A few weeks ago, I attended a penultimate match in the Brazilian Serie B. A local side, Juventude, needed to win in order to assure themselves of avoiding relegation- an ignomony for a club that just ten years ago had won the state championship and the Brazilian cup. The visitors were Atletico Goianense, a club that had only come into existence nine years ago, but which through sound administration had managed to scale the divisions. The match finished 1-3 in Atletico's favour; deserved winners who displayed some fluency with the ball and as a local Juventudista remarked: "take three touches and they arrive in our area...". Juventude by contrast, were insipid. No heart and no ideas. To the fans, I'm sure the despondent effort or lack thereof was indignating, but it is the latter fact which discomforted me most, and I felt it was due an analysis: no ideas. Poor structure. Tactically awful. And a microcosm of a trend which has engulfed Brazilian football in recent years.
For one of Juventude's players, it will probably have been his last appearance at the Alfredo Jaconi stadium. Zezinho is a talented 17-year old who will soon sign for Arsenal. He attended a trial at London Colney a few months back, where Wenger, Liam Brady and the coaching staff assessed him. The lad's natural talent shone through, by all accounts, but they sent him back home with a list of things to improve on. Physically, Zezinho is short and slight, and so will have to bulk up before making the move. He will also need to improve his fitness in order to display more movement on European pitches where stationary playmakers are increasingly a rarity; in Brazil, attacking midfielders and strikers are virtually excused from defensive duties. Pressing barely exists, and this tendency increases the further one travels down the divisions. This in itself explains much about the pros and cons of domestic Brazilian football in its present state.
On the positive side, the lack of pressing strategy lends Brazilian games to being more open affair than elsewhere. Players have more time on the ball, and as such one tends to see a lot more dribbling from the offensive midfielders (meias) and forwards (atacantes). Now this is not an indictment of the ability of the defenders; far from it. The tackles go in as hard if not harder than in the Premier League, for instance. These are not weak players. Brazilian athletes are formidable. But what happens as a result is that defensive phase becomes scene to a series of individual duals, which in itself can be quite relishing to watch: the centre-back tries to dispossess the striker with acres of space and a vulnerable goal behind him- and the execution can often be exquisite. In a sense, this offers a snapshot of where, say Italian football was in the 1980s, albeit with a slightly more open and frenetic style. In a post-Sacchi world, European football is characterised by pressing tactics, zonal defending and the ball as a reference instead of the man as is the case in Brazil.
What this means is that the forwards are marked by the defenders, the advanced midfielders by the defensive mids and so forth. All of which is perfectly logical, but which also leads to another outcome: the increasing physicality and athleticism of the modern game entails more defensive work to be done. In Brazil, instead of distributing the ownice of this defensive responsibility throughout the team, in all lines, across all positions, the weight falls disproportionately on the defensive midfielders (volantes) who, as a result, have become almost exclusively destroyers.
Coaches and pundits here speak of '1st volante' and '2nd volante', and one could be forgiven for thinking that this implies that one player is more offensive/creative than the other (as per the Mascherano-Alonso partnership, for instance) but this is illusory. In reality, the first volante is a defensive player who slots into vacant spaces in the back line- typcially between the centre-backs. The second volante has two functions: he is usually a less astute player and as such rushes into the tackle ahead of his '1st' counterpart, and into the face of onrushing opponents. His other function is important for us to consider, as it is indicative of a seperate tactical development of Brazilian football; this defensive midfielder moves out wide to cover the space vacated by either full-back.
At this juncture, we should look at how such full-backs and defensive midfielders are co-dependent. The 'attacking Brazilian full-back' has almost become a cliche, especially in European eyes, where for decades our counterparts were less inclined to storm forward. But one of the great myths that has grown up around this topic, is that since 1958 Brazilian sides have always tasked both full-backs with advancing simultaneously. True, this has become a feature of Brazilian teams during the past two decades, and hence it explains their preoccupation with assigning a midfielder to shore up that flank which is most left vulnerable. In a way, this does a disservice to one of the great contributions of Brazil to world football, arguably the greatest, most enduring and widespread of any country; the back four, whose mechanism operated thus: One full-back advanced, the other one tucked in and the centre-backs shifted across.
Even accounting for the importance of attacking full-backs - a valuable weapon in any side's inventory, the tradtional 'chain'mechanism of the back four need not be discarded, provided that at least one of the full-backs is defensively sound. Look at how Guus Hiddink made one simple adjustment to override the shortcomings in previous Chelsea coach Scolari's plan. He istructed full-backs Bosingwa and Ashley Cole to simply alternate their forays forward, an instruction which Carlo Ancelotti has continued. As a result, Chelsea have been able to field an extra attacker safe in the knowledge that there is plenty of defensive cover further back.
So how come this mechanism has been all but discarded in Brazil? Well, both full-backs are obliged to move forward in teams that lack any attacking width, as is the case in the 4-2-2-2 paradigm of Brazilan football. With wingers, and even wide-midfielders, discarded as an option, both flanks demand that the full-backs advance- and in the case where both move forward at the same time, the defensive midfielders are obliged to take up the slack. It really is a chicken-and-egg connundrum: 1) the absence of creative holding midfielders leaves the team dependent on the full-backs as an outlet for rapidly bringing the ball out from defence, 2) The offensive brief of said full-backs necessitates that the covering midfielders be overtly defensive. And thus a vicious circle ensues.
A further limitation of this approach lies in how the very thing that once appeared to give the Brazilians such an advantage has effectively been nullifed by developments elsewhere; the rediscovery of wingers by European teams. Not that there were not footballing schools who kept the flame and persisted in fielding outside- forwards since the dawn of the 1980s (the Dutch, FC Barcelona, Zdenek Zeman's teams among them). But in top leagues all around the world, most teams appeared to consider true wingers a luxury in an increasingly defensive football. Two forwards were the maximum that a coach could afford to not have working behind the ball. But the renaissance of outside-forwards, built on the proviso that said players work behind the ball in defensive phase, renders the laneways once patrolled by the attacking full-back a more dangerous place to inhabit. What team would now dare to advance both full-backs simultaneously, or field two positionally suspect full-backs against a competitive side playing a 4-3-3? And risk being overwhelmed by a 2 vs 3 situation at the back? No thanks.
Now to relate all this to Juventude and the Brazilian Serie B, how is it relevant. Well, both Ju and their adversaries Atletico lined up in essentially the same format. With a little variation, here and there, but basically it was the same structure. Juventude played a 3-4-2-1 and Atletico a typical 4-2-2-2 (with two destroyers). I wasn't that impressed by Atletico tactically speaking, I simply felt that their players were better overall than the locals, and unsurprsingly they won promotion to Serie A that very day. A comparative team from a different football culture, operating in a similar division and with similar resources could yet have made a better fist of dismantling the Atletico attacks, attacks which appeared controlled and expansive in light of the shambolic organisation they were up against. This has recently been demonstrated in South American tournaments where club sides from Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay are increasingly inclined to defend zonally when up against top Brazilian teams, and punch above their weight, considering that Brazilian domestic wages and the pool of talent are more generous than in other leagues on the continent.
I recall thinking how I would have taken that same starting XI, those very same players, and simply adjusted their positioning and with a few simple instructions (surely not that arduous to rehearse on the training ground a few days prior to the match), and even though it still would have been less than ideal (I couldn't for the life of me fathom the fielding of two destroyers - a waste of personel and positioning), you still would end up with something more coherent, perhaps a 4-3-1-2 or even a 4-3-2-1 albeit with a less plodding midfield (by moving one of the defensive midfielders back to full-back in a four, and asking one of the wing-backs to tuck in closer to a midfield trio).
Juventude simply could string a series of passes together. Despite playing with two destroyers in front of three centre-backs, they appeared disjointed everytime their opponents venture into the final third. Countless attempts to change the direction of the play broke down, since the defensive midfielders were slow-thinking and their attempts at raking long diagonal passes out to the wing-backs went wide of the mark. It resulted in a familiar, dispiriting scenario: the offensive midfielder Lopes found himself obliged to drift deeper onto the toes of his own volantes in order to bring calm and initiate some semblence of imaginative passing. Which led one to think: why are two or even three men doing the job of one? Until Association Football permits the fielding of 12 starting players, I see little point in this burocratisation of the midfield.
Regardless of formation, no top team should need more than one purely defensive midfielder; and quite a few even manage without. That is not to say that holding midfielders should be discarded. Absolutely not. The classical central midfielder (centre-half) was a holding player, albeit an organising figure, who rarely broke beyond the ball and who needed to have a panorama of the play unfolding ahead of him. He was the epicentre of the team, the focal point, a positional reference without which it would implode. The Argentines continue to say to this day, 'show me your holding midfielder and I'll tell you what kind of team you've got'. Now it's one thing to detail your No.5 with a defensive player for added security (hence the double pivot in the Spanish 4-2-3-1), arguably even a necessity. But why go so far as to abolish the organiser, and subsitute him with two defensive midfielders?
Inevitably, and sadly I might add, this brings me to the Brazilian national team where Dunga is content to abolish the midfield; for him it is a pesky nuisance, a liability where any elaboration on the ball will yield the loss of possession and a counter-attack for the opponents. Ignore for a moment the visceral thrill of a Kaka and Maicon led counter-attack. Discard if you will, the admitted brilliance of those immaculately rehearsed set-pieces which unfailingly result in Luis Fabiano's goal-bound headers. No where within this philosophy does Dunga pause to think of the paradox at the heart of it; that such a destructive midfield endagers his defensive security- through sloppy and lethargic passing which puts his team under pressure. Well-drilled opponents who agressively press Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo will invariably draw mistakes from them.
Two years ago, Tim Vickery, the Brazil-based British journalist argued that it would be a good thing for Brazilian football and football in general were Brazil to lose the Copa America final to an Argentina side who valued elaborative and patient passing. His reason, argued Vickery, was that an Argentine victory would impose a temporary freeze on the tendency towards ever-greater athleticism in football, given that winning sides tend to be imitated throughout football's food chain. Sadly for such aesthetes, it was not to be and Dunga's muscular side simply overpowered the Argentines. Even ignoring the subjectivity of such an opinion, horses for courses and all that, Vickery's desire may well be incarnated in reality over the coming years. Indeed, reality as opposed to aesthetics may dictate that Brazilian football's crippling addiction to the "two-destroyers-plus-two-wing-backs" format becomes finally exposed and undone to the national team's expense at a major tournament. And such a watershed may come at the hands of an opponent less self-consciously retro-romantic and diffident than Alfio Basile's 2007 Argentine vintage, but an opponent nonetheless committed to fluency and coherence in central midfield, virtues which Brazilian football seems to have discarded for the past two decades.
Carlos Alberto Parreira argued back in 1994 that his "two-destroyers-plus-two-wing-backs" formula was a necessary evil since he felt obliged by the suffocating pressure of Brazil not having won the World Cup in twenty-four years. Now Parreira is an engaging, worldly and personable figure- one of the more likeable of the prolific coaches in world football and having been raised a Fluminense supporter, the team of Rio de Janeiro's privileged classes, he had an appreciation of aesthetically pleasing football and little time for reactionary posing by many of his successors. Since 1994, Brazil have gone on to repeat their international success; at 2002 in the World Cup and in the 1999, 2004 and 2007 Copa America editions. Consequently, there is no proverbial drought to end. No justifications whatsoever for any assumed inferiority complex when placed alongside the Europeans, whose sports science and fitness levels the Brazilians have matched and arguably even overtaken. But there is the danger that Brazilian football will be schooled in arts that it once gave to the world, and which they might be well advised to go about reviving.
Fernando Calazans once said of this marked tendency towards midfield tussles and disjointed passing thus: " We have foolishly surrendered our arms, handed them over and taken up the weapons of our opponents' choosing".
What he might have added was that the opponents (the Europeans) have taken up those very weapons that Brazil once discarded, refined them and adapted them to the modern era, whilst offloading such outmoded practices as man-marking onto the Brazilians.
You never know a good until you've let it go.