As many will be aware of, Sunday’s match between Grêmio and Flamengo was not just a clash of two of Brazil’s titanic clubs, but it was also the homecoming of a particularly recognisable buck-toothed gaúcho.
In January of this year, it was announced that Ronaldinho Gaúcho would be coming home to Brazil after ten glorious years in Europe. With his rather unscrupulous brother-cum-agent Assis (you may know him better as A$$i$) in tow, Ronaldinho packed his bags and embarked on a whistle-stop tour around Brazil, lunching with directors of the country’s biggest sides. After the initial commotion, three clubs emerged as potential suitors, Palmeiras, Flamengo, and Grêmio. Ronaldinho revealed that Palmeiras had made him the best contract offer, and that Flamengo were also offering plenty of cash, but if it was up to him, he would sign for his boyhood heroes Grêmio.
Talks progressed with the porto-alegrense club, and Grêmio were so confident of the return of their prodigal son that they even arranged a party at the club’s famous Estádio Olímpico to celebrate. But as the saying goes, money talks, and Ronaldinho listened, and he made a dramatic u-turn, turning his back on his former club to sign for Flamengo in sunny Rio de Janeiro.
Ten months is a long time in Brazilian football, but since that moment of betrayal, Grêmio fans (a very proud bunch of gaúchos) had not yet had their chance to show their anger and disgust to the man himself. On Sunday, in the packed Olímpico, they got that opportunity, and they certainly made the most of it.
The torcida were out in force with their assorted anti-Ronaldinho paraphenalia, from banners and t-shirts with the words “crook”, “mercenary” and “traitor” emblazoned on their front, to crudely-made effigies of the man himself, complete with the trademark smile and that all too haunting tooth-to-gum ratio. One of the more elaborate yet confusing banners read: “Even in 100 years, our children will know how you betrayed us!”. 100 year old children? Well, you get the point.
Predictably, once the game started Ronaldinho was roundly booed and whistled, and the jeers did not let up until he disappeared down the tunnel at 90 minutes. Some pundits erroneously criticised the Grêmio support for their ‘cruel’ and ‘unfair’ treatment of their once idol, but Porto Alegre-based journalist Eduardo Cecconi captured the gremistas’ attitude perfectly:
“The supporters are not doing this to make him play badly, they are doing this to show him that he is not welcome.”
Anyway, enough about that, on to the match.
Missing their team captain Fábio Rochemback through injury, Grêmio lined up in their now familiar 4-2-3-1 shape with Gilberto Silva stepping into defensive midfield to partner Fernando. With Marquinhos, Douglas and Escudero in behind lone centre-forward André Lima, Grêmio boss Celso Roth has really got his team hitting top gear in the season’s final push.
Defensive midfielder Willians missed out for Flamengo, and quarrels behind-the-scenes are making it look like he will leave the club sooner rather than later, Aírton was his replacement in the midfield. Argentine Dário Bottinelli (the two-goal hero from the recent Fla-Flu derby) is out injured until the new year with a broken bone in his foot, and coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo handed the start to 18 year old Thomás.
The first half was fairly entertaining, both sides were impressive without ever really clicking fully. In the early phases of the match, Flamengo were the dominant side, getting men forward in attack and keeping Grêmio quiet at the other end. By 35 minutes, they were 2×0 up, with goals from Deivid and Thiago Neves underlining their dominance.
With Flamengo controlling the match and throwing their full-backs forward, Grêmio were constantly left on the back foot. As you can see from the formation diagram above, Grêmio’s own full-backs Júlio Cesar and Mário Fernandes were pinned back and rarely got the opportunity to get out of their own half. This left the home side’s shape very disjointed, and although Grêmio’s attacking quartet were playing well and linking up nicely, they were lacking that extra support to really stretch Flamengo’s defence.
After Flamengo made it 2×0, Grêmio realised they had to go for it and sent their full-backs forward, ignoring their defensive duties. This was certainly a very risky move, but it paid off almost instantly as Grêmio pulled a goal back through centre-forward André Lima. Assisted by none other than Grêmio’s right-back Mário Fernandes, André Lima picked the ball up inside the box, turned his defender and shot low past Felipe.
Grêmio were the only side to make a substitution at the break, young centre-back Saimon was taken off to be replaced by defensive midfielder Adílson, with Gilberto Silva slotting into the centre of defence. Celso Roth explained this as a simple precautionary switch as Saimon was on a yellow card, but introducing the much more tenacious and aggressive Adílson into the midfield was certainly intended to aid their forwards.
To put it very simply, Grêmio came out for the second half, Flamengo didn’t. The home side played with intent and desire, while the visitors just sat back and watched their lead disappear. André Lima grabbed his second to tie the match on 50 minutes, a lovely finish to the back post from 25 yards.
Not to take anything away from the quality of the finish, but André Lima was offered all sorts of time and space from the Flamengo defence, who just backed off him as he picked his spot in the corner of the net. On the sidelines, Luxemburgo was visibly incensed by this and in an attempt to shore up the midfield and stop Grêmio, he took off youngster Thomás, and replaced him with the rather appropriately named midfielder Muralha (‘the wall’).
This was quite an uncharacteristic substitution from Luxemburgo, moving Flamengo to a 4-3-1-2 to try and pack the midfield, instead of his usual tendency to bring on young, quick attackers. But not only was it an uncharacteristic change, it was also a very poorly thought-out one. Putting three in defensive midfield did help to reduce the space offered to Grêmio’s attacking foursome, but it also liberated Grêmio’s own defensive midfield area, and gave Adílson the freedom to roam forward and support the attack through the middle.
As a result, instead of just being a threat attacking down the flanks, Grêmio now held a considerable threat in the middle of the pitch, making them far more dangerous than before. Add to that the fact that Thiago Neves, Ronaldinho and Deivid were now all left completely isolated in attack, and you can see why this was a disastrous decision.
Grêmio controlled the game from that moment on, and unsurprisingly they went on to win the match. Ten minutes before the end, playmaker Douglas put them into the lead with a lovely goal, curling the ball into the far post with his left foot. Substitute Miralles put the result beyond doubt not long after with his own effort, very similar to Douglas’ goal, but from considerably farther out.
As we saw in this match, Grêmio’s system under Celso Roth relies not only on the constant movement and inter-play between their front four, but also on recieving support from other areas of the field. When all that is in place they are a very entertaining side to watch, and quite like 2010, they have been one of the best sides in the second half of the Brazilian season.
Usually the master of substitutions, Vanderlei Luxemburgo got it completely wrong after conceding the equaliser, and even though his team didn’t have their greatest game ever, that switch made it near impossible to reclaim control of the match. That result leaves Flamengo in fifth position, six points off the leaders Corinthians. Their title hopes are slipping fast, but Flamenguistas can take solace in the fact that at the same point in the 2009 season, they were in fifth position and six points behind leaders Palmeiras, and then they went on to win the championship. They play Cruzeiro at home on Sunday, and they cannot afford any more slip-ups.