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.