FC Barcelona has announced an agreement with Brazilian midfielder Paulinho, pending a medical evaluation this Thursday. The 29-year-old comes from Guangzhou Evergrande of the Chinese Super League after Barcelona paid his €40 million release clause. Paulinho will sign a four-year deal with the club worth €5 million per season.
Although Barcelona obviously expects to do some big business before this transfer window closes, that this transfer currently sits as the fourth most expensive in the club’s history is a farce. Barcelona have bought a player that literally no other club in Europe had any interest in, even going so far as paying the player’s release clause after Guangzhou Evergrande rejected their first few bids.
This signing is a massive stain on club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, sporting director Roberto Fernandez and general manager of the club Pep Sergura, as the move confirms and accentuates the board’s fiscal and sporting incompetance. Paulinho is a Barcelona player now and fans should support him, but even if he turns out to be an OK player, it will not correct this mistake.
Above all, Barcelona’s board has disavowed several La Masia talents with this signing, telling Sergi Samper he no longer has a place in the first team and potentially alienating Sergi Roberto, whose minutes will be at stake once Paulinho arrives. The fact that any other club can now nab Roberto, who has every right to be hurt and frustrated by this move, for the same €40 million price tag should sicken culés.
The board has also taken a significant chunk out of the transfer budget in a massively important summer to sign a player who had never played above the second division in Brazil before 2013 when he signed for Spurs. While in London, Paulinho made such a negative impact that some Spurs supporters voted him the worst player in the history of the club, and the only club that would take him after he flopped in Europe was in China. Yet somehow, despite Chinese teams being notorious for paying ridiculous fees, Guangzhou only paid €14 million for Paulinho in 2015.
Think about that. A Chinese League team has just made a profit of €26 million on a declining player who has never had so much as a good month at the European level. And they made that profit by selling him to FC Barcelona.
The crux of the board’s argument for Paulinho will be his recent performances for the Brazilian National Team. Ever since Tite, who coached Paulinho at Corinthians before he left for Spurs, took over the Seleção job, Brazil is undefeated in World Cup qualifiers (and they’ve already qualified) and Paulinho has been a consistent starter in midfield. But for a club like Barcelona, bringing Paulinho in based on his national team performances when he plays his club football in China is simply an unacceptable recruitment policy.
First of all, Paulinho hasn’t even been that good for Brazil. He did score a hat trick against Uruguay, but Brazil are smashing teams because their attacking players are among the most creative in the world and the defense actually looks solid, not because Paulinho is bossing midfield (if anyone is for Brazil, it’s Casemiro). And even if Paulinho was playing at a sensational level in every appearance, here is the thing: He has made nine appearances for the Seleção in the past 18 months. Nine. No player could play so well in that many games to convince a club of Barcelona’s level that they are ready to make the jump from the Chinese Super League.
Every way you slice this transfer, it fails to meet any kind of logical standard. Even if you buy the idea that Ernesto Valverde, or members of the board, thought the team needed a physical presence in midfield, how does the best club in the world come to the conclusion that the best solution to that problem is to pay €40 million for a 29-year-old playing in China?
I wouldn’t argue at all if Valverde wanted a distinct alternative in midfield. Paulinho will be our most physical midfielder and a he is a player who flies into tackles and has a strong desire to win the ball back. In that sense, and only that sense, he would satisfy the requirements. The problem with the move isn’t necessarily the type of player Paulinho is – having a diverse bench is certainly a good thing. The problem is that if Barça wanted a player with Paulinho’s profile so bad, there are 20-30 obvious candidates in Europe who all better, younger and, depending on the situation, probably cheaper.
Sevilla’s Steven N’Zonzi, who was the third best defensive mid in La Liga last season, recently handed in his transfer request. His release clause? You guessed it, €40 million. Jean-Michael Seri, who, depending on which reports you believe, may or may not still be a target for Barcelona, is a fantastic one-touch player who can play at the base of midfield alongside Sergio Busquets or even without him and control the tempo of the game. What does Nice want for him? You guessed it, €40 million.
Sadly, no matter how much digital ink I spill pointing out the obvious flaws of the Paulinho signing as both a business and football decision, the fact is that he will soon wear the blaugrana colors, and so it is time to discuss his fit with Valverde’s team.
As I mentioned earlier, Paulinho’s arrival is going to force Barcelona to unclog the logjam in midfield. It would seem Samper will be the first casualty, and it is very possible that would have happened regardless of the Paulinho signing. But now Samper’s departure seems more of a matter of when than if, and the only detail left to discuss is if Barça will loan him or sell him. According to Gerard Romero, the club wants to the player to return next season while the player wants the freedom to move permanently, and I can’t blame him.
Sergi Roberto is the other key figure. Paulinho will likely be cover for Busquets (hence Samper’s exit) and even Ivan Rakitic as a different kind of box-to-box option. If Paulinho gets some of Rakitic’s minutes or covers for him frequently, it is tough to see Roberto getting much game time. Roberto’s skill set is best suited for either holding mid or a box-to-box roles, while players like Denis Suarez, Carles Aleñá and maybe even Coutinho would be the more obvious replacements for Iniesta. Given Roberto’s modest release clause, it isn’t hard to see him leaving, especially not after interest from Manchester United and Chelsea was reported earlier this summer. We all know Roberto loves the club, but there is a limit to the amount of insulting behavior players can take.
Although it seems incredibly foolish to spend €40 million on a backup player, I can’t fathom Paulinho stepping into a starting role. The only way that happens is if the club manages to sign both Coutinho and Dembele and then Valverde switches to a 4-2-3-1. In that case, with an attacking foursome of Suarez, Coutinho, Dembele and Messi, perhaps Valverde would say Paulinho is the only player in the team who can offer the workrate and defensive qualities necessary to help Busquets cover for a very offensive attack.
Otherwise, Paulinho is too poor technically that he would be a poor fit in a three-man midfield that tries to control games with possession. He does offer some attacking quality with his late runs into the box, so he might add a goal or two from midfield over the course of the season, which is something Barcelona have been missing in the past couple of seasons. But unless Paulinho steps in and is near the top of the team in tackles and interceptions, then he won’t warrant a place in the team.
The issues with this signing are infinite, but once the contract is signed and he puts on the shirt for the first time, Paulinho will be one of ours. That said, he joins the team not only having to prove that he deserves to be at Barcelona, but also that he has any quality at all. If signed, players like Coutinho or Dembele would face tough tasks in proving their exorbitant fees were worth it, but nobody would question their talent.
For Paulinho, he either surprises us all and performs well, or he becomes the poster boy for one of the darkest eras in the modern history of FC Barcelona.