Everyone hates the phrase 'Modric replacement'. Every time Tottenham Hotspur were linked to a midfielder last summer and in January, everyone who was unfamiliar with said player asked if he was a replacement for Luka Modric, and in almost all cases, the answer was a resounding no. Moussa Dembele isn't much like Modric, nor is Gylfi Sigurdsson or Lewis Holtby. Spurs never got one.
As a fanbase, we've moved on from 'is he a Modric replacement?' to 'do we need a Modric replacement?", which might simply be our new brand of catharsis, something Tottenham fans need to engage in constantly. Spurs finished on more points than they've ever finished on in the Premier League era last season, but they also finished in fifth place and did it while coached by a man who previously failed spectacularly in the Premier League and depending on Gareth Bale to bail them out of sticky situations after playing 89 minutes of generally crappy football.
Paulinho is not a Modric replacement. He's an excellent up-and-coming player, an important fixture in one of the world's most important national teams and the centerpiece of the reigning Copa Libertadores champions, but he's not a slick passer or a player whose primary function is to help his team keep possession. He's big, he's fast, he can dribble, he can score, he's direct and he's pretty solid defensively.
You know how Andre Villas-Boas tried to do this weird thing where Scott Parker was a do-everything box-to-box midfielder that did just as much dribbling forward and trying to combine with advance players as he did breaking up opposing attacks in the middle? Paulinho is like that, only he's actually really good at it. There are two things that Paulinho has in common with Modric: He is a central midfielder and he is good at football.
Spurs and Paulinho aren't going to announce anything until after the Confederations Cup. Rags are still rags and nothing should be trusted until the club announces it, but it's looking pretty likely that Spurs are about to write a big eight-figure check for Paulinho and that he's going to sign for the team. After our (reportedly) failed pursuits for Fredy Guarin and Joao Moutinho -- pure passers who do not match Paulinho's athleticism and who need to be covered for defensively -- his expected capture is a curious one.
It's also going to leave Spurs with a really odd cast of midfielders, even if they're all ridiculously talented. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal would all love to have any (or two, or all three) of Sandro, Paulinho and Dembele, but they don't exactly make up a midfield three that makes much sense at all. It would be heavy on athleticism, but pretty defensive and light on top-notch passing ability. Dropping one of them for Holtby makes sense, but he's much more of a Steven Gerrard/Frank Lampard-type of player than a playmaker. Gylfi Sigurdsson is a great passer, but he hasn't been terrific in his attempts to play deeper in midfield over his career. Jake Livermore doesn't look good enough to play regularly at the highest level. We've been over Parker. Tom Huddlestone is an absolutely unbelievable long-range passer from deep, but his short passing leaves a bit to be desired and everything else about his game leaves a ton to be desired. Tom Carroll is a stylistic fit and is good enough to play regularly in the first team in my opinion, but that opinion isn't necessarily a widely shared one, and AVB certainly hasn't demonstrated that he believes it.
If Spurs buy Paulinho, that's probably the midfield sorted, at least as obvious first-choice players go. Sure, the club could bring in another midfielder for depth if they feel like selling off two or three of their current midfield crop (very likely), but it's not going to be another £15-20m player. Sandro, Holtby, Dembele, Sigurdsson, Carroll and, in this scenario, Paulinho would be the likely candidates to start next season. There's not a single player in that crop that resembles Modric (or Moutinho, or Guarin) in both style and already demonstrated ability, and only Carroll even approaches him stylistically.
Whether or not this is going to work is anyone's guess, and that might have a lot to do with Spurs' other transfer business, how AVB plans on using Bale and his planned formation for next season. But it's hard to envision this Spurs side playing great football and scoring a lot of goals without adding someone who is a much better passer than this crop unless Carroll has an outrageous breakout season, something that even the staunchest of Carroll proponents (me) don't expect. There isn't a top team in the world that doesn't have a central playmaker -- either high up the pitch or deep in the center -- who isn't a better passer than the players Tottenham look poised to enter next season with.
If AVB is going to pair Bale and a new striker up top, roll with Paulinho and Sandro in the center and go to a very fast and direct 4-4-2 ... well ... fine. I won't love it, but it's not the worst thing in the world. It's probably the best way to use our current personnel and there's no wrong way to play football. It's not something that anyone should be outraged by. But Spurs spent the last season slowly inching from playing like Harry's team to playing like AVB's Porto. If Villas-Boas thinks he can start the season with this team, play like his Porto side and seriously compete for fourth place, he's probably mistaken. They just don't have the personnel, and if Paulinho is joining up, they probably won't acquire the right personnel.
Tottenham are going to have top four-worthy talent and squad depth, but I'm not sure that they're going to have the squad balance to go along with it. For this to work, more than one of Carroll, Dembele, Holtby and Sigurdsson are going to have to show something that we haven't seen from them so far in their careers.