Paulinho, the Comeback Kid and How He Has Learned to Serve Lionel Messi

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportOctober 3, 2017

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jose Paulo Bezerra Maciel Junior, Paulinho, of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his goal during the La Liga 2017-18 match between FC Barcelona and SD Eibar at Camp Nou on 19 September 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images)
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

No matter how many times Paulinho gets knocked down, he just keeps getting back up again. His career has known a remarkable series of ups and downs and left turns to some curious corners of the footballing world. These include spells in Lithuania—where he experienced prolonged racism, per El PeriodicoPoland and most recently the Chinese Super League.

The kicker is that, aged 29, the most glorious chapter in his story may yet come to be written. Only six weeks into his time at Barcelonahaving moved to La Liga from Guangzhou Evergrande in a €40 million deal—he's already currying cult status despite initial scepticism in Catalonia.

"There has been a lot of criticism about the decision to buy Paulinho," says Jordi Quixano, a Barcelona-based journalist with El Pais. "In principle, Paulinho is a player that Barcelona fans didn't like because he came from China, an inferior league. He wasn't playing regularly at a high level, but after a month of competitive games there has been a re-evaluation. He's a player that bit by bit is winning the affection of the fans."

In only a handful of league appearances, Paulinho has provided assists, including a glorious dummy for a goal by Leo Messi in a 6-1 rout against Eibar. He's also banged in two goals. One was a header against Eibar, which prompted the club's fans to start serenading his name around the Camp Nou.

Since the retirement of Carles Puyol, it's been unusual for a Barcelona playeroutside of Gerard Piqueto be strong in the air. Paulinho's aerial prowess affords the team another option for set pieces, and it has earned him the nickname "Air Paulinho," coined by a journalist with Diario Sport.

Against Getafe, he scored late to seal a 2-1 away win. For the goal, he ran from deep to latch onto a cross-field pass from midfield by Messi. What was noticeable about the goal was that when Paulinho took the ball into the box with his second touch, he got past Getafe's covering central defender with an unmerciful shoulder to make space for his shot. Nothing tippy-tappy about it; it was brute force.

Paulinho isn't an identikit Barça midfield player. He doesn't pass the ball "remote-control," says Quixano like, say, Sergio Busquets or his club captain, Andres Iniesta, nor does he always know when and where is best to make his passes, but he has other attributes. 

Paulinho and Messi have quickly formed a bond.
Paulinho and Messi have quickly formed a bond.Power Sport Images/Getty Images

"Physically, he's a bull," says Quixano. "He's a 'box-to-box player,' as you say in England. He appears in the area when nobody is expecting. Defensively he's good. He has the capacity to run to cover for his companions.

"Tactically, he doesn't have problems. He knows when to press, when to stay. He understands when he has to cover. To play at Barca, you have to understand these concepts because if, say, Busquets is under pressure, and if nobody goes to him, there is a big gap there. This is internalised by Ivan Rakitic and Iniesta, who are very 'interior'."

Paulinho learnt his game on the streets in Brazil. He's a classic "double pivot," as the Brazilians understand the midfield setupone pivot plays 100 percent defensively, sweeping up in front of the team's back line, while the role of a player like Paulinho is as a "second flier," explains Joaquim Piera, a Catalan journalist with Diario Sport, who is based in Sao Paulo, Paulinho's hometown.

"Paulinho breaks pressure lines," says Piera. "He does this in a magnificent way. Brazil has always had this type of player. One thinks of Mauro Silva from the 1994 World Cup. Paulinho was an idol at Corinthianswho probably have the most fanatical football fans in Brazilbecause he helped Corinthians to win one of the most important titles in the history of the club: the Copa Libertadores in 2012, and afterwards the FIFA Club World Cup final against Chelsea."

The following season, Paulinho moved to Tottenham Hotspur for a then-club-record transfer fee, which was broken twice later that summer of 2013, as Spurs spent the €100 million they made from moving Gareth Bale onto Real Madrid.

Paulinho started brightly in London, earning a Man of the Match award on his debut against Crystal Palace, per the Telegraph, but his dream move to the English Premier League turned into a waking nightmare once Andre Villas-Boas, his fellow Portuguese-speaking sponsor at the club, was sacked as manager in December 2013.

Paulinho did not have the best time at Tottenham.
Paulinho did not have the best time at Tottenham.BEN STANSALL/Getty Images

During the brief, backward Tim Sherwood reign, Paulinho's playing time decreased, owing to suspension and an injury picked up against Stoke City. He lost complete favour during his second and final season with the club under Mauricio Pochettino, managing only three league starts all season, as players like Ryan Mason prospered instead. Paulinho is remembered as a flop, having once been voted the club's Worst Ever Player" by Spurs fans in Four Four Two magazine.

"I only met Paulinho a couple of times," says Bleacher Report's Dean Jones. "His English was passable from what I remember, but we weren't talking to him in great detail. You might catch him in the mixed zone. He was very amicable but quiet. He was liked. He got on well with the team.

"It was quite a spirited Spurs dressing room at the time, especially when Sandro was there [who was offloaded to Queens Park Rangers in 2014]. He was the joker of the pack, and Paulinho was his friend. That would have helped Paulinho. I don't think he was unsettled. It wasn't a case that he didn't enjoy being at Tottenham or struggled with the English weather. It was an unfortunate sequence of events for him. 

"When Barcelona signed him in the summer, Spurs fans were all joking: 'How can Paulinho go and play for Barcelona?' They regard him as a joke because they didn't ever consider him to be a good enough player. They never saw him at his best. And when you have someone like Mousa Dembele in that midfield slotwho has become one of the best midfield players in the English Premier Leagueyou're judging him harshly. Paulinho had big expectations but was never able to live up to them."

Paulinho did well in China after being sold to Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015, but it was his performances with Brazil that kept him in the shop window, including a hat trick against Uruguay in March 2017.

According to an interview last week with El Periodico, Messi tapped up Paulinho during the Argentina vs. Brazil friendly match in Australia in June. Paulinho was gathering himself to take a free when Messi sidled up to him and said, 'Are we going to Barcelona or not?' Paulinhowho replied, 'If you want to take me there, you can. I'll go'was so stunned he had to ask Willian to take the set piece.

"There is a common thread in South American footballin Brazil, Argentina, Chile, or now in Colombiaand Messi, even though he went to Barcelona when he was 13 years old, is a player with a South American football culture," says Piera.

"Messi already knows Paulinho from the World Cup qualifying stages. In November last year, Brazil destroyed Argentina 3-0, and Paulinho played an enormous match. I think Messi thinks Barca needs players who are already the finished article. Paulinho is a player that solves what he needs. Paulinho gives a little bit of tactical anarchism that is convenient for Messi." 

That Messi has warmed to Paulinho is evident. Part of it is chemistry. They are both introverted. "Paulinho gets on well with Messi. We see them laughing together," says Quixano. "I don't know why. I suppose because of his personality. To get on well with Messi is not easy. Messi is a player that talks very little. Paulinho has to interpret the silences of Messi."

It helps that Paulinho doesn't have any illusions about his calling in life. He's like a domestique in a cycling peloton. His job is to serve Messi. "Paulinho is also mature," says Quixano. "He knows where he wants to go. He doesn't dream about being the best player in the world. He has assumed his role—which I think he has done all his life—as the worker in a team with a lot of egos."

To earn Messi's approval is vital for a player's success at Barcelona. Players who haven't enjoyed it don't survive long at the club with him, including star players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto'o.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 19:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates with his team mate Paulinho after scoring his team's fifth goal during the La Liga match between Barcelona and SD Eibar at Camp Nou on September 19, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Phot
David Ramos/Getty Images

The same rule applies to fringe players like Isaac Cuenca or Cristian Tello. "If there are players Messi considers don't have any value for the team," says Quixano, "I am not sure if they don't get on well, but for sure Messi is dry, not nice, with them. Messi wants to win; he wants titles." 

So far, with Barca having won nine matches from nine played this season, it seems Paulinho is doing well to help Messi in this pursuit.

                

All quotes and information obtained first-hand unless otherwise indicated.

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