From being led to their first European Cup triumph by 1958 World Cup winners Dino Sani and José ‘Mazzola’ Altafini, through to the likes of Cafu, Kaká and Thiago Silva, AC Milan’s Brazilians have often formed a conspicuous part of the club’s most successful sides.
And in the interests of re-establishing that tradition, the Rossoneri’s director of football Leonardo – himself once part of the club’s Brazilian on-pitch contingent – has recently put the €35million services of his compatriot Lucas Paquetá at the disposal of manager Gennaro Gattuso.
With the names of his predecessors casting a long shadow, there is more than a little pressure for their latest addition from the país do futebol to shine, but in his first two games – both playing from the start – the 21-year-old hasn’t looked phased in the slightest.
Paquetá has slotted straight into Milan’s youthful midfield trio alongside Frank Kessié and Tiémoué Bakayoko, and in Wednesday evening’s Supercoppa Italiana against Juventus he was the finest midfielder on the pitch for the opening 45 minutes.
Not bad when you consider he was up against an opposition side containing multiple Italian league and cup winners Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi.
The new arrival’s confidence and swagger were evident throughout the first period but was best summed up by a delightful flick of the feet 35 minutes in.
Receiving the ball and coming under pressure from fellow South American Bentancur, Paquetá’s quick thinking and twinkle toes made light work of a potentially dangerous situation.
Had he lost possession to Juve’s big Uruguayan just inside his own half, Milan’s defence would have been in serious trouble, with Paulo Dybala, Douglas Costa, Cristiano Ronaldo and João Cancelo all providing passing options ahead.
As it was, Paquetá saw Bentancur coming out of the corner of his eye and, anticipating the run Hakan Çalhanoglu was making behind him, took one touch with the sole of his left boot before immediately flicking out a right heel to knock it perfectly into the Turkish international’s path, setting up a quick counter.
The shimmy of the hips and the skip in the step bring to mind an over-used and facile cliché, but it is the speed of thought rather than the physical movement that will please Milan fans and those watching with interest from Brazil.
Whenever a young player, especially one who plays in the most congested region of the pitch, moves from South America to the faster, more intense European game, there is always the question of whether they will be able to deal with the substantial reduction in space and time. With one swift, elegant flick, Paquetá has answered those queries.
In addition to that delicious bit of skill which left Bentancur hopelessly stranded, wondering which way to turn next, the young left-footer’s performance was scattered with other moments of promise.
In the first half alone there was a lovely through-ball for Patrick Cutrone, some smooth link-up play with Çalhonoglu and a crunching tackle on international team-mate Douglas Costa as he broke into the Rossoneri penalty area.
• • • •
• • • •
Given that he has just come off the back of an entire Brazilian season in which he made a full 56 appearances for Flamengo and was the main driving force behind their second place finish in the league, it is not surprising that Paquetá faded after the break and was withdrawn after 71 minutes.
In these first few weeks in Italy, however, he has done more than enough to impress the usually unyielding Gattuso.
“He seems like a European player, not a Brazilian,” Gattuso told AC Milan’s official channel last week, employing a witheringly backhanded compliment.
“He has the Brazilian style but knows how to position himself on the pitch. He mixes technique and physical power. He quickly understands the concepts we give him”.
To anyone who had followed his career in Brazil closely, the drag-back-backheel combo with which he embarrassed Juve’s Uruguayan international would have come as little surprise.
In the Flamengo-Fluminense game just before the break in the Brazilian season for the World Cup, Paquetá did exactly the same thing to Richard in the midst of a virtuoso performance that secured a 2-0 win for his team against their historic rivals.
At his best during the early and middle parts of the Brazilian season, Paquetá was dominating games by himself, covering almost every blade of grass on the pitch and flaunting his full repertoire of tricks, passes and goals to the Rubro-Negro faithful.
In that same game against Fluminense in the Maracanã, he also unleashed the most Brazilian of crowd pleasers, the chapéu (literally ‘hat’), chipping the ball over Flu midfielder Douglas’ head before casually running round him to pick it up, all to great jubilation on the terraces.
He also managed 12 goals in 2018 and is capable of finding the net in a variety of different ways. Among the highlights were two poacher’s efforts against defending champions Corinthians, a sumptuous finish against Bahia and a lovely free-kick against Boa Vista in the Rio state championship.
As well as playing in a midfield three, out wide or as a No.10, Paquetá filled in at centre-forward on several occasions during his two years in the Flamengo first-team and is more than capable in the role. It surely won’t be long until the Milan fans are treated to some of his celebratory dance moves.
Like he did in the Supercoppa against Juventus, though, it will not be a huge surprise if the young Brazilian fades as the European season wears on.
He looked tired towards the end of the Brazilian campaign and unfortunately left Flamengo under a slight cloud, having missed a crucial last-minute chance against their title rivals Palmeiras in a game that could have swung the race in their favour.
And as with any new Brazilian face at Milan, he will also have to continue dealing with that looming shadow, cast by the giants that have trodden this path before him.
Upon his presentation in Milan, Leonardo implored the assembled media not to place heavy labels on his back. “We must not compare Lucas to Kaká as the context is different”, he said.
“That AC Milan era had a different type of team, made up of extraordinary players such as Paolo Maldini – those who were used to pressure. We’re now in a different phase with a side that is still under construction.”
When Milan sign a promising Brazilian attacking midfielder, though, the temptation is irresistible. It might be a different moment in the club’s history, Paquetá might be a completely different player – more technical, left-footed, more of a passer than a charging runner – but he will always be measured against his illustrious compatriots.
The challenge now is not just his, however. Over the next few years, we will see if Milan can build a team around their new Brazilian that is able to put them back at the top table of European football and allow him to emulate the success of those that came before.
By Joshua Law