Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Operation Saída (or 'exit strategy'): can Dunga fine-tune Brazil's imperfections on time?

"What exit strategy?", I hear you say! This powerful Brazil team is ticking along nicely right now, entering a tournament on the back of relentless success.

Firstly, please do not take this use of the word 'exit' as a purist's cry for the canarinha to leave South Africa lest they sully our rose-tinted memories with their effective football.

Neither is this a cocky suggestion that Brazil will be heading home early.

No, rather the word "saída" is taken from footballing jargon and refers to an aspect of play. This article is a last-minute technical appraisal on how this passage of play has been commanding Dunga's attention in Brazil's training sessions and warm-up friendlies less than a week away from their curtain-rasier versus North Korea.

Put basically, 'saída' is that moment of play in which a team is carrying out the ball from defense and initiating a period of possession, whilst hopefully overcoming whatever opposition pressure being exerted by forwards.

As frequent readers of this site will know, it has long been a motif of mine to criticise the drawbacks of using overtly destructive players in the twin-holding roles and how this practice has had a corrosive effect on Brazilian football at club level, and at no other moment do the technical limitations of such players become more exposed than in the 'saida' phase of play.

But now it appears that Dunga himself can no longer ignore this; his hand has been forced by what he has witnessed in recent training sessions and warm-up games (versus Zimbabwe and Tanzania) and what he has seen has discomforted him on two levels; what posture should Brazil adopt when the opposition are working the ball out of defense and, conversely, how should Brazil themselves attempt to overcome the pressing of opposing teams when carrying the ball out?

In what is surely the authoritive analysis of the way Brazil plays, the site Zonal Marking has forensically detailed the movements and automatisms instilled in the side and has sensibly decided that the formation is neither 4-2-3-1 nor 4-3-1-2 but something in-between. Marcelo Costa, Brazilian journalist of Esquemas Táticos has represented the offensive and defensive phases of their play via video-graphics and illustrates how this assymetric formation retreats and contracts into into a deep-lying 4-3-2-1 during the defensive phase. What this means is that, once the opponents have carried the ball beyond whatever nominal hassling is offered by Luis Fabiano, a first line of engagement is formed by Robinho and Kaká, with the right-sided midfielder (Elano on recent evidence) dropping back to form a defensive platform of three in front of the back four, as illustrated below in Figure 1 (a & b).

Figures 1 a) and b): Brazil's assymetric formation (based on average starting position) takes on a more coherent shape in the defensive stage, with three relatively deep-lying defensive lines forming and Luis Fabiano disengaged to facilitate the counter-attack.

So far, this set-up has worked a treat, especially during the South American qualifiers. But now the cracks inherent in the system are beginning to surface. How so? How do they become manifest?

Having successfully negotiated the South American qualifying stages, Dunga has now turned his attentions (belatedly?) to the different challenge opposed by African, Asian but principally European teams, and this, despite the myriad contrasting styles among the nations, can be reduced to two words: pressure and pressing.

You see, until now this Brazil has made mince-meat out of the open invitation afforded by languid passing sides like Coco Basile's Argentina. It has made hard work out of breaking down cautious, stubborn and technically weaker sides such as Paraguay, Bolivia and Venezuela only to get out of jail by resorting to overwhelming firepower in the shape of set-piece bombardment. The only unorthodox challenge they were presented with took the form of Bielsa's swashbuckling Chile, who managed to score and outplay them only for Brazil to make their counter-attacking and aerial supremacy count in the end. But now, Dunga potentially faces sides who will exude these qualities but in a different mix; technically modest and yet physically imposing sides who are tactically disciplined and organised. Alternatively there are adventurous expansive footballing sides, such as Spain and Holland who, unlike Coco Basile's retro-romantic Argentina of 2007, pressure the ball in a disciplined manner when out of possession and thus punish sloppy passing from crude midfielders and defenders.

And so the stage was set for last weeks training sessions, as reported by ESPN Brasil, to focus on addressing these very points and tweaking certain tactical aspects. The results of this tinkering have left us with the tantalising prospect that Dunga may be about to disassemble his trusty starting-eleven, judging from the evidence of the Zimbabwe friendly.

The most noticeable tactical curiosity from last-week's sessions in Soweto (limited to the press whilst supporters where excluded) was that Brazil experimented with pressing the opponents' (theoretical reserve-team members') 'saída' of the ball.

As a result, for the first time, Dunga's formation truly resembled a 4-2-3-1 (see Figure 2) with Elano stepping up to form a high line of pressure alongside Kaka (middle) and Robinho (wide-left), as per the photo above, and in which the reserves are wearing white bibs. What can also be noticed here is the knock-on effect of Elano-Kaka-Robinho advancing their line of pressure; in order to reduce gaps, the double pivot of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo have advanced their position (aligned ith the advanced full-backs Maicon and Michel Bastos) and so too, crucially, have the centre-backs Lucio and Juan.

Figure 2: Three advanced lines; after Luis Fabiano disengages, Elano steps up to form a high line of pressing alongside Kaká and Robinho. The back line also steps up leaving Juan and Lucio distant from their own area.

The journalist Paulo Vinicius Coelho (the tactical guru of mainstream football punditry) subsequent to that very same training session commented that whilst the exercise in advancing the pressure comes as a timely and necessary adjustment, both Lucio and Juan looked noticeably uncomfortable at having to play so close to the halfway line where the duo's lack of pace was exposed by the incisive runs of reserve striker Grafite. Indeed, it is telling that at Internazionale Jose Mourinho made no bones of his intentionally deep defensive line so as not to stretch his tough-but-torpid centre-back pairing of Lucio and Walter Samuel. Furthermore, it is practically a given in Brazilian domestic football that the permanent screening presence of two destructive holders allows both centre-backs to inhabit and rarely stray far from the comfort zone of their own 18-yard box.

In a further training session, during which the players were instructed to circulate the ball with only two touches, Coelho reported back with more worrying news; that Dunga had hastily ordered for all media camera crews and bystanders with camera phones to remove themselves from the pitchside because all present had become alarmed at the difficulty that Brazil were evidently encountering in bringing the ball out of defence when submitted to pressure from the reserves (who themselves were executing the high-pressure strategy). Of particular concern was the rate at which Felipe Melo was erring simple passes.

All of this became manifest in the practise game versus Tanzania in Dar-Es-Salaam, a performance which the 1-5* drubbing could not disguise. Brazil's right-had side with Elano and Maicon looked comfortable during all phases of play, but the left-hand side suffered horribly. The constituent parts of this sector? Michel Bastos, weak positionally, and the incursions of Felipe Melo, particularly when it came to bringing the ball out from defense. Given Michel's offensive tendencies, Felipe Melo's propensity to rashly tackle becomes even more of a liability as was evidenced by some heated exchanges between the pair during the game versus Zimbabwe
- "Michel, are you trying to get me f**king killed?" berated Melo.

Then came the changes, as expected; 12th man and super-sub Daniel Alves came on for Michel at left-back whilst Ramires took over Elano's right-of-centre berth. But Brazil still presented the same problems in terms of cleanly passing their way out from their own defensive third. Something had to give and something did, but in doing so with it, has Dunga also signalled a substantive overhaul of the system?

Daniel Alves was switched over the the right-of-centre berth forming a partnership with Maicon; result? An unqualified success.

Gilberto Silva was removed for cultured left-back Gilberto (ex-Hertha Berlin and Spurs, now of Cruzeiro) who despite having played last season as a playmaking midfielder did seem more defensively disciplined than did Bastos (who emerged as a wing-back playing in a 3-5-2 in Brazil only to go on and spend most of his subsequent club career in a variety of midfield positions).

The other adjustment was the benching of Felipe Melo and the introduction of Wolfsburg's tenacious Josue as the side's sole holding midfielder, which entailed the repositioning of Ramires to a left-of-centre role in what now appeared to a more coherent diamond shape. (See diagram in Figure 4)

Figure 4: Brazil's altered shape versus Tanzania; Ramires adds dynamism to the left-of-centre midfield, Dani Alves does likewise on the right and Josué becomes the sole holding midfielder. A more distinguishable diamond midfield takes shape. Though the side does not become markedly more expansive nor creative and preserves its counterattacking vocation, the midfield does begin to err fewer passes and the left flank becomes less vulnerable than with Michel Bastos and Felipe Melo covering.

The side improved considerably, though it is hard to draw definitive conclusions given the quality of the opposition.

Even less predictable is how on earth Dunga will assimilate the lessons learned. The coach has almost made a crusade of sticking by Felipe Melo through times of doubt when the Juventus midfielder was enduring a poor Serie A campaign, and Gilberto Silva (a surviving winner from 2002) is respected for his talismanic influence and calming authority in the dressing room. Both players were replaced by footballers who brought more to the side, even allowing for the fact that the shape was altered somewhat. Josué injected enough tenacity and energy (definitely not the forte of Gilberto Silva) but even positional awareness (so lacking in Felipe Melo) to the holding role that it almost seems redundant by comparison to field two battlers to do the job of one.

But Dunga has insisted that Felipe Melo and Gilberto will be startes with him, ceterus paribus, come Brazil's opener versus North Korea next Tuesday 15th.

Will these adjustments have come too late for Dunga, politically and logistically, to solidify them to the detriment of his tried and trusted formula?

* = thanks to Daniel for rectifying the score.


  1. Correction, it was 1-5 drubbing of Tanzania

  2. The Josue switch against Tanzania makes sense to me. I'm a firm believer that if the opposition wants to press high, you should move more players forward, past the line of pressure and create superiorities from that position. With 2 holding midfielders, you create a traffic jam effect, especially if one is Melo who is no astute tactician.

    I cannot put Brasil as favorites simply because of the Melo/G. Silva pairing, I feel it so poor.

    As for Dunga finding solutions against high pressing European teams. I feel the solution against the better competition will not be greeted with much fanfare in Brasil. The solution is going to be drop deep, give the ball to the opponent,invite the pressure and spring on the counter attack. With those 2 DMs Dunga is using, there is no other successful choice.

  3. Great analysis, but the changes were made all at once. Dani Alves never came to left back against Tanzania. He, Josue, Gilberto and Ramires came in at halftime.

  4. @ Daniel, correction noted; thank you.

    @ Arthur, what I said in the article is that Daniel came in at right midfield and Gilberto at left-back.


  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. if anderson had been fit, do u think he'd be able to do the required job better than Melo?
    DO brazil need a plan B if all else fails and the counter attacking game gets them no-where, against a side like Holland or Italy?

  7. Roberticus,

    Thank you for your insightful analysis. This is incredible material. Having watched two games already, vs. NK and IC, what do you think of the performance of Mello/Bastos pairing and of the squad overall? I think the goal scored by North Korea came precisely as Brazil stretched Juan/Lucio up front and exposed their lack of speed. I seemed to have noted similar plays against Ivory Coast. Thanks...

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