Ask Declan Rice what he thinks of Lucas Paqueta and you’ll leave him almost speechless.
“He’s amazing, honestly, he’s absolutely amazing,” Rice said recently.
At £51m, his signing was expected to deliver weekly superlatives of his greatness, lifting West Ham to a new level with style the envy of their rivals.
What really happened was, if we’re being kind, a slow burn as he adapted to English football. If you were mean, you’d say he bordered on a ‘flop’ tag, as he and manager David Moyes seemed to be at odds over how best to use him.
Used as a number 10 and then in a deeper role, nothing clicked but in recent months something has clicked into place and if Rice, one of his biggest fans, leaves, as planned this summer, West Ham n won’t need to look too far to discover the next central midfield piece they should build around.
Lucas Paqueta (right) is starting to catch fire after a difficult start to life with West Ham
Declan Rice has described the Brazil international as ‘incredible’ to play alongside
There’s no denying that scoring goals is a problem for a player as talented as Paqueta. A return of five goals in 39 games in all competitions is nowhere near enough.
But unlike at the start of the season, the positives are evident now; his bite in the middle of the park has put him top of the tackle charts since February and there is a growing confidence in his game that allows more of his natural flair to show.
“We’ve brought in quite a few players and for me personally there weren’t that many to start. But I think Lucas is the one who’s really, really succeeded now and shown it,’ Moyes said after victory against Leeds.
“It’s a good moment for us because at the end of the season we needed him. Score goals, help us get to a final and obviously he performed very well today.
And he brings that renewed confidence and conviction to Wednesday’s Europa Conference League final against Fiorentina.
A European final requires your biggest stars to perform and Paqueta rises at the perfect time from a West Ham perspective.
It is understood that the improvements in his English – he has three lessons a week – are helping him acclimate to the team and his naturally bubbly personality is proving itself off the pitch to teammates and staff members.
His development is a perfect example of why it’s important not to throw in the towel on a player who doesn’t settle in immediately.
A notable push came when his frustration at pulling out of the 1-1 draw with Aston Villa in March saw him gut Moyes and his coaching staff.
He blew into the tunnel, before it was smoothed and ground.
Paqueta’s numbers from the 2022-23 season show his success in duels and pressing
Paqueta frustrated at start of season but his confidence has skyrocketed in recent weeks
If West Ham are to rebuild after Rice there is a feeling Paqueta is the man to build around
It’s been frustrating for Paqueta and the fans alike, but the fruits of his labor are now starting to show.
“It obviously took him a while to settle into the Premier League and the training ground, moving his family around,” Rice continued.
I think now you see the real Lucas. Some of the things he does, even in training, it’s just mind-boggling how good he is.
Rice added: “The confidence he has in his own ability to beat players and do crazy skills. If we tried that, we wouldn’t stand a chance. You’re starting to see the best of him now, as it continues.
It’s not just on the pitch that he wins the hearts of West Ham fans, Paqueta was among a handful of players who faced AZ Alkmaar ultras in the stands after hooligans targeted an area close to the families of the players.
Videos Shown Paqueta, along with teammates Flynn Downes and Saïd Benrahma, fought with AZ fans as they tried to defend their loved ones. Without fear.
David Moyes has seen improvement in Paqueta which has come at a perfect time now
West Ham travel to Prague for Europa Conference League final eager for Paqueta to play main role
Now all eyes are on Prague and all eyes on Paqueta.
As much as all the debate right now is about what comes next for Rice, it will also be about whether they have the heir to their midfield throne right under their noses.
Fiorentina won’t be a breeze, but when fully fit, Paqueta can be the player to stand out on the whole pitch.
Now it’s up to him to prove it.