Paulinho has thoroughly enjoyed his first season back in Brazil since 2018. Having left Vasco to sign for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, the Brazilian’s European adventure lasted a little over four years. Yet the decision was made to return back to his native land this year and it’s worked out extremely well thus far.
With 21 goals to his name (at the time of writing) Paulinho has scored five goals in his last four home matches. In fact, the 23-year-old has been the sole goalscorer for Atletico MG in those games - of which the club has won all of them to nil.
Atletico’s main man is heavily relied on to help the club win football matches, and the Brazilian has risen to the occasion. Since returning, he’s fully embraced the task, and as a result he’s started to get his career firmly back on track.
Partnership with Hulk
Despite Paulinho playing on the left side of an attacking three, Hulk has become the provider for his team since the 23-year-old's arrival, having operated as the main breadwinner for this side since arriving in 2021.
The 37-year-old was always going to have to pass the baton over at some stage, yet he’s managed to build an ever blossoming partnership with Paulinho since day one.
Hulk assisted his new striker back in March in a crucial Copa Libertadores qualifier against Colombian outfit Millonarios - and the duo's understanding on the pitch continued ever since.
In the five goals Paulinho has scored at home, Hulk has assisted four of them. The former Brazilian international has been able to find Paulinho’s bursting runs into the box, often found intelligently coming across opposing full-backs before guiding the ball into the back of the net.
Both Paulinho and Hulk rely on each other, but the captain has been crying out for a reliable strike partner since his arrival back in 2022. Although Hulk has seven league goals of his own, he’s already doubled his assists tally from last year.
Style of play
Paulinho isn’t just a poacher. The forward is powerful in the air, possessing a tremendous leap - something we’ve seen numerous times in the Copa Libertadores - including a trademark header against Athletico PR in a 2-1 victory in the group stage.
However, one touch finishes inside the box are a big part of his game.
He’s not one to slam the ball home, but often opts to guide the ball home with his instep instead, tucking his shots into the corner firmly out of the goalkeepers reach.
Although predominately operating on the left hand side of an attacking trio, Paulinho enjoys drifting into the middle to support the play or hang off the final defender. When an opportunity presents itself, he's keen to take full advantage, rather than limit himself down the channel.
His confidence has been there from the very beginning, but the more goals he’s added to his name as the season has progressed has allowed him to flex his muscles and become the main man at Atletico MG - something no one has been able to do since Hulk’s arrival back in 2021.
Paulinho has pre-dominantely featured in a 4-3-3 formation, but has shown he's capable of leading the line in a two alongside Hulk on several occasions this season. As long as he's in a fluid role, this is when we see him at his best.
Diving into Paulinho’s 2021/22 Bundesliga heatmap, this was the first season out of his four with Bayer Leverkusen that he was utilised on the left for a meaningful amount of games. It was also his best season at the club, contributing four goals in 24 appearances, as well as featuring in six Europa League matches.
Paulinho's heatmap for Bayer Leverkusen - Bundesliga - 21/22
However, what we have seen at Atletico MG is a licence to move into a more central role, rather than limited to the left channel.
This freedom has not only helped him to form a closer relationship with Hulk but also given him the flexibility to trust his goalscoring instincts and find himself in threatening positions.
Paulinho is the perfect example of how certain teams and formations can severely restrict how a player operates which doesn’t allow them to fulfil their full potential.
Paulinho's heatmap for Atletico Mineiro - Brasileiro - 22/23
A return to Europe for Paulinho?
There’s been plenty of noise made around Botafogo’s Tiquinho Soares and Athletico PR’s Vitor Roque breaking into the Brazilian national team. Marcos Leonardo lit up the U20 World Cup and has been heavily linked with a move to Europe, while the likes of Luis Suarez and Deyverson have received plenty of praise in their later years.
However, Paulinho has proven back in Brazil he’s a very capable striker. At the age of 23, it’s too early to rule out a return to Europe to try his hand once again.
He’s drastically improved over the last nine months and clearly has the physical attributes and awareness in the box to compete at a higher level.
Paulinho has been selected for Brazil’s pre-Olympic squad, starting and playing the entire 90 minutes in a recent friendly against Morocco.
If he is selected, this will be a real opportunity to showcase his finishing ability to a larger audience, and another European club may just take a chance on him.