Game of the Week: Atlético Goianiense 3×0 São Paulo

So far in this Game of the Week feature, I have only really focussed on big clubs. This week, for a change, I decided to look away from the giants of Rio and São Paulo, and towards one of the league’s most intriguing underdogs.

Atlético Goianiense’s presence in Brazil’s top flight is rather bewildering when you consider that they were disputing the Série C in 2008 – Brazil’s third tier. However it is all the more mind-blowing when you consider that only six years ago in 2005, Atlético weren’t even playing in a national league, instead they were contesting the second division in Goiânia’s state championships.

They gained some admirers last year in their first term in the Série A, and after managing to stay up on the last day of the season (surviving only by their superior number of wins), they are now hoping to establish themselves as a regular Brasileirão side, and as the sole representative from Brazil’s expansive Centro-Oeste region.

This season has been a little inconsistent for o Dragão, they have recorded some surprising results against the league’s biggest clubs (winning 4×1 away from home against Flamengo), but at the same time have lost against considerably weaker teams (the best example being their 3×0 home loss to Atlético Paranaense). This has become such a noticeable trend, so much that they are often referred to as the ‘Robin Hood of the Brasileirão’ – they steal points from the rich, and give them to the poor.

However in August they brought in experienced coach Hélio dos Anjos (a wonderful name, Helios of the Angels) and since then they have managed to straighten out their form and shoot up the league table. Remarkably, in dos Anjos’ fourteen matches in charge, Atlético have only lost twice.

I covered São Paulo a few weeks ago in their thrilling 2×2 draw with Botafogo, and back then I doubted their title credentials as a result of their coach, Adílson Batista – the professional bottler. Since that week, São Paulo has gone four games without a win in the league, and following this latest disappointment, Adílson was swiftly shown the door. Hate to say I told you so etc.

For this one, Atlético Goianiense set up in a 4-3-1-2 formation, with three volantes (defensive midfielders) and Vitor Júnior as the number ten behind a front two of Felipe and Anselmo. This system was intended for a simple purpose, to sit deep, press hard, and give São Paulo no space to initiate attacks.

Adílson lined up his São Paulo side in the slanted 4-2-2-2 shape they have used since the return of Luis Fabiano. It is important to note the presence of Carlinhos Paraíba at left back, usually a ball-winning defensive midfielder, he has been forced to deputise at the back recently.

The first half followed a simple formula. São Paulo controlled the possession and the play, but Atlético were superbly protected and hounded São Paulo’s flair players out of the game with disciplined pressing in the midfield. Cícero was virtually invisible thanks to Bida’s marking, and the former Wolfsburg and Hertha Berlin midfielder was forced to drift extremely deep.

São Paulo tried, then they tried, and then they tried again, but they just could not make their possession count for anything and then on 25 minutes – somewhat inevitably – Atlético took the lead. The goal itself wasn’t particularly special or impressive, Atlético kept their big men up after they saw a corner cleared, Anderson put the ball back into the box and the experienced Gilson popped up at the back post to head past Rogério Ceni.

More impressive was that at the time of the goal, São Paulo had achieved 67% of the possession.

The goal was not exclusively down to an Atlético Goianiense shut-out though, as any chances São Paulo did get, they wasted. Whenever Dagoberto or Luis Fabiano managed to shake their dogged markers, they did nothing with the ball, either fluffing their lines in front of goal or playing a slack pass and conceding possession.

After a rather comical goal-mouth scramble on 32 minutes which saw Xandão, Rhodolfo and Luis Fabiano have five clear attempts on goal between them, hitting the post three times and ultimately failing to score, you got the feeling that this was not to be São Paulo’s day.

Adílson caved under pressure from the fans, and threw on World Cup-winner Rivaldo in place of Cícero in the second half, but the swap proved to be very ineffective. Rivaldo came in as a number ten in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but Atlético stepped up their pressing to the point that Rivaldo was pushed all the way back into his own half, rendering the substitution all but useless.

O Dragão started to really open up on the wings in the second half, and with that they seized control of the game. Full-backs Thiago Feltri and Rafael Cruz put in a huge shift, bombing up and down the flank and giving the team what they needed to begin to play a bit. They scored their second goal on 59 minutes, a wonderful move from defence to attack, with Rafael Cruz making a superb overlap on the right, cutting back for Anselmo whose shot came back off the bar, while his strike partner Felipe was there to tuck away the rebound.

However, this particular goal was not just as a result of Rafael Cruz’s hard work down the right, this was exploiting an extremely strange flaw in São Paulo’s shape, a consequence of the aforementioned Carlinhos Paraíba playing out of position. As you can see in the formation diagram above, Paraíba was playing extremely narrow, and he would even drift further in-field to help out in his natural defensive midfield role. Consequently, this left a huge gap on the flanks which Rafael Cruz exploited again and again. Here is an example:

Thanks to André Savastano for making this look pretty. Picture credit to Sportv

São Paulo’s back line is indicated by the white lines, while Paraiba (the supposed left-back) is circled in white. Atlético’s attacking right-back Rafael Cruz is highlighted by the red circle, and you can see Paraiba has drifted in to the middle and completely ignored his assigned position, leaving the huge red area of space for Cruz to exploit. It is tantamount to playing without a left back, and I have no idea why Adílson neglected to do anything about it.

Carlinhos Paraíba’s recent form at full-back has been nothing short of terrible. Against Flamengo, a similarly strange run out of position to block a speculative Renato Abreu shot ended up deflecting it past his own keeper, and against Cruzeiro, his marking was what can only be described as hilarious during one of his opponent’s goals.

Atlético managed to add another ten minutes later, São Paulo centre-back Xandão giving away a controversial but ultimately silly penalty, handling the ball in the box. Anselmo tucked it away superbly and Atlético wrapped up the points.

Adilson Batista tried to change things again, bringing on young Marlos in place of the fatigued Dagoberto, but it made no impact at all and the game finished 3-0. As I mentioned earlier, Adilson was sacked not long after this match. I would say he had been let down by some of his players, but that defeat saw São Paulo lose ground on their title rivals, who all won their matches. Managers have lost their jobs in Brazil for far worse.

For Atlético Goianiense, this was just another excellent result in what is turning out to be a very memorable season. From being dead certs for relegation, o Dragão are now comfortably mid-table, and rightfully dreaming of a place in next year’s Copa Sulamericana.

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