After months of speculation, the white smoke finally rose above Flamengo’s Gavea base in the south of Rio de Janeiro, as it was all but confirmed that a destination had been determined for their star asset, Lucas Paqueta.
Having sparked interest from the likes of Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Barcelona, Paqueta is set to join AC Milan in January, as the Rossoneri jumped the queue to land one of the hottest prospects in world football.
It has led to a wave of excitement in the red-and-black half of Milan and is viewed as being indicative of a new-look Diavolo, finally stepping out of the shadows of a miserable period of mismanagement to be able to challenge European powerhouses for top talent once more.
For a club whose history is so entwined with Brazilian talent, it has been a number of seasons since Milan have enjoyed the thrill of a truly sensational samba star, but in Paqueta that could soon be redressed.
Taking his nickname from the island in the heart of the Guanabara Bay in Rio upon which he was born, Lucas Tolentino Coelho de Lima has taken Brazilian football by storm over the past 18 months.
Skilful and well-balanced with the ball at his feet, the 21-year-old’s dribbling ability has drawn comparisons to Milan icon and fellow Brazil star Kaka, with his long strides allowing him to glide across the pitch.
However, Milan would be wise to take due caution here. With most domestic teams in Brazil still of a deep-defence mindset and wide gaps between the lines, Paqueta has been able to take advantage to produce some delightful solo runs. Against the higher-pressing and more defensively astute teams of Serie A, the youngster may have some adapting to do and it remains to be seen whether these elegant breaks will be allowed to develop.
Nonetheless, whilst still raw, he is sublimely talented with excellent close control, and his delightful left foot may offer Milan an outlet of creativity that has been lacking in midfield.
A keen eye for goal and an equally sharp sense of the pass has seen the Flamengo academy graduate blooded into Tite’s Brazilian national team squad, and the midfielder was handed his international debut against USA in September.
One of the crucial questions that the Rossoneri will have to answer is one that eluded former Flamengo tactician Mauricio Barbieri; just where on the pitch should Paqueta operate?
Having been mainly deployed as the creative spark in the Rubro-Negro’s midfield, the youngster at times found himself competing against former Juventus flop Diego for the number 10 role. This has seen Paqueta thrown in across a wide range of positions, including as a striker, a winger and even as deep-lying holding midfielder.
Perhaps lacking the temperament for the latter role, Paqueta has been exposed when operating closer to his own goal in a manner that may set alarm bells ringing in Milan. Having developed into domestic Brazilian football’s sensation this term, Paqueta has become noticeably more careless and too eager to showboat, leading to some disastrous consequences on the edge of his own box, including in a bitter derby against Vasco da Gama.
This ties into another question mark surrounding the Flamengo star. Having burst onto the scene in such rapid fashion, an air of petulance has crept into this game that could prove to be his undoing should things take a turn for the worse in Serie A. How Milan manage this could make or break their new investment, but it could also be argued that Flamengo have overindulged their young prospect and Milan can afford to take stricter approach.
However, Paqueta has looked imperious as a shadow striker and the thought of a partnership playing off Gonzalo Higuain ought to have any Rossoneri fan giddy with excitement.
Whether Paqueta is a success at the Stadio San Siro hinges on how Milan approach the handling of their new arrival. With Flamengo gunning for four different trophies this season, and at risk of missing out on all, Paqueta has been an almost ever-present and is closing in on 60 appearance in 2018 alone.
The draining campaign has told, with his performances dipping alarmingly following the resumption of domestic action after the World Cup. It coincided with Flamengo going through an awful spell of form that saw them dumped out of the Copa Libertadores and Copa do Brasil, and almost fall out of the picture in the race for the title.
This even led to Paqueta incurring the wrath of Flamenguistas, although a sparkling display capped by a brace against Corinthians in early October hinted at a resurgence.
“He is a young man who has everything needed to become a great, but has been inconsistent recently,” lamented Flamengo icon Zico on his YouTube channel in June.
“My message to him is to play seriously because he has a lot of intelligence. He must pass the ball, he is taking far too long with it.”
After so much football so soon after breaking into the first team, Milan will need to wary of bringing in a player who looks close to burn out. The intensive Brazilian calendar could have a hugely detrimental impact on Paqueta, but with a well-managed integration into Italian football and work to smooth off the rough edges, the Rossoneri may have unearthed their own Kaka 2.0.