Can you call it a sacrifice if the person doing it actually enjoys it? Paulinho moved to Barcelona in the summer from possibly the ideal place to have been plucked from. He had been exiled to China from Spurs without as much as a Zhù nǐ hǎo yùn - Good luck in Chinese - and has been given a second chance, not in the spotlight, but in maybe the most important shadow that exists in football today, the shadow of a man who attracts every ounce of attention whenever he plays: Lionel Messi. A humble footballer at the best of times, Paulinho has no problem putting in the toil that helps the Argentinian striker and Barcelona shine. Brazil too, when on international duty.
Barça's Paulinho-Messi dynamic
There’s an awful lot to like about Paulinho too. He seems to be all too aware that many players don’t get second chances like this at 29 after a previous move to Europe fell flat on its face. His humility is explicit too, “I always dreamed of this moment, it's something I wanted a lot and luckily it ended up happening.” There is no delusion here, no master plan to usurp the King. Paulinho was drafted in to facilitate Messi and he will do that with every sinew in his body.
Paulinho is found in many of the same spaces on the pitch as Messi is, but he is more bulldozer than the ballet dancer the Argentinian is when it comes to making his way past defenders. In areas that were considered no-fly zones for Neymar when he was at the club due to Messi’s magnificence, Paulinho is welcomed. He acts, in many ways, like Messi’s bodyguard. He loosens up defences, gives them another concern when all they have in their brains is the path towards the least embarrassing way to be embarrassed by Messi. Neymar, on the left wing, was a separate entity and a different issue that could be quarantined and treated on its own, but Paulinho in the centre, arriving late with Messi lurking, complicates things for opponents. He makes the poly-threat of Messi even more threatening.
Replacing Neymar's individualism
As soon as one player fled from Messi’s shadow, another sought refuge there. He says he has no problem doing the running for Messi either, which is a sentiment that is welcome at a club looking to rebuild after a crash and scarred by the heir to their throne getting too big for his boots, and eventually deciding to go off and be king in Paris, to the dismay of Barcelona. “I like to do the running for him and later, he can be decisive,” the Brazilian said in a recent interview. “My job here is to help [Messi] continue to be the best player in the world,” he continued as he not only accepted his role as facilitator but he basked in the glory of being wanted and needed at a club like Barcelona.
He also adds brawn to set-pieces and does the kind of hard work you don’t particularly want your top asset engaging in. When Valverde is ready to flip the switch, he can always rely on Paulinho.
In the Brazilian's two full games this season, against Eibar and Athletic Bilbao, he has two goals and an assist. His other goal this season came against Getafe when Barcelona looked to have run out of ideas in their attempt to land a winner. Valverde called on Paulinho, who drove forward when he came on and sent a rasping shot towards goal to win all three points, helping to win over many of the doubters, too.
Paulinho thriving on a second chance
Thrown onto the ‘lost-and-desperate-to-be-found’ pile, Paulinho has himself a prime second chance at Barcelona. He wasn’t lucky enough to survive the bad times at Spurs. Having lived through the night terrors, he never got to experience the hope that comes with a new dawn unlike Hugo Lloris who admits the whole set-up at Spurs was flawed prior to the arrival of Pochettino. He had promised the Argentine he would give him one year, before everything changed for the better. By the time it did, Paulinho was a distant memory and assigned the dreaded 'bust' tag.
But Paulinho is proving to be the player Spurs thought they were signing and has been hugely important for Barcelona this season. The World Cup is arriving and he has every chance of being a difference-maker for Brazil in Russia next summer too.
He won't be the star, or even the guy who secretly yearns to be the star, but he will be there, bustling about eagerly in the shadows, knitting everything together, making sure the real stars are provided with an environment to shine. He'll be the one putting in the hard yards, delivering the tough tackles and devoting himself to the cause. It's not a sacrifice though, because he's just happy to be someone that's needed again.