Paulinho sucks

The season has reached midpoint, which makes this as good a time as any to have a look at one of the club’s most controversial signings in the past decade, Paulinho.

There was an interesting discussion on social media involving him, his flaws and how they relate to what people want the team to do, and how they want it to look.

To begin with, saying that Paulinho sucks begs the question. But a deeper gander demands a set of different questions.

In match, Paulinho just seems to kinda run around, semi-aimlessly, chasing the ball. This is the same sense you get from him when he plays for the Seleçao, by the by. His sporting mien is that of a Las Vegas floor walker, who patrols the tables looking for anything untoward, trying to get a sense of where he needs to be.

It’s easy to lose track of him. He doesn’t have that many touches, and what touches he does have consist of him shuttling the ball off to the nearest available player, like a hot potato. You won’t see him making runs, bamboozling defenders or doing any of that Barça midfielder stuff. If you evaluate Paulinho in the sense of a Barça midfielder, he sucks. Huge.

When Barça signs a player to work in midfield, is he a Barça midfielder, subject to the same conditions as any other Barça mid? That is the complexity. Paulinho is a free agent, a mutant life form in the Barça context. He is a hammer in a world of screwdrivers. As a screwdriver, Paulinho is a pretty crappy one. But as a hammer …

When people assess Paulinho, there is an overlay that is there, that of the Barça midfielder. And he cost 40m, and is 29 years old. So he’s an expensive, limited-use hammer. Hell, 14-year-old Xavi Simons is a better “Barça midfielder” than Paulinho, who is kinda workmanlike and clunky on the ball, and rather shambly off it. When you think of a Barça mid you think Xavi, or Iniesta. You don’t even think Rakitic, who has his own complexities with supporters. But if we don’t assess a midfielder who plays for Barça as a Barça mid, how are we to assess him?

The challenge is to look at what Valverde was thinking, which we can’t know. But we can look at when/how Valverde uses him and try to draw some inferences from that. Paulinho usually gets a start when an opponent is going to be physical and compact. That way of playing is the antidote to the Barça Way, the packed, physical approach that always sent up a cry for a Plan B. This will seek to take advantage of narrow corridors of space, or set pieces.

The other times we see Paulinho is when an opponent is pressing and aggressive. The way that teams play Barça accounts for the Barça midfielder. On the weekend at Anoeta when Paulinho scored his crucial goal, his movement contradicted the way a Barça midfielder plays. Could this have been what Valverde was wanting when he signed the player? He sensed the opening, saw Suarez making the run and got into the box. That traditionally isn’t something that Barça mids — since Keita left the club — do. Rakitic will roll to outisde the box and take a plunk. He will get the occasional header. But he isn’t constantly making those runs.

Paulinho gets slagged some for making those runs, at the expense of, in supporter eyes, vacating the all-important midfield. But he does it often enough where we have to wonder whether those aren’t his instructions. Before the match, does Valverde say to him, “Get em!” Because of Paulinho’s limited skill set in the Barça midfielder context, we know that Valverde isn’t telling him to play like Iniesta. Might as well tell him to sprout wings and fly.

In one context, Paulinho sucks. In another, he is perfect, because he is exactly what the coach and the team need.

Paulinho has never had a good match in the Barça mid context, in the colors. Ever. Paulinho also leads Liga mids in goals scored, and Valverde keeps playing him. When you look at what has been missing from the team in recent seasons, it has been goals from midfield, players occupying spaces when the buzz-worthy attackers are creating chaos. Paulinho would have had about 20 goals for Luis Enrique’s teams because of that capability.

Paulinho’s goals have all happened in the box, often on the doorstep. That is what he does. One goal he scored by simply being there when the ball hit him. Those work, too. Samuel Eto’o got a lot of “tap-ins.” The trick about tap-ins is, like real estate, location, location, location. You have to be where the ball is going to be. This means that you have to be able to read a match, understand your associative role and work to that end.

When Paulinho tries to dribble and gets dispossessed by a pressing defender, we groan. Valverde probably resolves to remind him not to try that, to do his job, which is to be a chaos-generating missile. When you have Iniesta, Messi and Suarez running around, who the hell is looking at Paulinho?

So. In the one context, Paulinho sucks. Of the tasks performed by Barça midfielders, he can perform precious few. Intricate, high-speed, one-touch football? Don’t make us laugh. Cruijff turns and nutmegs? Nope. Telepathic passes over distance? Hell no.

But. Messi makes a run, and Paulinho is running alongside him to function as a human wall. Messi pings the ball to him and continues his run, Paulinho just pings it back to Messi, who does his Messi things. Messi scores, runs over to hug Paulinho, and there you go. Or Paulinho sees a gap created by preoccupied defenders, runs into it, taps home and runs over to celebrate with teammates that few culers believe he is good enough to hang with in a skills drill.

But what if for Valverde, he doesn’t have to be? What if all that he has to be is Paulinho, and the skills flaws and the like are okay because of the potential for that Paulinho moment, when the hammer drives in a nail? How should we assess Paulinho? As this thing that is needed. How do we know what is needed? By the tasks the tool performs, and whether the carpenter keeps returning to the toolbox.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

10 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    January 17, 2018

    Thanks again, Kxevin. I think the debate is similar to the one about Sergi Roberto. Roberto is a mediocre right back in a traditional sense, but also works at controlling the midfield from the right flank, making opposing attacks more dangerous but allowing for dominance in midfield. Paulinho – as opposed to the requirements for a “Barca midfielder” – doesn’t control the game very well, but gives us additional attacking power near or inside the box. There are trade-offs to each of those players being on the pitch.

    The only problem for me is when Paulinho plays alongside other midfielders with little creativity in build-up. He won’t create too many opportunities for others himself, so he’s best when he is allowed to get in the way of opposition and make runs into the box without having to create. A midfield of Gomes – Busquets – Rakitic – Paulinho has very little creativity, so Paulinho’s disadvantages show more. But put Iniesta or Coutinho in there instead and Paulinho can do very much.

    Strategic thought apart, he also comes across as a pretty nice guy. No harsh words about Pochettino at Tottenham who didn’t play him much, no overly big ego, just – like many at Barca now I guess – a guy doing his job in a friendly way.

  2. Jim
    January 17, 2018

    Am I missing something ? Are we putting out a side tonight with only one recognised forward and that is one who drops back into midfield much of the time ? Wonder what EV has in mind ?

    • georgjorge
      January 17, 2018

      I am puzzled as well, though between them Paulinho and Aleix Vidal probably are good for another full attacker ; )

  3. TITO
    January 17, 2018

    Considering how Espanyol is playing is good to have more players in midfield, though i expected Rakitic and Gomes there.
    They dont want to play football, we dont want to have a player injured. One goal should do the job and make the difference.
    That’s why i so much dislike, if not hate, them.
    They hate our guts so much that you will see them play like this only against us.

  4. Lionel Richie
    January 17, 2018

    I choose my words very carefully.
    Aleix Vidal is dog shit.
    A criminal waste of space.

  5. Jim
    January 17, 2018

    Wow. We’ll need to watch Chelsea in the CL. Only turned over in extra time and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many dives in a short space of time. Pedro off for simulation. Sadly the pundits don’t realise what a barrier Willy Caballero can be in pens.

  6. January 17, 2018

    Coincidence that our level of attacking threat reduced significantly when Paulinho was subbed off?

    • January 18, 2018

      Hilal, that was a verrry quiet discussion on Barça Twitter that only a few of us mentioned. The reason is easy enough. Like Alena, Paulinho runs the channels, forcing defenders to account for him. Once he went away, what you had was a lot of Plan A, which Espanyol could deal with.

  7. Hamid
    January 18, 2018

    I hope that this inconsequential and definitely surmountable defeat does not distract the players from the way more important game against Betis Sunday. Messi must be feeling terrible, but more motivated now to demolish Espagnol in the return game at Camp Nou and in the upcoming Liga encounter at the Cornellà. I also hope that Paulinho injury is minor as he has become a key member of the squad. I don’t see how anyone with an understanding of the intricacies of football can question that.

  8. January 18, 2018

    If there was a match to have the streak broken with, this was the perfect one — 1-0, no away goals or any of that other nonsense, in a two-legged tie with the second leg at home. Perfect. And now that pressure is off the players’ backs.

    If Valverde’s intention was to put Aleix Vidal in the shop window, safe to say that didn’t go so well. Between him and to a lesser extent Denis Suarez, Barça was playing with nine.

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