Palmeiras are one of Brazil’s most prestigious football clubs, but since the start of the 21st century, they have been sorely starved of success. The end of the last millennium was a different story though, and with the backing of Italian food corporation Parmalat, Palmeiras amassed a wide range of trophies in the 1990’s: two Campeonato Brasileiro wins (1993 & 94), three Campeonato Paulistas (1993, 94 & 96), the Torneio Rio-São Paulo (1993), the Copa do Brasil and Copa Mercosul (both in 1998), and of course, the Copa Libertadores of 1999.
However, at the turn of the century the Parmalat partnership came to an end. The Italians upped sticks and so, it seemed, did Palmeiras’ winning attitude. The Verdão fell on hard times, even suffering relegation in 2001. Years of mediocrity followed, and their only notable honour in the 2000’s was the Campeonato Paulista of 2008.
Now, nearly 20 years on from their momentous Paulistão triumph over rivals Corinthians in 1993, Palmeiras are showing tentative signs of recuperation. Luiz Felipe Scolari (or Felipão as he is known in Brazil), the coach who led Palmeiras to those famous Copa do Brasil and Copa Libertadores triumphs, is back in charge, and despite constant behind-the-scenes power struggles, they are managing to build a competitive squad once again. Wednesday evening’s Copa do Brasil victory was as a testament to that.
Palmeiras’ playing squad is certainly not amongst the elite of what South America has to offer, but they have succeeded in pairing a band of fit, hard-working – yet unimpressive – squad members with a smaller group of very talented central players.
From commanding centre back Henrique, through midfielders Marcos Assunção and Jorge Valdivia, to Argentine centre forward Hernán Barcos – Palmeiras have just enough quality to enable them to win trophies at a domestic level in Brazil. And it’s Felipão’s job to devise a system that plays to all four’s strengths, a task resembling a classic logic puzzle.
In all of his time at Palmeiras, Luiz Felipe Scolari has faced few dilemmas as great as veteran midfielder Marcos Assunção (right). The former Roma and Betis man is an absolute master at set-pieces, and in possession he is also a very useful deep-lying playmaker, crucial to spreading play around with his excellent passing skills and vision.
Off the ball however, Marcos is little more than a passenger. Fast-approaching his 36th birthday, his stamina and speed have all but deserted him, and his ability to mark opponents is near non-existent. As a result, Palmeiras are forced to pack the midfield zone to accommodate Marcos Assunção in the team, which can often leave them short going forward.
Slightly further forward in the midfield, Palmeiras have the classic Chilean number ten, Jorge Valdivia. Valdivia is a wonderful enganche, a master at exploiting gaps and spaces between opponent lines. However, if he does not have any team-mates close to him to share the creative workload, he is easily marked by physical defences and tends to disappear from matches.
Leading the line is Argentine forward Hernán Barcos (left), nicknamed El Pirata - the Pirate – for his Blackbeard-esque appearance (however this writer likens him more to Khal Drogo of Game of Thrones fame…). Barcos is a very useful striker in a team like Palmeiras, he is big, strong, very adept at playing back to goal, but also can be lethal in and around the penalty area.
As with all strikers though, Barcos requires service in order to be effective. When he isn’t receiving the ball in attack, he often comes back deep and leaves Palmeiras without any bodies in attack.
Trial and error
Felipão has tested various formations with Palmeiras, all of them stemming from the traditional Brazilian 4-2-2-2 shape. He began with a standard 4-2-2-2: two volantes, two meias, two atacantes; but that quickly morphed into a 4-3-1-2 system which the Verdão persisted with for a while.
The idea was to allow Marcos Assunção to operate freely in the midfield, whilst providing the necessary support on either side of him. The downside was that the front three were left completely isolated, having to face up to seven opponents while receiving minimal support. They weren’t even defensively secure, as whenever the full backs pushed forward, the defensive ‘square’ struggled to cover the space they vacated.
In a league match away to Sport Recife in early June, Felipão experimented with Palmeiras in a 4-2-3-1 formation, as seen on the right (Palmeiras in lime green). His plan was to give his team a little more attacking thrust against a theoretically weaker side in Sport. The trial was somewhat of a success, as with service coming from all angles, Barcos was given plenty of the ball in good areas and Palmeiras looked dangerous in attacking phases.
However against Sport’s 4-4-2 diamond formation they were completely overrun in midfield (illustrated by the red rectangle), with Marcos Assunção really struggling. In addition, there was even more space left behind the full backs and Palmeiras slipped to a disappointing 2×1 defeat.
With their crucial Copa do Brasil semi-final against Grêmio on the horizon, Palmeiras were still having trouble with their strategy. Whatever alternative Felipão put in place, Palmeiras were either left horribly exposed in defence, or toothless going forward.
Felipão goes back to his roots with three at the back
Felipão’s crowning achievement was winning the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea with Brazil. With that squad, he had his own tactical dilemmas at the beginning of his reign. How could he allow Roberto Carlos and Cafu the freedom to bomb down either wing? Could he fit Ronaldo, Rivaldo AND Ronaldinho into the attack without leaving the squad disjointed? And how, with all of these offensive options, was he going to keep his side secure in defence?
The solution was to move to a three-man defence. Instead of another midfielder, Felipão brought in Edmilson – then of Lyon – and deployed him as a libero – positioned as the third centre back, but with license to push forward into the midfield and screen in front of the defence. This in turn allowed the famous wing back pair to push forward as much as they liked, knowing that they were well covered.
Furthermore, one of the central midfielders (in this example, Kleberson) was permitted to have a little more attacking freedom, and thus provide the crucial link between defence and attack.
Exactly ten years on from that famous victory, Felipão did the same with Palmeiras.
With former Barcelona and Racing Santander defender Henrique as his ‘Edmilson’, Felipão lined up his Palmeiras side in a 3-4-1-2 shape in the first leg of the semi-final away to Grêmio. The difference was palpable.
In this new shape, Palmeiras were watertight in defence and expressive and lethal going forward. They won that first leg 2×0, and the formation has been in place ever since, taking them to their first national title in twelve years.
Henrique bosses the deep central zone, Marcos Assunção operates freely with plenty of support, both wing backs are able to push forward, Valdivia is offered assistance by João Vitor or the left forward, while Barcos gets the service he needs in order to lead the line.
The evidence is there to see. In the four matches of the semi-final and subsequent final against Coritiba; Barcos scored once, Valdivia scored twice, and Marcos Assunção made two assists.
Now, with Copa Libertadores qualification secured for next season, it will be interesting to see how Palmeiras approach the rest of 2012. They will certainly require improvements to their squad in order to compete on a continental level, and this year’s Copa Sulamericana will serve as an excellent warm-up to what they can expect in the Libertadores.