Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Overview of Brazilian Football Part II:

We have already discussed the reappearance of wingers in Brazilian football, or ar least an attempt to play with wide predominantly attacking players. But this remains an exception to the rule. So how did we get here in the first place? How aware are Brazilians of the evolution that has ocurred in their game? And are they satisfied with its fruits?

I have also commented that playing at outside-forward should be second skin to what would constitute most people's idea of a typical Brazilian player; one who is adept at dribbling and beating his opponent in 1 vs 1 situations. This latter characteristic tends is as true today as it was fifty years ago; in comparison to, say, Argentine football, regardless of the differing schools, styles and formations there, there is a proclivity for individualism in Brazilian football in contrast to the more collectively-aware ethos of the Argentines and Uruguayans. Brazilian players are inclined to hold on to the ball for longer instead of seeking a pass, and either draw the foul for their team win some space for themselves. 

I'm not sure whether or not I overstate the case here, but there is also a tendency in Brazilian club football for everyone to seek a route through the middle. It is not uncommon to witness a player, even a wing-back, receive the ball on the flank, drive forward, and then suddenly put his foot on the ball, bring his trajectory to a pause and proceed to move into the centre of the pitch and almost at a canter, as if he were expecting to find there acres of space and time to weigh his options.

That he might expect to find space and time in central areas is at once paradoxical and logical. Paradoxical in the sense that already the centre of the pitch is overpopulated - watching one game I counted at least eight players congregating in an area roughly equivalent to the size of one half of the centre-circle. And this in a style of football which features much less pressing than is the norm in Europe. It is logical in the sense that Brazilian coaches instill in their players the practice of abandoning large chunks of the field in the hope that opposition markers will dragged out of position, thereby enabling a teammate to fill the vacuum created there. Observers of Scolari's Chelsea will have seen it all before.

All of which brings me to the following point: that Brazilian football is remarkably similar to pre-Sacchian Italian football of the 70s and 80s; not so much catenaccio as gioco all' italiana, an equally meticulous though much less-miserly form of football which was unaccurately derided by foreign supporters and media. But in what way did this style of football mirror today's football in the Brasileirão? In two ways.

Firstly there is the practice of man-marking. Not in defence, you must understand - after all, the Brazilians arguably invented the zonal defending back four and are loathe to jettison it, but rather in midfield. Secondly, there is the assymetrical nature of many Brazilian formations. Very rarely will you see a coach send out his players in a clearly defined formation- this has been a marked tendency in recent years. In a way, this might be a natural consequence of the increasing tacticality of football here: the exodus of top-quality individual talent has left coaches as protagonists who must try to out-think their opponents. Hence many formations which on paper appear as 4-2-2-2 or 3-5-2 or whatever, are in fact a hybrid, designed to morph seamlessly without the coach having to resort to substitutions. 

All of which lends itself to a cat-and-mouse game of trying to second-guess the opponent, and considering that there is little competitive difference between the top and bottom teams in the championship, often it comes down to the details. You seek to punish your opponents' mistakes rather than try tipping the scales with outstanding differential talent.

It is unfortunate perhaps that Brazilian punditry and coaching jargon have done more than most to portray in such simplistic and reductionist light the tactical sophisitication inherent in the domestic game. They frequently cite mantras of 4-4-2, 3-5-2 and 3-6-1 (these three being the most common) as immutable staples when the reality is better reflected in European-style assignations of four-band systems, hence: 4-2-2-2, 3-3-2-2, 3-4-2-1 and the like. But of such obsequience of language can be attributed to an understandable desire for brevity on the part of Brazilians, it does also point to a certain cultural insularity. There has been an unwillingness to incorporate foreign trends perhaps comparable to the enduring British and Scandanavian reverence for flat 4-4-2 as a seemingly default order to which all teams would naturally revert once those pesky tinkering managers have faded into the background. Which, incidentally, is a nonsense supported by neither history nor common sense. 

Attempting to explain the prediliction for three centre-backs, Wanderley Luxemburgo recently lectured on a Brazilian TV that the modern Brazilian centre-back is afraid of being exposed to 1-v-1 or 2-v-2 situations and that the cover traditionally afforded him by his proximate full-back has been scuppered by a lack of positional nous on the part of the latter, whom Luxemburgo now calls alas -"wing-backs"- in all but name. Luiz Felipe Scolari said as much in 2002 when defending his, ultimately successful, deployment of three at the back: "Our full-backs (Robert Carlos and Cafu) don't know how to defend". Recently-installed Grêmio coach, Paulo Autuori is disdainful of 3-5-2, declaring that it detracts from the creative capacity of central midfield, yet Autuori is only telling half of the story. 

Trapped within the Parreira paradigm, any alteration between this kind of 4-2-2-2 and 3-5-2, despite the changes it brings to the full/wing-backs, it is unsubstantial in terms of how it affects the centre midfield; regardless if one player is positioned as a third centre-back or further ahead as an additional anchorman, both men who assist the two centre-backs are essentially destroyers.

 With regards the central arrangement of 4-2-2-2, this is not to be confused with the Spanish "double pivot", which basically has two permutations, with the first strand being more accentuated on creativity; destroyer plus organiser (Mascherano and Alonso, Diarra and Gago) or destroyer plus box-to-box dynamo (Albelda and Baraja, Hargreaves and Fletcher, Petit and Vieira).  The unifying factor here in the Spanish school is that roles be not duplicated and the ball does not become bogged down in inertia, as was the case when Capello's Real Madrid 2006-07 played a more Parreira-esque double pivot with two identical destroyers, Diarra and Emerson. Might he have wished to enact a Parreira-style 3-5-2, Capello need only have withdrawn one of the pair to augment the central defence, but the underlying problem would remain that of who could initiate play from the defensive-to-middle thirds, now dragging one of the more advanced midfielders into the vortex: Parreira's system opens a pandora's box with a resultant race towards extremes.

By the same token however, there are Brazilian versions of 3-5-2 which owe little to Parreira and even offer an intriguing contrast to the more rigid European stylings of this system. Such a comparative analysis will be the the subject of a future post here.

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