Fare well, Paulinho.
The clear-out has started, and instead of the tip of a diamond, you are the tip of an iceberg. The man who has played in Brazil, Lithuania, Poland, Brazil again and England, now sets off for his latest adventure in China with Guangzhou Evergrande.
As one of altogether far too many players signed with the Gareth Bale money in the infamous summer of 2013, Paulinho was one of the first Baldini-babies. An exciting signing at the time – in no small part because Tottenham seemed to beat Chelsea to his signature – even Andre Villas Boas was happy with his arrival. Paulinho had been a dominant force in a Brazil side that had convincingly won that summer’s Confederations Cup. His energy and work rate were appealing, but what stood out most was his goal-scoring from central midfield. He seemed to have a real penchant for a successful late run into the box, so much so that South American football expert Tim Vickery was happy to say:
It was an enticing proposition for fans who hadn’t really seen a consistent goal-scoring central midfielder in years. Moussa Dembélé had arrived the season before and many thought that he would be the one to provide that threat, but it didn’t materialise. One league goal in his first season left it an area that the club rightly felt they could improve upon.
All geared up for a season competing on four fronts, Villas-Boas now had Sandro, Paulinho, Capoue and Dembélé competing for the starting two central midfield spots. If anything, the array of options were paralysing. Sandro and Capoue fought for the more defensive role, while Paulinho and Dembélé were the more technical of the quartet. Neither, though, quite had the subtlety to pick locks and keep Spurs’ passing game ticking in the way that Luka Modric had done before his departure.
Meanwhile, spoiled for options and with a squad full of unfamiliar players, the manager simply could not find a balanced or settled side. Despite his tactical and selection conundrums, things didn’t look too bad at first. The team kept a good number of clean sheets, and even though the collective did not really click offensively, Paulinho was getting on the scoresheet. This brilliant injury time winner against Cardiff City sticks in the memory. For the most part though, the team’s football was slow, dour and heavily reliant on Roberto Soldado’s former proficiency with penalties.
Would Paulinho have delivered long term had Villas Boas kept his job? Perhaps. The Portuguese certainly had faith in him, deploying him mostly in central midfield, and occasionally in the hole behind the striker. What we can say for sure is that barring injury, the Brazilian would have made a full season of appearances under AVB. The young manager departed Tottenham by ‘mutual consent’ in December 2013 after embarrassing thrashings by Liverpool and Manchester City. Paulinho didn’t know it at the time, but it was the death knell for his Spurs career after only six months.
In came Tim Sherwood. Determined to prove a point and highlight the good work he was alleged to have done with the youth setup, the (let’s be honest) interim manager promoted Nabil Bentaleb, stuck him in central midfield and then flogged him for all he was worth for the rest of the season. With a switch of the system to 4-4-2, Paulinho barely got a look-in. Even when Bentaleb was out injured towards the end of the season, Sherwood inexplicably started a game or two with Nacer Chadli and Gylfi Sigurðsson in central midfield rather than specialists in the position. Paulinho still finished his first year in England with eight goals overall – not a bad return – but his limited game time under Sherwood had clearly left him discombobulated.
Though Spurs finished fifth, it was clear that many of the players were just waiting for the manager to leave. It had been a bizarre and unsettling season for the seven foreign recruits brought in by the Baldini-Levy-Villas Boas task force. Their first manager had gone, their second manager was about to leave, their playing time had been as patchwork as a crust-punk’s jacket and nobody knew who the new boss would be.
Enter 'Samwise Gamgee' Mauricio Pochettino. Paulinho would have been justified in feeling positive about the new appointment. First of all, a South American – albeit one from a very different country – might have better understood his game than someone from Boreham Wood. Secondly, Pochettino’s high octane pressing should have been a good match for the Brazilian’s energetic style. Just 15 league appearances in 2014/15 and no goals tell another story.
Perhaps Paulinho’s confidence had already been shattered by Sherwood’s reign. Perhaps he was tarred with the same brush as other expensive failures, or perhaps Pochettino simply decided that Bentaleb and Mason were going to be his first choices come rain or shine. Whatever the reason, and for better or worse, Paulinho was limited to just 504 minutes of football all season. When he did play, there were the occasional flickers of hope, but largely what we witnessed was a broken man. His confidence shot, his role unclear; Paulinho was a ghost of the player that arrived at the Lane two years previously.
It is a sad state of affairs, but it’s probably best for both the player and the club that he has moved on. Tottenham’s new, old direction of turning to young, British players is quite clear. At 27, Paulinho should still have time to make an impact. Whether he should have let Phil Scolari convince him to make it at Guangzhou Evergrande is another story, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see him regularly make the Brazil squad now that he has left White Hart Lane.
Spurs fans, meanwhile, are left as usual to contemplate what could and should have been. Paulinho wasn’t a bad player when he arrived, and he isn’t a bad player now. What happened in between is a mystery, and one that requires deeper investigation than is possible from afar. For now, then, Paulinho is just another ship in a very Tottenham kind of night.