Friday, May 15, 2009

Brazilian football overview: Part 1 - "Where have all the wingers gone?"

Whilst peering through a team preview for last week's Brazilian Cup quarter-final in the clash between Corinthians and Fluminense, I was struck by something unusual. Or at least, were I to imagine myself as a Brazilian reader under 40 years old, I would consider as unusual the diagram (see figure above) of the intended team line-ups before me. Both Mano Menezes (Corinthians) and Carlos Alberto Parreira (Fluminense) intended to send out their respective sides to face each other in a broadly 4-3-3 formation. It might seem rash to say this, but this was certainly revolutionary if not in fact a novelty. After all, how could it be a novelty when most Brazilian sides of the 1970s would recongisably line up in a 4-3-3 formation, be this symmetrical, loosely-defined or otherwise - but always featuring at least one winger. Revolutionary perhaps, if indeed we are faced with a return to old ways. 

And yet, speaking in 2009, an entire generation of Brazilians have grown up without witnessing wingers. To be sure, there have been close encounters and unconfirmed sightings. In recent years there has been Denilson Araújo, who with his shimmies and feints, and of course the obsequious multiple stepovers, threatened to evoke echos of Garrincha. The palpable sense of excitement of his adolescent days at Sao Paulo, or when he came off the bench for Brazil in the 1998 as a potential match-winner, a wild-card, an unknown element to upset the best laid strategies of opposition coaches turned out to be, well, just that; potential. 

Nowadays, an august Denilson plays his football for third-division outfit Itumbiara in the rural midwest state of Goiás, but even when he was plying his trade at top sides Real Betis or even more recently Palmerias, there was always the feeling that this was an interloper, an incorrigible maverick, doubtlessly talented but not one to reciprocate confidence of coaches nor supporters. Maybe some perceptive and personable coach could have honed his individual and individualist qualities into a more durable and wieldy weapon for the benefit of collective endeavours. Maybe. But the sad fact is that no Brazilian child is today encouraged to base his game around that of Denilson. 

Now, such despondance begs the question: who has failed the prospective wingers of Brazilian football; its exemplars? Oh, Denilson is a poor role model all right, but that is very selective and incriminatory pickings from a shallow pool. How about identifying and nurturing a better exponent of wing-play then? Now we are questioning the remit of the teachers and coaches, for they don't seem intent on producing wingers anyway; good, bad or mediocre. 

It would appear that the Brazilian outside-forward has become a relic of the past, so much so that we might now lavish praise upon a mobile, tricky young forward by saying "Look at how he attacks the space vacated by the full-back; he almost plays like a ponta (winger)!" This could be said of a player like Robinho, who doubtlessly prefers to enjoy a vaguely defined role supporting a more central striker, as does (or did) Thierry Henry, despite their propensity for making effective wide runs. These are players who tend to start from a central position and then find space out wide, rather than starting from wide and then probing for space in more central areas as do, say, Leo Messi and Franck Ribery. 

The Robinho role is undoubteldy the most selfish of roles in modern football. Selfish, I say, not as a character judgement, but rather in the sense that such a style of play carries with it so many potential rewards and comparatively little concomitant responsibility. Imagine if you will the following scenario of failures and recriminations. The team was wasteful with chance after chance around the box? - the No. 9 is sure to carry the can. We failed to execute enough crosses and all our attacks became funnelled into the centre? - blame the winger(s). Our build-up play was intricate and pleasing on the eye and yet we failed to provide a penetrative pass to suit the runs of our forwards?- why, I do believe your shirt to be the No. 10, Mr Riquelme! The final point here is paramount. As Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian points out in his tactical history "Inverting the Pyramid", the linkman, No.10, enganche, call-it-what-you-may, as is Riquelme, is always held culpable when the team built around him and which affords him so much licence fails. And yet arguably the 9-and-a-half such as Robinho enjoys even greater liberty of movement, yet fails to get tagged with the artistic burden of the playmaker. No wonder such a player would be recalcitrant when a coach asks him to play a more specific wide-attacking role. 

Pelé started as an outside-left for Santos in the mid-1950s but was undoubtedly possesed enough of goal-scoring capability plus imginative passing that he was soon coaxed into the more advanced of the two inside-forward roles, the ponta-da-lança. A generation later, Zico was cut from a similar cloth. The candidate for that role was to be the supreme anarchic talent of the side, the one payer whose sheer unbridled spontaneity was incidentally and conveniently beneficial to the group as a whole. If genius is indeed the price required for the enjoyment of such liberty, is every schoolboy  who even vaguely resembles Robinho its benficiary today? 

Parreira's innovation with respect to the Corinthians game is significant insofar as this is the coach who is most identified with the modern template for Brazilian football; that densely layered 4-4-2 which relies on two ultra-defensive holding players in order to liberate the attacking full-backs and to allow the possibility (whenever Parreira felt inclined to summon the courage) of the creative elements congregating in more central areas of the pitch. Something which European observers might loosely define as a 4-2-2-2. One analysis of Parreira's legacy has been made by Tim Vickery, the BBC's South American football correspondent. Vickery has traced the ills of today's Brazilian national team as partly originating in this system of Parreira's; an overreliance on full-backs for width and crosses, a poor initial transition of the ball from defence to midfield, and an even less imaginative circulation of the ball from midfield onwards, what given the prevalence of destructively-inclined midfielders. 

Indeed, Vickery's diagnosis was all too apparent at the 2006 World Cup, during which Parreira felt compelled to shoehorn four, sometimes even five!, attacking players within the existing confines of his system. The result was that Brazil was a broken team, almost seismically divided between destroyers and creators; there were no cadences, no in between players, no apparent place for those players who would smooth over the divisions between the different sectors of defence,  midfield and attack. Consequentially, Brazil were lethargic and unpurposeful when in possession of the ball against comparatively well-organised teams, yet they were, and still remain, a formidable counter-attacking force against those teams who dared to outplay them.

Nevertheless, Parreira's decision to line up his team in a rough 4-3-3 entailed a positional adjustment for, arguably his most talented player, Thiago Neves. Having recently returned from a frustrating six-month period at SV Hamburg -via Al-Hilal on loan- where he failed to make much of an impact, the 24-year old  was reassigned to a wide attacking position on the left. Thiago, who, though at just under 6ft is not as tall, bears a remarkable resemblence to Cristiano Ronaldo in temperament, athletic physique, movement and style of play, is anxious to recover the impressive form which deserted him after his move to Europe; a style of play that boasted dribbling, accurate shooting and not inconsiderable aerial power. This much cannot have gone unnoticed by Parreira, who in previous times might well have been tempted to play Neves in his more familiar roles at second-striker or attacking midfielder. 

Quite how the moody Curitiba-born player repsonds to his new role over the course of a sustained run of games remains to be seen. What shouldn't surprise us is to see the role of winger so well-fitting to the enduring characteristics of Brazilian football; that of the mazy, ball-hugging individualist eager to leave opponents trailing in his wake and thus create situations numerical superiority for his team mates.

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  1. interesting post, quite a lot to learn from. just, to spin it further, can we blame a bit of Big Phil's failure at Chelsea on exactly that? He more or less relied on width from the fullbacks and fullbacks only, played 2 central midfielders with a lot of work defensively, and in attack, relied on a no wing 4-2-3-1 or whatever we want to call it. You also saw how much his plan didn't work at some point against smaller teams they couldn't beat. The death of classic out and out wingers towards mediopuntas/trequartistas on their positions was imminent. I think Guardiola changed that slightly at Barca with the way Dani Alves, Messi and Henry operated and we might see next season a shift more towards the wingers or one winger at least with say Pedro winning a place in the first team and becoming the new Giuly. It's also interesting to see where this started out in Europe. I would say Milan's Christmas tree formation also relying only on fullbacks providing width had a major influence.

  2. Yeah,

    I also believe that in Argentina, nobody plays with wingers anymore, except that they are even less reliant than the Brazilians are on wing-backs. Actually in Argentina, a nippy little second-striker such as Saviola is referred to as "un wing", which would seem to reflect the Italian vogue of the 60s, 70s and 80s of converting one of the wingers into a support-striker.

    I agree that Pep appears to have been seeking a compromise this season, at least nominally trying to retain some attacking presence on the wings. I would prefer if we had one winger playing on his stronger foot, like you say maybe Pedro as the new Giuly, but no matter know many starts he gets next season, Pedro is unlikely to be a fixture in the team. Maybe with Ribery we could have this. I think the probability of us playing with two wingers, each on his natural side, is unlikely...since we would need plenty of llegada from midfield to profit on their crossing, and I think that the players themselves feel a bit more comfortable with an element of assymmetry to the team; so you'd have one winger staying wide, and the other cutting inside much like Leo does.

    I think that in Brazil there is an overreliance on attacking-full backs. We saw that with Scolari: if you are a wide defender, you can spot a full-back coming a mile away, but it's much harder to defend against a winger who is pressed right up against you and doesn't need 50 yards to accelerate. For me, it is paltry compensation. I'm not saying that every side should play with wingers, far from it, but to expect a wing-back to be able to supplant a winger is futile.

  3. Although Di Maria, Maxi Lopez and Jonas Gutierrez are pretty much what you could describe as wingers but where are the fullbacks and where do the 3 play? I also think that Messi would benefit from someone on his opposite side of the wing, who opens it a bit up.
    It makes sense to play Messi wrong footed, specially with Dani Alves on his side. I also think that using talented and creative players like him just as a mean to cross the ball, is a real waste. But no support on the wings makes no sense either.
    Of course, Pedro will be more a role player, second fiddle player than anything else. Ribery would be interesting, likewise David Silva for the left side or Guardado. But it really is about compromise and finding a middle ground between wingers and trequartistas.

  4. This article is so old but I just came across it...I really have to disagree with a lot. There is no such thing as over-reliance on fullbacks. We've always had that. Yes, we don't much use wingers anymore but that's not a big deal.

    The position Robinho is supposed to play is inherently selfish...well, that coaches seem to believe that is the problem. As his work-rate has always been exemplary (there isn't a forward in the world with as much of it). His movement is the best I've seen and it's unforgivable that he's never been allowed to play his position with any consistency.

    Pele is not the most advanced of the two inside-forwards. He's behind the striker. He was hardly our striker and always a SS, the very same position Robinho plays. The difference is that he's more direct. Rooney and Rivaldo play the same position. So does Messi, who was never a winger. He's an inside-right, now obviously playing some version of a false 9...tho not for Argentina...interesting how that works...almost like he's more concerned with Argentina being strong than with putting up numbers that have nothing to do with anything, but I digress...

    Brazil have played a variation of 4-2-2-2 since 1970. We had the one true winger, Jairzinho, who played like a wing-striker (a bit like CR7 does). We had Rivelino as our AM on the left, Pele playing his usual, Tostao playing a legit false 9 role. We had Socrates and Zico in 82. Our 1994 team is one of our best teams ever, minus the AM's...shame. The view of that team would be so different if we moved Leonardo up, in place of Rai and especially Mazhinho (ehh) and inserted Brando in Leonardo's place, before that red card.

    Lastly, Henry was a striker.