Giuliano: Zenit St Petersburg’s Ephemeral Star

Giuliano Victor de Paula’s presence came to grace St Petersburg briefly; after only one full season with Zenit, he has now been sold to Fenerbahçe in Turkey. Despite a highly successful year in Russia which saw the Brazilian’s market value increase almost twofold, he appears to have left for the same modest €7m he arrived for. Mircea Lucescu’s star player found himself not especially needed under Roberto Mancini, and the fact, not least the manner of his departure, undoubtedly leaves some fans disappointed.

Lucescu’s Signing

Giuliano came to Zenit relatively unknown, certainly, most European fans could not expect to have been familiar with the 26-year-old, who had spent most of his career in Brazil, and won his small handful of international caps some years ago.

The man to take notice of his talent was Zenit manager Mircea Lucescu. During his spell in Ukraine for FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Giuliano had caught the eye of Lucescu who was managing Shakhtar Donetsk at the time. Owing to the turmoil in Ukraine Giuliano had since returned to Brazil to play for Gremio, and it was from there that he was invited by Lucescu to the shores of the Neva.

The Incredible Giuliano

When he arrived, inevitable comparisons to Hulk followed. Soon after one Brazilian attacker had left, another joined – Giuliano even had a comparably stocky build. Few would have expected it but his individual contribution to Lucescu’s Zenit would prove similarly incredible.

Lucescu converted Giuliano from being a winger to playing a central role behind the striker, and he became the focal point of Zenit’s 4-2-3-1 formation. As Manuel Veth from Futbolgrad writes – this was a tried and tested approach for Lucescu, with Giuliano following in the footsteps of Henrik Mkhitaryan, and Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar.

Giuliano’s fantastic work rate and cultured passing made him an instant hit in this new position. He was always on the move, seeking out space and then arriving precisely when needed – either to move along the passage of play or finishing off a goalscoring chance. What stood out above all, however, was his sheer determination to succeed and it manifested itself in how he played, quickly making him a firm favourite with fans. Famous comebacks against Spartak Moscow and Maccabi Tel-Aviv are testament to his individual skill and perseverance.

By the first half of the season, Giuliano had totted up an impressive 14 goals and 9 assists during 23 games in all competitions. As a point of comparison, Hulk managed less – a mere 11 goals and 9 assists, during his whole entire first season at Zenit. Giuliano’s spectacular form did not go unnoticed as he returned to the Brazilian national squad, and at this stage, all the signs pointed to Giuliano having been a very significant signing by Lucescu. The future of Zenit looked bright with him in its ranks.

Lucescu’s Failings

The dangerous side-effect of Giuliano’s brilliance was that it, of course, vindicated Lucescu’s inflexible approach to managing Zenit. By the winter break despite the team having crashed out of the Russian Cup and trailing in the league there was no sign of a plan B. Lucescu’s token recognition of problems was to bring in a horde of winter signings which failed to sprout any more magical Giulianos. Zenit bowed out of the Europa league, and whilst it is nice to note that Giuliano still finished as the competition’s top player, things were nevertheless about to take a considerable turn for the worse.

READ MORE: Lucescu – Failure or Scapegoat?

When it soon dawned that there were no more trophies on the horizon, motivation for the players became hard to find. The team deflated and so did Giuliano. The Brazilian’s effectiveness fell by almost half, as he managed 3 goals and 5 assists in 15 games. No player in the world is truly immune to his surroundings, and even if Giuliano could sometimes turn individual games on their head, he couldn’t do Lucescu’s job for him.

Lucescu was sacked after Zenit had finished third in the league for a second consecutive year, the discovery of Giuliano was a small solace for fans in what turned out to be an otherwise unimpressive season. Roberto Mancini was named as Zenit’s new manager

The Ruthless Roberto

Unlike his predecessor(s) Mancini has by now made it clear that he took on the job not willing to accept half-measures – either the players fit in or they do not, and he appears to have the full backing of the board as to who arrives at this point through years of arduous trial and error. The new philosophy at Zenit makes sense – Zenit is to buy and cultivate top young talent; foreigners will need to be better than any Russian, and promise considerable sell-on value. Zenit wants to become an elite club in Europe and this is a sensible route that well matches the realities of Russian Football with the club’s financial capabilities.

Mancini has gradually settled on playing a 4-3-3 formation that best accommodates the new players, it is a lot quicker and more fluid brand of football than Lucescu’s 4-2-3-1. There is no more individual reliance on a player like Giuliano but rather a collective action in both attack and defence. Whilst Giuliano is a true team player in spirit, in such a scheme he is no longer the star. For it, he is not sufficiently defensively proficient, he does not have blistering pace, nor is he a natural striker. He does not need to have these qualities to be a great footballer, but to cater to him at Zenit, Mancini would have to adapt the team, probably at the expense of nurturing Zenit’s new philosophy.

While Giuliano was on the face of it an unlikely candidate for departure, he was one the several players who simply did not fit in anymore, like he himself has suggested. It is not quite as some would make out – that Mancini hates Brazilians or would prefer to have a team of 11 Argentinians. No emotion or favouritism lies behind this decision, and for fans, this cold-hearted reality is worth getting used to – almost certainly a few more “surprising” departures await us in the months ahead.

Giuliano for his part understandably did not want to sit on the bench. He had nothing to prove to Zenit like perhaps Dmitry Poloz or Christian Noboa do, and his passport did not allow him to stay there and coast into his national team regardless. There is a sense that he may have become something greater at Zenit, but such strong team performances like the recent 5-1 demolition of Spartak, or 4-0 routing of Akhmat seem to justify the casting aside of individual sympathies, no matter how great.

A New Chapter

At Fenerbahçe Giuliano has a good chance of meeting fresh success. He is surrounded by talented ex RPL players, Giuliano’s friend Josef de Souza plays there, and Aykut Kocaman will be able to call on Mircea Lucescu, who now manages the Turkish national team. Looking back, Zenit fans will remember Giuliano fondly but his and Zenit’s fate has now ultimately taken very different paths.

Author: Neil Salata

A big fan of Russian football. Not much more, not much less.

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