The appointment of Mano Menezes as Brazil head coach didn’t really blow anyone away. He took the job in 2010 after the Seleção’s disappointing World Cup display, and was the CBF’s official second choice to take the reins behind Muricy Ramalho, who had just signed a lengthy contract with Fluminense (and unofficially the third choice behind Luiz Felipe Scolari, who signed an equally long contract with Palmeiras).
Right away, he emphasised the need for a change in the Seleção’s style, correctly identifying that as hosts in 2014, they would not be able to rely on counter-attacking football to earn results. Menezes – always well-spoken and thoughtful in his press conferences – talked about Brazil needing to “take the game to their opponents” and often repeated the importance of being “the game’s protagonist”.
The results did not come instantly and at the 2011 Copa America – Menezes’ first competitive tournament as Brazil head coach – the Seleção failed miserably, exiting in the quarter finals. Their biggest downfall was their over-reliance on Santos playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso.
Ganso – 21 years old at the time – was selected as the number ten in a 4-2-3-1 cum 4-2-1-3 shape, and with the two-man midfield camped back in front of the defence and wingers Neymar and Robinho hugging their respective touchlines, Ganso was left as Brazil’s only central creative option. In a group with three technically inferior sides, Ganso was simply marked out of the tournament and Brazil were forced to rely on long balls and wing-play.
Brazil’s best football of the tournament came in the first half of their second group match against Paraguay, as Menezes decided to bring in Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Jádson (now of São Paulo) to play beside Ganso in a 4-2-2-2. With someone playing alongside him to share the creative workload, Ganso had much more space to operate in and was instrumental as Brazil took a half-time lead.
The Copa America failure was a huge setback for Mano Menezes and his national team plans, with rumours sprouting suggesting that his job was at stake. The CBF – more concerned with their own internal power-struggles – opted to stick with Menezes, but it was clear that on-field performances had to improve.
With the youngsters having failed, the popular Brazilian media demanded an international return for a 31 year-old Ronaldinho Gaúcho, who was putting in some decent performances for Flamengo. Completely aware that his popularity was approaching rock bottom, Menezes caved in to public pressure, and called up Ronaldinho for a series of six friendly matches.
Against modest opposition Brazil managed five wins and a draw, but the standard of football on show was woeful. With Ronaldinho in the midfield they were essentially playing with ten men. After scraping a win against Bosnia-Herzegovina – thanks to a last minute own-goal from Bosnia defender Sasa Papac – Ronaldinho was out on his behind and Mano Menezes turned his attention to this year’s Olympic Games.
The Olympic tournament is an ideal opportunity for Menezes and the Seleção as a whole. After the exhausting waste of time that was Ronaldinho’s international return, the focus is now firmly on their base of young players that are likely to form the spine of Brazil’s World Cup squad in 2014.
Now, after three out of four pre-Olympic friendly matches, it looks like Mano Menezes’ plans for the Seleção are beginning to come to fruition. In just two weeks, they appear to have progressed more than they have in the last two years.
The formation that Menezes’ has put into practice ever since taking over as Brazil head coach is a fairly straightforward 4-2-3-1, counting on strong support from the two full backs and with both wingers cutting inside. The key to the side is the creative number ten, whose job it is to organise the team, either to drop back into midfield and spray the ball around, or push forward and provide the killer pass. It is a position designed with only one man in mind: Paulo Henrique Ganso.
With Ganso undergoing knee surgery during the Olympic warm-up matches – much to Menezes’ frustration – Brazil were forced to improvise with Internacional’s Oscar in the matches against Denmark, the USA, and Mexico.
Oscar did his best trying to fill in for Ganso, and ended up being one of Brazil’s best performers over the three matches and making it very hard to imagine Mano Menezes dropping him for the Olympics. However it is likely that Oscar will not take Ganso’s position and instead will be pushed out to the right side once the Santos man returns to fitness.
Ganso wasn’t the only first-choice player unavailable, with Chelsea’s David Luiz missing at centre back with a thigh injury, and once he is fit he will form the centre back duo alongside AC Milan’s Thiago Silva.
This is how Brazil are likely to line up during the Games next month, with Ganso back in his familiar role and Oscar attacking from the right side in place of Hulk, who as an over-23 player is likely to miss the final squad cut, with the three over-23 spots all but reserved for Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Marcelo.
Brazil playing as the protagonists
The real success of these friendlies were not necessarily the results (3×1 against Denmark, 4×1 against the USA and a 0x2 defeat against Mexico), but the way in which Brazil really dominated the play and, in the words of Menezes himself, succeeded in being the games’ “protagonists”.
One of the strategies that Mano Menezes has long strived to employ with the Seleção is a high-pressing game of the likes of Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao. The major benefit of closing down an opponent high up the pitch is to force the defending team into making mistakes, allowing the attacking side to recover possession in dangerous areas. In Brazil’s three recent friendlies – especially in the victories over Denmark and the USA – they did exactly that.
I’ve gone to the trouble of compiling a short video containing footage from the matches against Denmark and the USA, highlighting some of the best examples of Brazil’s high pressing:
Note that as soon as an attacking move breaks down, Brazil begin to apply immediate pressure to the man in possession and within seconds they are back on the ball, often in a highly advantageous position. The final three clips show just how effective this tactic can be, as they recover possession and attack their unprepared opposition, leading to two goals and a penalty kick in their favour.
Also very impressive in their friendly performances was their absolute dominance of possession. In all three matches, even in defeat against Mexico, Brazil’s percentage of possession was in the high sixties. Their use of the ball was also notable, preferring a more patient style of build-up play as opposed to recent examples of ultra-direct counter-attacking football.
Modern international football is so heavily reliant on partnerships between players at club level, for evidence of this you need look no further than Spain’s victorious sides at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, two successes built upon a spine of players from Pep Guardiola’s equally victorious Barcelona team.
The reason for this is simple, national sides don’t have nearly enough time to train together to develop the intuitive, almost telepathic bonds that players can form when training week-in week-out at their clubs. For this reason it is often a good tactic for national team bosses to select players that play together at club level at useful positions, for example a centre back duo, a strike partnership or two wide players on the same flank.
Brazil have a couple of these partnerships at particularly valuable sectors of the field, and none more famous than the link between Santos’ wonderkid duo Ganso and Neymar. Their partnership doesn’t end off the field either, they have been very close friends for years, and they are both godfathers to each other’s children.
In truth, they haven’t had much experience of linking up well playing for the Seleção, with Ganso perpetually injured and Neymar being shoved far too wide, but now they will both be alongside one another at the Olympics, playing in the same roles they occupy so successfully at Santos.
Another good example of two players playing together at club level is Internacional’s Oscar and Leandro Damião, whom are both likely to start at the Olympic Games. Their superb link-up play is another reason why Menezes would be crazy to keep Oscar out of his starting XI.
However, perhaps Brazil’s most effective and dangerous partnership is one that grew organically while playing with the Seleção, between two players that have never played alongside one another at club level. Ever since he was recalled to the national team in the 1×0 friendly win over Ghana, Real Madrid left back Marcelo has developed an almost instantaneous understanding with aforementioned left winger Neymar.
Both have a superb awareness of the other’s positioning, and their slick passing exchanges served as the only shining light in otherwise poor team performances earlier in the year. Neymar has always been able to link well with his full back, but never before has he played alongside someone with such quality as Marcelo.
Marcelo can overlap on either side of Neymar, either on the outside to deliver a cross, or on the inside to provide an attacking threat. Brazil’s crucial third goal against the USA was a textbook example of their understanding, even though Hulk was also involved. I have attempted to represent this move in the animation below:
Even though Hulk does make an important contribution, this goal was essentially just an elaborate one-two between Marcelo and Neymar. Marcelo has drifted inside with possession, and is seeking Neymar to go to the touchline and cross for him. As soon as Hulk releases the ball, Marcelo is already taking up his position for the cut-back.
Coming off the back of commanding wins against Denmark and the USA, Brazil’s 2×0 defeat against Mexico was far more beneficial than it sounds. Even though it certainly has not been a problem in recent years, the Brazilian media have a frustrating tendency to over-hype the Seleção’s success when things are going well on the field.
After the Denmark match, there were voices claiming that Oscar is a better midfielder than Ganso has ever been, and after grabbing a meaningless late goal against the USA, many clamoured for Pato to be the starting forward instead of Leandro Damião. Like many football fans, hyperbole comes far easier than rational, hard-thought opinion to Brazilian supporters.
Therein lies the reason as to why the Mexico defeat will probably do more good than harm to Menezes’ Seleção. The overall positive opinion of the previous victories has not disappeared, but there is now a closer analysis of the squad, pinpointing possible weak points that need to be addressed.
Firstly, Brazil did not play poorly against Mexico. They dominated possession but lacked creativity in attack, they made a couple of mistakes in defence and a rapid, dangerous Mexico side made them pay.
The first weak point arises from Brazil’s lack of ideas against Mexico, which I believe to be as a direct result of Ganso’s absence. As I mentioned earlier, that number ten role in Menezes’ 4-2-3-1 is reserved for a midfield organiser, someone that can roam around the middle of the field and really run the football game. With Oscar, you don’t get that.
What you do get with Oscar is a quick, intelligent attacker who can play a telling pass and provide a forward threat of his own. When you ask him to drop back and provide the link between midfield and attack, he comes up short. This would be less of a problem if there was a forward-thinking midfielder behind him, but between Sandro and Rômulo, you have very little offensive threat and a fairly limited passing range.
This shouldn’t be a problem for the Olympics though, with Ganso set to return, but this over-reliance on his fitness causes some concern for the future.
Another possible weakness is at right back with FC Porto’s Danilo. Out of the four goals Brazil conceded in the last two weeks, three of them have been a result of Danilo being caught out of position. Traditionally a very attacking player, Danilo’s defensive credentials have never really been up to standard and in a 4-2-3-1 formation without a player willing to track back in front of him on the right wing, his poor positioning really stands out as Brazil’s weak link.
Good for gold?
It is not unreasonable to claim that the trio of Denmark, the USA and Mexico will all be stronger opposition than any side Brazil will face in the Olympic Games. With their ridiculous quality, they are a shoe-in for Olympic gold.
They will certainly have to be wary of Spain and a Uruguayan side full of excellent young domestic talent, but this is more or less Brazil’s senior side and anything less than gold would be a surprise.