welcome, if slightly overpriced addition.

Determination

Determination has always been inherent in Paulinho’s approach to football. 

He has needed it. As a teenager he moved to Lithuania to seek regular football and join a growing Brazilian contingent at FC Vilnius, but, after two difficult years, he was subjected to racial abuse and opted to move to Poland.

There, he signed for LKS Lodz but, once again, struggled to adapt to life so far from his homeland. So he returned to Brazil, though it was not until 2010 that he earned a breakthrough with a move to giants Corinthians from second-tier club Clube Atletico Bragantino.

Paulinho had endured hardship in the early days of his career, and that undoubtedly gave him a heightened appreciation for what he would later achieve. 

At Tottenham he was deemed a flop, in China a success – but good performances in the Super League, without a widespread audience or a high-profile reputation, did not do enough to convince.

Yet here he was: summer 2017, a Barcelona player, a smile on his face that would not be dislodged by even the most ardent of dismissive doubters. 

‘The more I persist, the luckier I get’

Paulinho had worked to reach this point; he had been fortunate, too, but it was luck brought out by persistence and self-belief, both of which have been on display in Catalonia.

“I’m certain I can fit in at Barca and prove that all the effort they made to get me here was worth it,” Paulinho said at his unveiling. “My intention is to help the team to win trophies.” 

Three months later, Barcelona are unexpectedly top of La Liga, six points clear and still unbeaten. Three months later, Paulinho has unexpectedly made more than just a passing contribution to a functioning, well-drilled and well-coached side. 

Who’d have thought it?

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