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.