In 2011, the prodigal son returned to Barcelona when Cesc Fabregas left his Arsenal captaincy to rejoin his boyhood club. Although the trio of Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets remained at their imperious best, the addition of the Spanish expat was met with much fanfare. However, his penchant to lose form in the second half of the season ultimately led to his departure in 2014 to Chelsea.
Taller than Xavi or Iniesta and supposedly possessing an English, midfield steel, Fabregas was meant to provide a more direct thrust from the midfield. While his 42 goals were admirable, in the end Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, and Tata Martino all struggled to identify Cesc’s best role in the team. Unlike Fabregas who failed to evolve Barcelona’s play, this season Paulinho has been a revelation.
Coming to Barcelona from China, little was expected from the Brazilian box-to-box midfielder who had flopped at Tottenham in his last stint in Europe. While Fabregas’ arrival brought the city to a halt, crickets greeted Paulinho. Some reports even suggested that no kits bearing his name had been sold. Yet while the Spaniard failed to offer a different presence in midfield, the Brazilian has radically altered the Blaugrana’s DNA in the center of the park.
Statistically, Fabregas was similar to Iniesta and Xavi in the 2013-14 La Liga season. Fabregas created chances and passed metronomically without being a defensive liability. He also scored at twice the rate of the aforementioned players but completed less than half of his take-ons. One of Fabregas main weaknesses has always been his lack of pace, and his inability to quickly change speed likely added to his difficulties in beating players off the dribble. While he had a better eye for goal than Xavi and Iniesta his athletic deficiencies limited his ability to be an X-factor for the team.
Compared to these La Masia graduates, Paulinho is a worse creator and passer. He produces less than one key pass a game, a mark his fellow Cules surpass, and passes roughly 20 fewer times overall. While Paulinho is by no means a classic Barcelona midfielder, he fulfills the promise Fabregas bought in 2011. Paulinho shoots just as much as Fabregas but scores twice as many goals per game. The Brazilian’s eight goals so far in La Liga put him on pace for 16 by the time the season ends, more than the 13 his countryman Neymar accomplished last year. Perhaps the biggest skill Paulinho offers are his timely runs from the midfield. He completes a higher percentage of take-ons, 64.29%, than even the master dribbler Iniesta. Paulinho thrives as the Blaugrana’s fourth midfielder because he differs so much from the typical Barcelona midfield mold.
Today, Barcelona in addition to playing a 4–3–3 also play a variety of 4–4–2 schemes with a flat four or diamond midfield. Before this season, the last time Barcelona seriously tried a midfield diamond was against PSG in the quarterfinals of the 2012/13 Champions League. With Messi on the bench, Pedro and David Villa led the line while Vilanova tasked Fabregas with being the apex of the midfield. Barcelona squeaked through on away goals, but although Cesc’s 94% pass accuracy was tidy, his overall performance was below average for the team–whoscored gave him a 6.5 rating with the team average being 6.85. In comparison, in El Clasico this year, Paulinho assumed the same role Fabregas had but to much greater effect. The Brazilian rattled off three shots on target and was a dangerous late-runner into the box throughout the game. While his pass accuracy was an unimpressive 79%, Paulinho’s play proved a real tactical challenge for Real Madrid.
Although Cesc was not a complete failure at Barcelona, his tendency to lose form as the season wore on and his failure to add a truly different quality to Barcelona’s midfield hindered his integration with the squad. Meanwhile, to many’s surprise, Paulinho with his box-to-box talent and attacking effectiveness has become the fourth midfielder Cesc was always heralded to be.
Statistics provided by WhoScored and Squawka