Bayer Leverkusen have a studied history of success spotting South American diamonds in the rough and polishing them into blinding luminaries at elite level. Their latest find, Brazilian winger Paulinho, is expected to continue this successful cross-continental tradition.
How did this starlet catch the eye of Leverkusen’s scouting department? Will he be able to follow in on the footsteps of Arturo Vidal or countrymen Ze Roberto and Emerson as the next great South American fostered to greatness in the Bundesliga? How does he fit into coach Heiko Herrlich’s scheme at Die Werkself? bundesliga.com has all the answers!
Paulinho is a product of Vasco da Gama’s youth academy. The Rio de Janeiro club, who have won the Brasileirao on four occasions alongside the 1998 Copa Libertadores title, has a reputation for propelling some of the most exciting talents in Brazilian football to international stardom.
Juninho Pernambucano, famous for his free kick prowess throughout the early 2000s, is an absolute legend at the Sao Januario stadium and Romario, one of the best strikers to ever grace a football pitch, is easily the most notorious name to come out of the cruzmaltina forge.
That’s quite a reputation to live up to, but Paulinho has all the ingredients to achieve greatness on his own terms away from the shade of these past titans. The youngster made his professional debut with Vasco on 13 July 2017, just two days before his 17th birthday, and immediately made his mark. Coming on as a late substitute in the 89th minute did not stop him from giving teammate Guilherme an assist to round out a 4-1 win over Vitória.
This was followed by two goals on his first ever league start, and third overall appearance, that proved crucial to beat Atletico Mineiro 2-1. Coach Milton Mendes rewarded his starlet with more minutes in the coming matches, deploying Paulinho on both flanks, as an attacking midfielder and even as a centre-forward.
The promise comes true
By late September, he was a mainstay in the squad before answering his country’s call to represent Brazil at the U-17 World Cup in India. Despite a cracking individual performance with three goals and two assists as a right winger, Paulinho could not prevent his country from falling in the semi-finals to eventual champions England before claiming the bronze medal against Mali.
Upon return to domestic action, he closed out the year playing in all seven matches of Vasco’s run-in, helping them secure seventh place and a spot in the 2018 Copa Libertadores qualification stage. Paulinho hit the ground running in his continental debut giving two assists and scoring two goals to see Vasco through to the Group stage.
An arm fracture in early April kept him out of action for the rest of the competition and the start of the 2018 Brasileirao, but that didn’t stop Leverkusen from going after their coveted target. On the 25th of that same month, the Bundesliga side announced they had secured Paulinho’s services for the coming season starting on 15 July, the day of his 18th birthday.
Leverkusen’s transatlantic tradition
While the Bundesliga has recently seen some of the brightest South American stars take elite European football by storm, this wasn’t always the case. Restrictions on foreign players were the norm across Europe until the early nineties and Bundesliga clubs tended to fill their limited non-domestic contract slots with professionals from closer, better-known markets like Austria and the Netherlands.
Even before the Bosman ruling opened the doors for the current multinational landscape of European football in 1995, Leverkusen decided to expand their network of influence and revolutionise the league by luring their first ever Brazilian in 1987: playmaker Tita. His arrival immediately heralded the club’s first major trophy: the 1987/88 UEFA Cup.
Building on this success, Leverkusen went on to sign Jorginho in 1989. Luring Brazil’s first-choice right-back, who would go on to lift the World Cup in 1994, was no small feat at the time and Die Werkself went on to win their second trophy with his help: the 1992/93 DFB Cup. In more recent times, names like Ze Roberto, Lucio and Emerson, alongside Chilean warrior Arturo Vidal, have all graced the BayArena with their talents as they cleared a path to international superstardom.
Watch: Brazilian legend Ze Roberto’s top 5 goals in the Bundesliga.
Fellow Brazilian Wendell, Chilean midfield commander Charles Aranguiz and Argentinian goalgetter Lucas Alario will help Paulinho feel at home in Leverkusen and perpetuate this prestigious heritage.
A place for Paulinho?
In 2018/19 therefore, Bayer’s attack will boast a fair amount of firepower. The lethal association between enfants terribles Julian Brandt and Kai Havertz is complemented by Alario and Kevin Volland’s nose for goal up front, not to mention Leon Bailey’s devastating runs up either flank. Their combined 44 goals the previous season are certainly the benchmark for Herrlich’s second season in charge, so what can the young Brazilian add to top this number?
Although he mainly plays as a right winger, Paulinho’s precise and powerful right foot allows him to move along the left flank as an inverted winger with ease. His ability to play in various positions will allow him to fit into Leverkusen’s dynamic attacking setup, swiftly changing roles as needed with his teammates.
Watch: Paulinho's new teammate Julian Brandt was on fire last season!
Where Bailey shines through his nimble movements and explosive runs, Paulinho's bulkier frame allows him to use his physicality to his advantage. Shielding the ball before turning and dribbling past the opposition with a sudden change of pace is a common feature in his highlight reel. A fine-tuned sense of timing for the right pass and the requisite discipline to maintain his side's tactical shape are also among his qualities.
His first season in Europe is likely to be one of learning. Leverkusen’s mix of hungry youngsters and seasoned veterans is the perfect academic environment to unlock his potential - after all, the club already has a long tradition of doing the same with South American starlets.