Good afternoon and welcome to the all-new Game of the Week feature on I Like Football Me. The premise is simple, I take a close look at a top-level match from the week passed and provide some of my own analysis. This time it is a game from the Campeonato Brasileiro but who knows, in future I may take a look at one in the Argentine Primera, or a midweek Copa Libertadores clash, or even a good old international match. Now, this may become a regular once a week feature, it may not, it depends on how it is received. So if you like it/don’t like it or if you have any suggestions, leave a comment at the bottom.
“Football is a game of two halves”
Countless football-enthusiastic pedants since 1980
It is one of the most excruciatingly overused football clichés available, but its relevance has never ringed truer than it did on Sunday afternoon at the Engenhão. A 2×2 draw between two exciting and energetic sides like Botafogo and São Paulo sounds like a real classic spectacle, end-to-end, and with the momentum to-ing and fro-ing constantly throughout the ninety minutes. In fact, what we got was two distinct forty-five-minute periods of startlingly one-sided football.
The first half belonged to Botafogo. 22-year old midfielder Elkeson ran the show, making incisive runs and creating several chances for the home side to score. The energy and aggression of their attacking full-backs Cortês and Lucas also made an impact, and the latter was close to opening the scoring on fifteen minutes when he headed an Elkeson cross on to Rogério Ceni’s right-hand post.
The opening goal came on 24 minutes after some great work from Maicosuel down the left flank, effortlessly dribbling past two São Paulo defenders, getting to the by-line, and crossing well for Loco Abreu to apply a simple finish. It was a wonderful piece of wing-play from Maicosuel, but it really highlighted São Paulo’s woeful first-half defending. Maicosuel strolled past Denílson and Wellington out wide, whilst in the middle there were four São Paulo defenders remaining stationary and positioned terribly.
Botafogo deservedly increased their lead some fifteen minutes later, when they were awarded a penalty for a foul on Renato by Wellington. The decision was somewhat controversial at first, on video replays the contact was debateable and it looked like the foul could have easily been outside of the area, but upon closer inspection it was a clear foul and rightly awarded as a penalty. Rangy Uruguayan striker and scorer of the first goal Loco Abreu took the penalty, and although he is well-known for his inventive spot-kicks, he rolled this one beautifully into the lower right-hand corner.
As I alluded to before, the second half was very different. Actually, it could not have been more different, as São Paulo completely controlled proceedings and managed to draw level. The reasons for this resurgence are made pretty clear when we look at the identities of the two São Paulo goalscorers, Henrique and Rivaldo, or in other words, two second-half substitutions. However it wasn’t so much the change in personnel that pushed the game in São Paulo’s favour, but the change in shape that their introduction brought about.
If we take a look at the first half formations above (click image to see full-size), it’s pretty clear to see that São Paulo were going to have problems in the opening stages. Botafogo’s 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1 left lone holding midfielder Denílson with far too much work to do, and as a consequence Elkeson often found space and controlled the first half. Up at the other end of the field, São Paulo’s flat line of three attackers failed to cause any real problems for Botafogo, and they were picked up superbly by Botafogo’s centre-backs and central midfield pair. São Paulo’s case certainly could have been helped by receiving more support from their shuttling midfielders Wellington and Carlinhos Paraiba, but they were too busy trying to mark Botafogo’s superb full-backs Cortês and Lucas.
To their credit, at half-time São Paulo identified the problems in their shape and addressed them successfully. World Cup winner Rivaldo was brought on for left-back Juan with Carlinhos Paraíba slotting back into defence, and recent-U20 World Cup winner Henrique came on in place of the ineffective Marlos.
As you can see (again, click to see clearer), this prompted a re-shuffle in São Paulo’s attacking shape. They shifted to more of a 4-4-2 diamond, with Cícero retreating slightly and Rivaldo in the number ten role with Henrique and Lucas as the two strikers. Now, instead of three fairly static forwards, São Paulo had a fluid front two and midfield, with Rivaldo as the central playmaker. To further aid São Paulo’s cause, Botafogo brought off Maicosuel and replaced him with Felipe Menezes, who operated much deeper and transformed their shape into a 4-3-3, dramatically reducing Denílson’s work-load.
Due to their willingness to adapt and switch things around, São Paulo heroically levelled the match, and in truth they easily could have won it had Rivaldo converted his chance in the last minute of the match. Actually, during each side’s respective periods of dominance, they passed up several clear-cut chances. If the finishing had been a little better, perhaps this game could have finished 4×4.
In the end, the draw was not a particularly favourable result for either side. If they had won, Botafogo would be level in second place with Corinthians on 47 points, only two points behind leaders Vasco and with a game in hand. For São Paulo, they would have leapfrogged rivals Corinthians and would have second place all to themselves with 48 points, still knowing that they have a game against leaders Vasco in round 32.
Disappointments aside, it has to be said that these are two great teams. Botafogo’s youthful exuberance coupled with the veteran experience of Loco Abreu and goalkeeper Jefferson has really made them one of the most exciting sides to watch in this year’s Brasileirão. São Paulo are a more all-round team, and it could easily be said that they have the most talented squad in the country.
Despite this, many are still playing down both sides’ title chances based solely on their coaches. Caio Júnior (Botafogo) and Adílson Batista (São Paulo) are accomplished coaches in Brasil, but they both fall into the unfortunate category of those who are ‘always a bridesmaid but never a bride’ – they are yet to win a major competition in Brasil. Both coaches showed tactical frailties in this game, and both know that there is no longer any room for error if they want to become champions.