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FEATURE | Lucas Paqueta’s turnaround

Lucas Paqueta is one of those players who feels like he’s been around forever. Some may even be surprised to know that he only recently turned 23. Not since the days of Santos and Neymar, has there been a Brazilian who has generated so much hype and excitement. Still, it took the former Milan midfielder nearly four years to regenerate some positive titles.

During the forced lockdown break in Italy, Receive Italian football news published an excellent article retracing Paqueta’s stages in his career up to May 2020. He asked where Paqueta would go from this precise point in his career; was not chosen by Milan coach Stefano Pioli and has only contributed three goals in 47 appearances for Milan.

“For the quality he has, he must become more decisive, in the final phase, either you score goals or you assist. These are the last words Pioli said about Paqueta, who in 2019/20 only made 10 Serie A starts after Pioli took office. Paqueta didn’t add any goal contributions after football resumed in Italy. As for his career, the answer seems to be “nowhere.”

So when AC Milan chased Wesley Fofana in August / September 2020, having to raise funds, Paqueta was one of the players left behind. This made Lyon’s interest in the perceived “flop” even more special. Receive French football news even discovered that French football agents thought it was part of a ridiculous “made in Brazil” recruitment strategy, by Lyon sporting director Juninho. Milan were happy to part ways with Lucas Paqueta for € 20million, losing around € 19million on Flamengo’s initial transfer.

Bounce back in Lyon

Despite this, Lucas Paqueta transformed his performances in Lyon. He has started nine times out of 12 possible matches (in all competitions). Rather than negative quotes from club staff like in Milan, Paqueta has been very open about her happiness in France. On the surface, however, little has changed; Paqueta has not contributed more than one goal in France. Explaining what has improved requires closer examination.

Heat maps of Lucas Paqueta, from Serie A (2019/20) to AC Milan (left), Ligue 1 (2020/21) to Lyon (right) – source: SofaScore

A priori, Paqueta was deployed at the same post in Lyon as in Milan. He plays as one of two forward-thinking midfielders in a 4-3-3. The heat maps above show something else, however. In Milan, Paqueta roamed the field and tended to move in the canals. For a central midfielder, he spent a relatively short time in midfield. In Lyon however, he plays almost exclusively on the right side of the center midfielder. The darker areas show that Paqueta has a big influence in the middle third of the pitch. To underline this, the statistics of fbref show that in 2019/20, 37% of Paqueta’s hits came in the bottom third. In 2020/21, this percentage fell to 27%.

The effect of the new instructions

The changes in Paqueta’s role and instructions in the field were a driving force for the recovery in France. Gone are the days of his boastful rainbow films in Flamengo. While his hypnotic close control is still there, his role is more to retain possession than to beat a man. As shown in the graph below, Paqueta has attempted the fewest 90 dribbles of his entire senior career.

Darker bar is for attempts (i.e. attempted shots), lighter bars are accurate / successful (i.e. accuracy of shot)

This graphic is excellent for further explaining how his instructions are different in Lyon. Paqueta’s dribbling and shooting power is at an all-time low. However, his tackles and interceptions for 90 are at their all-time high.

It also shows the transition from Brazilian football to Italian football. In 2018 Paqueta’s first coach in Milan, Genaro Gattuso, proclaimed “His head is working well even in a tactical sense, we made a great signing.” Still, Paqueta’s passing accuracy and tackling success rate fell dramatically in his debut season in Europe. It took the trip to France for these statistics to finally recover.

Other more focused statistics show how Lucas Paqueta really matured in Lyon. In 2019/20, he lost the ball an average of 2.8 times per game. In Ligue 1, this statistic has halved. This does not mean that Paqueta is passive in possession. Even at Flamengo, Paqueta showed vision beyond his years. There were games where he was able to locate balls through the defensive lines, sending his teammates on goal. That vision remains strong, and he has achieved more hit creation actions per game than Lille’s top-flight Jonathan Bamba.

How Rudi Garcia improves Lucas Paqueta

This different role is one of the main reasons Paqueta is playing so much more impressively. He’s clearly being told to be more controlled in possession and less direct than he was in Milan. However, increasing his tackle and intercept output comes down to dedicated work off the pitch. Paqueta’s transformation is reminiscent of Lucas Leiva’s. A once skillful Brazilian midfielder, transformed into an industrial powerhouse by a reputedly pragmatic manager. For Leiva, it was Rafa Benítez.

But now it’s Lucas Paqueta who is adding industry to his game. While the subject hasn’t been discussed publicly, it’s clear that Lyon deputy manager Cacapa is helping Paqueta. A former Brazilian and Lyon defender, Cacapa has worked at the club since 2016. Since Paqueta joined him and the rest of Garcia’s coaching staff, Paqueta has grown significantly in the frame. Against PSG he was seen holding Verratti and Gueye off the ball. His stamina has also improved, helping him keep pace with Ligue 1. In Lyon’s 3-0 win at Reims, a side against which last season was deemed difficult to face, Paqueta charged high. down on the ground. He’s won possession more times than anyone else in this game.

With this physical improvement and clear defensive work on the training ground, Paqueta has become a fantastic player. Barely 23 years old, he still holds the eye-catching and gorgeous talent of his days at Flamengo. AC Milan may have been a turbulent icebreaker for European football, but they have prepared Paqueta well. Ligue 1 is a place that often surprises newcomers, like Jonathan David. With the help of the Lyon coaching staff and the intelligent management of Rudi Garcia, Paqueta joins Renato Sanches as one of the best midfielders in Ligue 1.