Saturday, August 8, 2009
Inheriting the mantle: Luxemburgo and the Brazilian Tradition
" That's the thing with these people who never put on a pair of football boots and never sang the national anthem out there on the pitch. Every coach has to be on the sidelines to sense the look on the players' faces, their expressions, their sweat..."
One suspects that Dunga’s sentiments as expressed above would be dismissed as bluster by an outsider such as Arrigo Saachi, who certainly needed no footballing pedigree when it came to successfully impressing his ideas upon professional players and compelling them with his leadership qualities. But even if Dunga's rebuke of the media owes some allowance to his being wounded by the severity of criticism leveled against him, and that his truism is not some iron law applicable across the spectrum, what weight then do the comments of outsiders truly hold? Have we nothing of value to contribute? Are we, at best, adjuncts to the real actors in the drama or, at worst, parasites with a self-inflated sense of importance?
One thing we can all be certain of our distance from the game; we can appreciate that the dressing-room door precludes us from a unique human drama which we will never be privy to. You guys talk a nice game, but we are the ones who have to live it. No wonder ex-players and coaches are such a corporative lot; they circle those wagons and close shop once external armchair criticism comes their way.
Except, maybe, when politics enters the equation. Witness the theatre of the absurd surrounding Fabio Capello's positioning of Steven Gerrard in England's friendly versus the Czech Republic in August 2008. Using the Setanta studio suite as a convenient pulpit, Harry Redknapp aimed an unfounded sermon decrying Capello's tactics for “killing” the Liverpool player. Former Manchester United full-back Paul Parker seconded Redknapp's criticisms but in doing so floundered on an ill-attempted stab at tactical acumen. Capello's perfectly coherent game plan that night, which the England boss articulated as a 4-3-2-1, allowed for Gerrard and Wayne Rooney to freely co-exist and mingle in the space between the England midfield and the lone striker in Heskey, with Gerrard asked to veer left in defensive phase and press the opposing right-back, and Rooney fulfilling a similar duty on the right to supplement the deeper midfield trio, but only when England were out of possession.
Now, given that Redknapp's portrayal of Capello's tactics were both wrong and misleading, we are left with two possible explanations: either the current Spurs boss is a poor reader of the game (in which case that leaves him on poor ground for assessing Capello's methods), or he was being disingenuous and thus employed the amplitude afforded him by the occasion to propagate one of the laziest old canards in fan culture, oft repeated believingly in pubs, living rooms and radio phone-in shows. But why would Harry need to launch such a broadside? Well, he has always had to conceal his umbrage at being overlooked for the England manager's job by Soho Square. When briefing those among his favourite journalists, he has expounded on all manner of elaborate tactical schemes by which he would hypothetically accommodate Joe Cole as a No.10 were he the gaffer. Conversely, in his public statements he has dismissed tactical considerations as bunkum, instead arguing with faux-common sense that such a collection of professional players just need a motivator-shouter to simply pick the right players and get them to gel together. As if it were all so simple.
But if Redknapp can muster the wherewithal to don the pundit's cap and shed his football manager's robes when political expedience requires, surely he is not the only coach to employ such cynical role swapping? These are the machinations which can see a football professional leave the confines of his guild to sit himself down amongst the critics of the external world, a world whose opinions on other occasions he is only too happy to delegitimise and dismiss. One prolific Brazilian coach who is content to play to both galleries is current Santos boss Wanderley Luxemburgo.
Tempting though it is to attribute Luxemburgo's omnipresence onscreen to keeping up appearances, warming the studio seat which he might occupy in the future or even just lubricating the mechanics of diplomacy between him and his fair weather media friends, the thing is, he actually seems to enjoy it, taking to it with great gusto, perhaps loving the sound of his own voice. Luxemburgo fancies himself as quite the footballing historian too, perhaps desiring to be cast as Eduardo Galeano cross-germinated with Johan Cruyff. More likely is that his vanity demands that he not only rule the roost with his teams within the four lines but that he also set the parameters for all footballing discussion beyond them.
But just like everything in and of Luxemburgo's persona, he doesn't quite pull it off; the Armani suit is ill-fitting. The rumours surrounding his tenure as Brazil national team coach, financial and personal, business and pleasure; there is no separation between the personal, the political and the public in the life of Luxe.
If most countries are anxious to shake off their stereotypical representations and thrust upon outsiders a richer and more nuanced canvass, then Brazil is in no hurry. Deep down, even the most ill-informed observer suspects that all is not samba, sun, sex and sandals, and that there is surely more to the country than this. But Luxemburgo's trajectory suggests a near parodical elision between two of the most cliched areas in Brazilian life: political skullduggery and football.
You see, the current Santos coach is presently making noises about running for the Brazilian senate. Therein, the two most obvious routes to success in Brazil; either join the kleptocracy which governs from the federal capital or become a footballer. Though equally obvious, both routes are markedly different in the difficulty entailed. Talent, though not solely, is undoubtedly the prime commodity required to make it as an athlete. To become a politician though, failing the reliable option of resorting to nepotism, one can always purchase a massive terrain of property in a distant, relatively uninhabited state, and one which you may never have previously set foot in. It is the eminently more sensible option than to open yet another branch of your Instituto Wanderley Luxemburgo, a franchise of sports professional formation faculties -cum- business self-empowerment course; imagine Tom Cruise's character in Magnolia being MC at Clairefontaine's French football academy with a smattering of start-up businessmen in the auditorium and you get the picture.
Only that Luxemburgo isn't giving them a clear picture. An alleged distraction due to business interests was one of the main motives for Palmeiras to relieve Luxemburgo of his managerial post less than halfway through this year's Brazilian championship. The players alluded to his late arrival at some training sessions, his early abandonment of others and his oversight of the signings of some simply sub-standard new recruits as an indicator that perhaps his heart wasn't in the job or that, just as plausibly, he was treating it with the same prioritisation that a pizza delivery boy gives his 'handy little earner', or the way a young subbing school teacher might view correcting and supervising summer exams; "just something to keep me ticking over whilst I plan the next few months ahead". A rather forlorn way of looking at a part-time job which earns you almost 2 million US dollars a year in a country where the minimum industrial wage is about 52 dollars a week.
Now, in keeping with the overall tone of this blog, which is to focus on the abstract side of the game, it is only fair to square the circle and ask: where does Luxemburgo fit into any discussion on the theoretical side of the Brazilian game?
Well, as mentioned above Luxe can expound for sustained periods on tactics when interviewed. He is generally coherent, persuasive and definitely enthusiastic about the subject matter. To give him credit, he does sometimes hold up a truth where others dare not tread. On a football review programme he enthralled the studio pundits who were cross examining him by dissecting the controversial issue of whether or not attack-minded full-backs were on the whole beneficial for the Brazilian game. Luxemburgo was keen to point out that most contemporary laterais have forgotten how to tuck in and defend around their 18-yard area, and that this was chiefly due to the excess of liberty afforded them by the presence of a third centre-back in many teams. The third centre-back, Luxemburgo argues, is only there as spare cover because increasingly Brazilian centre-backs are afraid to go one-on-one in a zonal marking game. The coach seemed to be hitting upon something insightful here, a line of reasoning which surely would have lead him to the preposterous overreliance upon destructive volantes, a seemingly immutable part of most Brazilian teams, whose coaches appear unwilling to dispose of them.
Instead, Luxe took the wrong turn to Damascus, failing to break out of the paradigm and instead refuting it from within. The problem, he insists, is that 3-5-2 is 5-3-2 no matter where it is played in the world. For him, the laterais and alas (wing-backs or alternatively wide-midfielders) have become indistinguishable from one another, so that adding a third centre-back is simply adding an extra defender to the back four whilst tweaking the system so that the laterais play with more license. What Luxemburgo is ignoring here, is the spectrum of different formations and approaches which Brazilian coaches have made over the past few years, and all featuring the use of a back three, as has been illustrated in a previous blogpost here.
What was really objectionable though, was Luxemburgo's attempts to vandalise the narrative surrounding the place of Brazilian coaches in history. Asking rhetorically (he himself invited the question), whether or not he considered himself to have been influenced by Tele Santana, the man from Nova Iguacu metaphorically tossed the purple gown and sceptre aside, instead striding across the royal boudoir to place the laurel wreath on his head. The crown in question was Mario Jorge Zagallo's.
"More than a child of Tele Santana, I consider myself to be a child of Zagallo..."
Quite aside from the pretension, what was really offensive was Luxemburgo's historical inaccuracy. Gesticulating and outlining discernable shapes of formations with his hands, he stated his dislike of 3-5-2 and his preference for 4-4-2 (meaning 4-2-2-2) which he claimed to be the hallmark of Brazilian football since Zagallo had invented it!
Now while it is true that Zagallo would later adopt this formation at the teams he managed from the 1980s onwards, it was completely inaccurate to attribute to his great 1970 World Cup-winning team the genesis of such a formation. Zagallo may later have been persuaded of its benefits, but his more compelling contribution was the legacy of his fluid 4-3-3, as practised at Mexico '70. Admittedly, the players ahead of the central-midfield duo of Clodoaldo and Gerson did enjoy much freedom to interchange positions, the same can be said of many modern sides who play for instance the 4-2-3-1, or perhaps even more emphatically the Roma and Manchester United sides of 2006-08.
All this, however, does not override the fact that Zagallo continued to field at least one outside-forward in the form of Jairzinho. As far as Luxemburgo is concerned, Jairzinho was a strike partner to Tostao, Pele was a meia alongside Rivellino and hence the 4-2-2-2. The trouble with this is that Tostao himself refutes it, not directly you understand, but rather in his testimony as to how that 1970 front line operated:
“There is a difference between the number tens of today and those of the past. In the past, great number tens were generally pontas-de-lança … They didn’t have the same function as the advanced midfield playmakers of today… The pontas-de-lança were forwards who dropped off to link up play…” Thus, Tostão’s exposition clearly gives short shrift to Luxemburgo’s idea that Pele was an advanced midfielder of any description. Pele was instead most definitely a forward of varying description. But Pele’s strike partner at the 1970 World Cup continues:
“Today’s advanced playmakers don’t exactly play the same way as the old midfield generals. These guys generally wore the No.8 shirt, roaming from one end to the other and organizing the play. The dream of every team was to boast a great number eight and a great number ten”
Tostão has on other occasions also elaborated on how he was surprised to be selected alongside Pele to start in 1970 given that both players mirrored each other in their roles at their respective clubs -“At Cruzeiro ..... I was the ponta-de-lança and Dirceu Lopes, was the midfield playmaker. “ For the 1970 World Cup, Zagallo impressed upon Tostão the need to improvise as a false number nine, to be the nominal reference point of the team’s attack.
In other words, Tostao operated much the way Rooney has done on occassion for Manchester United as the most central, though by no means static, attacking reference.
Another interesting comparison lies between the 4-3-3 of 1970 and that of 1962, both chiefly owing their conception to Zagallo the player and later Zagallo the coach. Both were assymetrical, both were broadly 4-3-3, but substantive differences set one apart from the other. Whilst Zagallo the player's self-conversion to a more withdrawn role from the wing to wide midfield was indeed intended as a concession to defensive solidity in a team with only two midfielders, the redeployment of Roberto Rivellino from left-wing (where he occassionally played for Corinthians when he wasn't playing the Gerson midfield general role) certainly depopulated the front line but concomitantly added a third body and a second playmaker to the midfield, so that we can say Rivellino acted as a playmaker starting from a vaguely advanced wide-midfield position. This contrasts strongly from the role of Zagallo as tornante, or box-to-box wide-midfielder.
All this is important because it stands athwart the prospective argument, an erroneous argument were it to be made, that Zagallo, as coach, was constantly nudging Brazilian football away from its more cavalier tactical set-up since 1958 (4-2-4) in gradual increments towards first 4-3-3 and then 4-4-2. Indeed, throughout the 1970s, most Brazilian teams fielded some form of 4-3-3 with at least one winger featuring as a constant in the attack which would indicate, given that successful prolific teams tend to serve as trend setters, that 4-4-2/4-1-3-2/4-2-2-2 had barely gotten a foothold in a landscape inspired by Zagallo.
My own contention, is that contrary to what Luxemburgo states, Brazilian 4-4-2 owes less to Zagallo and more to Tele Santana, or more accurate, to a misapplication and an evolutionary offshoot stemming from improvisations made by Tele between the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. Never mind the tragedy of Sarria in 82, a further insult to injury would be to lay at Santana's headstone all the ills which occur beneath the umbrella of more modern versions of 4-2-2-2 post-Parreira, what with the gradual subversion of traditional holding midfielders in favour of two or sometimes even three purely destructive anchors, and the subsequent, entirely predictable and necessitated abandonment of any elaborative play whatsoever.
Yes, it is true that Tele funneled most of the attacking play into the centre and with the overlapping full-backs used as a trademark weapon, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that he could still accommodate two players at the base of midfield who knew how to set attacks in motion whilst offering tactical rigour and screening the defence. An analogous set-up might be Xabi Alonso and Marcos Senna for Spain (Cerezo incarnate as Alonso, and Falcao - though much more a box-to-box dynamo - nevertheless does share the organising qualities of Senna). You know just how far things have travelled when the present first volante of the seleção (Gilberto Silva) is genuinely less comfortable with the ball at his feet than is the centre-back behind him (Lucio)!
Going by this formulation, the present Liverpool holding duo of Alonso-Mascherano, such a staple of Spanish tactical thinking over the past decade and one which has been occasionally derided in England for a perceived lack of adventurousness, would be deemed utopian in the post-Santana era. An organiser and an enforcer? No, too risk laden it would seem. Xabi Alonso would immediately be ushered off into the advanced midfield section, whilst Mascherano would be deemed too undermanned in destructive responsibilities to perform his job alone.
Ultimately, the question is not one of aesthetics or even philosophy, but with clarity. When no one can agree on what grounds they are debating, when so much accepted knowledge and orthodoxy is ill-established, what grounds are there for making a convincing argument either way? Iconoclastic posturing which can appear necessary and urgent under a given set of circumstances is shown up to be misplaced grandstanding. Thus even the most highly self-considering football people can muddy the waters, enshrouding the debate in a fog of confusion, but hey, as long as the lucre shines through in the pan, why desist?