As Tottenham Hotspur say goodbye to their forgotten man for a seemingly generous £9.8 million fee, we look back at his troubled times in English soccer and perhaps explain why the reputation of a player sought by a host of elite European clubs in the summer of 2013 has collapsed and how he can rebuild it at Guangzhou Evergrande.
Paulinho arrived at White Hart Lane in the midst of an unprecedented level of investment due to the imminent departure of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. A strange sense of optimism seemed to permeate the streets of N17 as the newly crowned Confederations Cup winner and Club World Cup winner seemed set to become Scott Parker’s successor at the heart of the Spurs midfield, becoming a record signing on the 6th of July. However, this bubble of hope was brutally burst soon after, and just two years later Franco Baldini is dismantling the “magnificent seven”, as the third manager of Paulinho’s time at Spurs sets out to mould the team in his image.
Now, the Brazilian midfielder has become the first casualty of a forthcoming mass exodus of the club’s ‘deadwood’. The 26-year-old cut a forlorn figure on the sidelines this term and in recent times his name has been greeted by resigned grimaces and foul mouthed tirades in the stands. He made just three starts in the Premier League last term and despite making a total of 24 appearances for the Lilywhites in all competitions this year he made only three key passes and one assist.
There are four main factors accounting for the failure of Paulinho to truly make his mark on the Premier League.
- Instability: Having three managers in his first year was not the best start to his life in England. He has had to adapt not only to a new culture and language and the robust nature of the Premier League, but also to three very different styles of play. In his first season Paulinho made 38 appearances. Around half of these were as a supposed dynamic holding midfielder in AVB’s stilted 4-3-3. In December ‘Tactics Tim’ came in and installed a cavalier 4-4-2 as the primary formation, while Paulinho took up his familiar box-to-box role. Before long Sherwood was ousted from the hot seat, and Pochettino instigated a high pressing and intensity in a 4-2-3-1. This perpetual change must have left the player unsettled and confused tactically.
- Playing style: It is also due to the nature of these systems that Paulinho floundered in 2014/15. Under the guidance of Villas-Boas, Paulinho could have ended up a success, but it is a fact that he does not fit into Pochettino’s plans and it is increasingly evident that he was not brought in specifically for his system. In the few starting appearances he made last term Paulinho looked out of place at all times. Last year, he was poor as a No. 10 with not enough control or guile to unlock even the leakiest defenses, equally he was not at all adept in the holding midfield role either. His trademark sideways passes suited this role more, however, his lackadaisical attitude and lack of physicality meant that the relatively untried duo of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb cemented those two positions.
- The role of the national team: An excuse often cited as the reason for Paulinho’s horrific form over his two-year spell in North London was fatigue. Initially he came to Spurs off the back of a long and draining campaign with Corinthians and Brazil’s successful Confederations Cup campaign. At the tail end of his first year with Spurs he was protecting himself for a home World Cup. He has not been recalled to the national side following the humiliating end to their World Cup and Luis Felipe Scolari’s departure. The mental ramifications of such a loss and the length of time without a break must be addressed, and perhaps this contributed to his lackluster performances and failure to adapt too.
- Work rate: One of the factors which always endears a player to his fans is that they try and run themselves into the ground for the cause. In recent years, Parker and Lewis Holtby have been two prime examples of this. However, despite living in London for nearly 700 days Paulinho did not learn the native language. Especially, during the past season he looked like he was just going through the motions on the pitch and every action was labored. He was also relatively injury prone throughout his spell at Tottenham, and it is said that he was a bit of a light weight on the training field too as some at Spurs would take bets on what minute he would pull up with a “strain” in training sessions. This hints at an utter lack of professionalism and disrespect for his employers and provides us with another potential reason for his failure and move to the lower quality Chinese Super League.
However, despite the jokes and scathing remarks directed towards Paulinho from the vast majority of soccer fans there are some signs of hope that he can yet salvage a successful career in China when he is reunited with Scolari. Although exceptionally rare, he did produce a few excellent Man of the Match performances during his two-year stay. For example against Aston Villa on the last day of the 2013/14 season, while he was also impressive against the weaker teams in the group stage of the 2014/15 Europa league. Indeed, last season Paulinho had to primarily rely on cameos from the bench for his game time. Most of these 16 substitute appearances were relatively mediocre, however, a few virtuosic performances amidst a general drop in form throughout the established starting XI at the tail end of the season led to substantial calls for him to be re-instated to the line-up in the latter stages of 2014/15. To be fair to Paulinho, he did make 28 starts in the Premier League the year before and there were actually high hopes for him to build on his promising tally of six goals and two assists in 2013/14. Namely, Jamie Carragher, who made a widely publicised bet with Gary Neville on him scoring above 15 Premier League goals and becoming the fulcrum of Pochettino’s new look side.