When we last spoke about the Seleção the London Olympics were just around the corner, and coming off the back of a promising run of friendlies, Mano Menezes’s boys looked dead certs to grab gold.
Prata com gosto de lata
However, as we know football is rarely so cut-and-dried. In the tournament’s early stages, Brazil lived up to expectations to some degree, winning all five of their matches on the way to the final, scoring three goals in each. Although, their second-half struggle against Egypt and difficulty in putting away Honduras hinted towards a deeper defensive problem.
In the final at Wembley, Brazil faced a quick and expansive Mexico side who managed to take the lead in the first minute of the match. The seleção failed to recover properly and lost the match 2-1 – forcing them to make do with the silver medal.
Of course, an Olympic medal of any substance should not be sniffed at. But for Brazil, this really was uma prata com gosto de lata – a silver that tastes like tin.
In a recent interview, Mano Menezes, Brazil’s head coach, confessed he had rewatched the final ten times and that his side lacked “something extra in order to become champions”.
Despite admitting to obsess over the defeat in his spare time (most likely at 3am in his underpants, clutching a bottle of 51), Menezes has remained relatively calm whenever discussing the Olympics in public.
Throughout his preparation for the 2014 World Cup, Menezes has opted to split his job in to different stages, with each tournament or run of friendlies acting as a ‘checkpoint’ along the way. For the Olympic Games, Menezes maintained that his objective was to leave London with what he called “a very defined group”. In his opinion, it was mission accomplished.
They might have been helped by a friendly match in Sweden just a week after the Games, but it is hard to deny that the seleção do possess a ‘very defined’ squad group. There may well be some personnel changes between now and 2014, but it looks likely that about 70% of this squad will remain.
And it is not just the squad that is more defined, their strategy and style of play is also far clearer. Whereas before Brazil would alternate between patient possession-based buildup and ultra-direct counterattacking, now they are content with their high-energy passing style, playing the ball out of defence and pressing high when not in possession.
The players are convinced too. Thiago Silva, the team captain, said he believes the squad has “already created [their] own identity”.
More than this, the Olympic Games provided Brazil with something else, something potentially crucial to their World Cup hopes: the emergence of Oscar.
A camisa dez
Mano Menezes: “Oscar is the Seleção’s number ten. And you expect a lot from that shirt.”
Brazilian football, perhaps more than any other nation in the world, gives huge importance to the player in the number ten shirt. He is the man upon whose shoulders rest the hopes of 190 million. However, it is important to distinguish between a No.10, and the camisa dez.
When referring to a No.10, more often than not this suggests a certain type of player – an old-style playmaker who operates in the pocket of space behind the forwards and orchestrates play. He is who the Argentines would call an enganche.
The camisa dez (literally ‘the number ten shirt’) suggests nothing about the player’s position, only his prestige. The camisa dez is the most important player in the squad. His face is seen on billboards and television, and it is his name printed on the back of youngsters’ replica shirts.
In Brazil, the number ten doesn’t need to be a number ten (Ed – huh?). In fact, he often isn’t. A quick look back at the previous owners of the seleção’s number 10 jersey throws up various types of players. From the modern 10s such as Kaká and Rivaldo all the way back to Zico and Pelé, you see far more attacking midfielders and forwards than true playmakers.
After his explosion on to the international scene at the Games in London (his new home, coincidentally), Oscar is the latest in a long line of Brazilian 10s. Those who followed his development in Brazil with Porto Alegre club Internacional will not be surprised at the top quality footballer he has become, although I do not believe for a minute that anyone expected him to settle instantly at Chelsea and become so good, so fast.
In my previous seleção post, I expressed my concern that with Oscar in the team, Brazil might lack someone to organise the play in the centre of midfield. My reasoning was that until the time of writing Oscar was widely recognised as a forward player, and any time he was asked to drop deep and combine for Internacional, he looked somewhat out of his depth.
However, at the Olympics (and beyond) Oscar did drop deep, and he did organise play, and he was utterly brilliant.
This development has advanced further since arriving at Chelsea, as even though he still plays as a central playmaker at the Bridge, with far less space between the lines in European football he often finds himself retreating and linking with his two deeper midfielders.
Barring any disasters, in 2014 Oscar will be Brazil’s No.10 and their camisa dez. The pressure this entails is huge.
Barbarism begins at home
Speaking of pressure, it appears as if Brazil’s home crowd are already starting to ramp up the tension levels before That World Cup, with the squad coming under a considerable amount of criticism after their recent run of friendlies.
While the results look rather impressive – 1-0, 8-0, 2-1, 6-0 – the problem was the quality of opposition. Those four victories came against South Africa, China, a domestic Argentina XI, and Iraq.
Of course, the coach and players cannot be directly blamed for the level of their opposition, but some lacklustre spells of football (particularly against South Africa and Argentina) left home crowds incensed and Menezes and his players were subjected to an onslaught of boos and whistles.
What’s more, at the end of the Argentina match (the modestly titled Superclássico das Américas, with only domestic-based players available), fans in Goiânia chanted for the return of Luiz Felipe Scolari to the national job.
Just as his popularity had sunk from roughly 20% to about 0.01%, Mano Menezes managed to turn the hangman’s head awhile with a selection masterstroke, recalling Real Madrid’s Kaká.
The Return of the (not so-) Prodigal Son…
Though reaching out to fans’ favourite Kaká seemed like the last resort of a desperate man, the reintegration of the 2007 Fifa World Player of the Year had in fact been planned for months. In fact, Mano Menezes considered selecting Kaká for the Olympic squad, instead he advised Kaká to stay in Madrid to enjoy a full preseason’s training.
Menezes stated that after establishing a solid base of players, he is looking to introduce some more experience in crucial areas. However, after being burned by Ronaldinho and Robinho (and to a far lesser extent, Luis Fabiano) in the past, Mano was quick to add that he is only looking for “those who show potential to reach 2014 playing at the top level”.
Kaká, having already competed at three World Cups, certainly provides experience to the squad. More importantly, he provides experience to their attack, which as Thiago Silva puts it, “is the position where we needed experience”.
Granted, bringing back Kaká could have been a disaster. Since his recurring knee injury robbed him of his once deadly pace, he has been forced to change his game significantly. Whereas before he would drop deep to receive the ball before bombing up the field towards goal, he now has to play closer to goal, buzzing around in an effort to create space for his team-mates.
Luckily for Brazil, Mano Menezes is no mug. He was already aware of this change to Kaká’s style and instead of trying to fit in the Kaká of 2007, he brought the Madrid man higher up the field where he is now far more comfortable.
Though he played superbly in the aforementioned 6-0 drubbing of Iraq, it was the far-more impressive 4-0 win against Japan five days later that really announced Kaká’s return. Instrumental in all four goals (scoring the fourth himself), he strolled through the match and as his captain Thiago Silva put it: “the movement in attack made it look as if [the forwards] had been playing together for a very long time”.
Kaká lined up on the left side of Mano Menezes’s new-look 4-2-4-0 formation, notable for its absence of a traditional ‘No.9’ at centre-forward.
No 9? No problem
The basic proposal of this 4-2-4-0 is to have a fluid front four who are all responsible for creating play and finishing opportunities, as opposed to having three midfielders and a fixed target man in attack.
The movement between the forwards is extraordinary, especially on the left side. With Neymar having a tendency to drift to the left touchline, Kaká cutting into the centre, and Oscar bursting forward to attack, the three form a sort of fluid attacking triangle which is quite the sight to behold.
As you can see from the diagram however, Hulk on the right is fairly disconnected from the other three. While Kaká, Oscar and Neymar all play fluid roles and take up various positions, Hulk has a specialised task, patrolling the right flank and cutting in on to his devastating left foot.
The images above are diagrams taken from iG’s excellent Futebol app (with statistics supplied by Footstats) and they represent the areas in which each of Brazil’s front four had possession of the ball in the friendly win over Japan. As you can see from the graphs of Oscar and Kaká, their possession was evenly spread between midfield and attack, and from left to right.
Neymar’s statistics are weighted towards his preferred left flank (just under 75% of his total ball possession was concentrated in that zone), but there is still evidence of him drifting right and playing through the middle. Hulk’s statistics are far more one-sided, and his graph clearly shows he spent a large majority of the match stationed out on the right, and rarely got involved with the other three forwards.
Perhaps São Paulo winger Lucas (joining PSG in January) could be a better long-term option for this role, as his style of play is far more fluid and varied, although he does need to work on his collective game. Below is a similar diagram of Lucas’s ball possession in a league match against Palmeiras, and it is easy to note how much he roams around the field, resulting in a diagram similar to those of Oscar and Kaká.
However, this is not to say that Hulk does not have a pivotal role to play in the seleção. Firstly, it is entirely possible that the imbalance caused by Hulk’s inclusion could be beneficial to the system’s effectiveness. Asymmetrical formations are often difficult for orthodox defences to deal with.
Secondly, if Menezes does decide to look elsewhere for the right-winger role, Hulk could still be a valuable impact substitute. There are few forwards in the game who have the motivation and mental strength of Hulk, and this allows him to be thrown into any match situation and make an immediate impact. Such players become even more precious in short tournament football, where the smallest modification can become the difference between victory and an early exit.
Menezes’s 4-2-4-0 sounds quite revolutionary, but history often repeats itself and this system could easily be compared to an old-style 4-2-4 (similar to the one used by Brazil in 1958). However, it is likely to have been based on the system of reigning Copa Libertadores champions Corinthians, who (in their most crucial matches) lined up in a 4-2-4-0 without a fixed target man.
Like Corinthians, Menezes will need to have a backup plan, and it would be unthinkable for Brazil to go to the 2014 World Cup without at least the option of a No.9. Despite going through a difficult patch, I believe Leandro Damião has what it takes to be that 9.
It must be said this system is still in the early testing phase, and Mano Menezes said he will stick with it until their friendly match against England in February. The first signs have been positive though, and Brazil are finally giving their fans reason to be confident.
Of course, all the work is not done yet and there are still one or two positions in the squad entirely up for grabs. Perhaps the most important positions still to be determined are in the centre of midfield, where Menezes has tested a slew of names and countless combinations without settling on a defined pair.
Menezes spoiled for choice in the midfield
The centre of Brazil’s midfield embodies the drastic changes made since the end of the Dunga era. At the 2010 World Cup, Brazil’s midfield berths were occupied by Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva – two bruising holders who could barely string two passes together and were simply instructed to remain in their own half and protect the back four.
When Menezes came in he changed all that. Now the players in midfield are all energetic and creative, and most importantly: they defend and attack.
Against Iraq and Japan, the seleção lined up with Paulinho and Ramires – two tenacious, forward-thinking players – as their midfield pairing, and they were fantastic. But not everyone was convinced.
The general consensus is fairly straightforward: it was fine to play those two against weaker opposition, but against the world’s best sides, they will need to have someone more defensively aware in midfield.
There are a number of options for this ‘defensive-minded’ post, but the candidates can realistically be whittled down to four names: Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva, Spartak Moscow’s Rômulo, Sandro of Tottenham Hotspur, and Ralf of Corinthians. With Lucas and Rômulo sidelined with lengthy injuries and temporarily out of the picture, Sandro is increasingly looking like the man for the job.
At the beginning of Menezes’s reign, it was a direct contest between Lucas Leiva and Sandro. Back then it was the Liverpool man who got the nod due to his superior vision and passing range, but Sandro has improved greatly in the last year.
Under André Villas-Boas at Tottenham, Sandro has been instructed to get forward a little more (as Michael Cox explained for The Guardian), and his intelligent movement and awareness have helped to create space for his more creative team-mates. With Oscar bound to have to adapt to playing in reduced space, this kind of movement could be a big help to Brazil’s attacking play.
Confederations Cup: do Brazil really want to win it?
If we are sticking to Mano Menezes’s stage-by-stage preparation schedule, the seleção’s next milestone is the 2013 Confederations Cup.
This tournament could turn out to be either hugely advantageous or particularly harmful. There is no doubt that the Confederations Cup will allow the squad to test themselves in front of their own fans, against decent opposition, and in a (semi-) competitive setting, but depending on how serious their opponents approach it, it could give them a seriously distorted view of their own capabilities.
BBC journalist Tim Vickery has said he believes Brazil lost the 2006 World Cup when they won the Confederations Cup the previous year. You can see his point. In 2005, Brazil strolled to that trophy, brushing aside a listless Argentina side in the final. That triumph seemed to make them think they were a better team than they actually were, and when the World Cup came around they appeared somewhat unprepared.
The culture of Brazilian football values victory above all else, and winning a trophy on home soil one year before the World Cup could certainly leave them complacent.