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São Paulo bow to (Ney) Francoism

There has been a distinct lack of tactical interest in this year’s Campeonato Brasileiro. A large majority of teams play a similar style of football, heavily based on long balls, aerial play, and individualism. Petty fouls and simulation are also rampant, resulting in several drab, stop-start matches which are often reduced to two or three players repeatedly attempting individual moves until they inevitably get one right. Few sides actually play as a team, with the exception of (strangely enough) the top four.

Top of the pile – and with good reason

First and second-placed respectively, Fluminense and Atlético-MG play more or less the same system – a compact 4-2-3-1. What makes this formation so effective are the rapid transitions from defence to attack and vice versa.

Without possession, the two wide midfielders retreat on each side to form two banks of four in defence. Only the centre-forward and No.10 remain in the opponent’s territory, making the shape resemble more of a 4-4-1-1. Upon recovering the ball, both full-backs race forward and hope to create 2 vs 1 situations on the flanks.

Fluminense have been slightly more effective in their execution of this system, owing in part to them staying more contained in defence and being even more deadly on the counterattack.

                                                                               Third-placed Grêmio have also made for interesting viewing. Under Vanderlei Luxemburgo (former Real Madrid head coach), they bought well during the winter transfer window and constructed a traditional 4-4-2 formation that would not look out of place in 1980s England. They line up with two creative midfielders on either side, Elano and Zé Roberto (who are both in excellent form), and with Marcelo Moreno and Kléber up front they have a classic big-small strike pair.

I’m So Bored With The 3-5-2

While others have been playing the same way since the start of the season, São Paulo (the focus of today’s post) have developed their system only recently.

After the messy, drawn-out dismissal of previous head coach Emerson Leão at the end of June, São Paulo looked for a more progressive replacement and brought in Brazil’s U20 coach Ney Franco. Franco is perhaps best known for his successful spell in charge of Coritiba.

Upon his arrival, Franco expressed his desire to modernise São Paulo’s playing style and bring them round to his preferred type of football, with “quick touches and devastating attack, with a lot of men in the area”. At first he experimented with some different shapes: a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-2-1-3, and a 4-2-3-1, but he faced stern opposition from a large group of São Paulo supporters who wanted to see the Tricolor lining up with three at the back.

Over the years the 3-5-2 has been São Paulo’s crutch, their fail-safe. They have used it many times to try to compensate for their full-backs’ apparent inability to mark, as theoretically it gives them more security and cover in defence. However, whenever São Paulo play 3-5-2 they leave big spaces between the lines and struggle to string any passes together. Naturally this brings about a poor standard of football, similar to the unimaginative, long-ball game described in the opening paragraph.

Ney Franco’s first few weeks in charge brought reasonable results (2W 1D 1L), but still he faced resistance from the home fans. Franco buckled under the pressure and for a midweek away fixture against Atlético-GO, he set São Paulo up in a 3-5-2.

Atlético, bottom of the league at the time, played with two wingers and destroyed São Paulo on the flanks, taking an unprecedented 4×1 lead at half time. With his job well and truly on the line, Franco brought his team out for the second period with four in defence. They dominated play, won the half 2×0, and even came close to equalising. With that, the 3-5-2 was quashed.

Speaking words of wisdom, ‘4-2-1-3’

With the freedom to do his job in peace, Franco began to develop São Paulo’s style of play, settling on the 4-2-1-3 system seen below.

Although it looks comparable to the 4-2-3-1 we saw earlier, in practice this formation behaves similar to a 4-3-3. The main difference is seen when São Paulo are without the ball. The two wingers, Lucas and Osvaldo, remain relatively high up the field and rarely contribute to defensive phases. Jadson, the cerebral No.10, is positioned slightly deeper than most Brazilian playmakers, still he seldom tracks back to defend.

This leads to a less compact team with more space between the lines than the 4-2-3-1. As a consequence they sometimes encounter problems defending against more expressive sides.

However, the focus of this system is attack, not defence. They are far more concerned about what they do with the ball rather than how they position themselves when they lose it. This is highlighted by the fact that São Paulo complete more passes and create more chances than any other side in the league.

Denílson passing his way back into Tricolor hearts

The man responsible for most of those passes is midfield anchor Denílson. After joining on loan from Arsenal in July 2011, Denílson underwent a difficult period readapting to the Brazilian game, and in particular Brazilian refereeing standards. In his first twelve matches back in Brazilian football he picked up five yellow cards and two red cards, and as such his progress seemed to stall.

With another season under his belt, Denílson has settled wonderfully at the base of São Paulo’s midfield. He performs a crucial function in this 4-2-1-3 system, constantly breaking up play and initiating almost every attacking move.

As I alluded to earlier, Denílson makes the most passes in this São Paulo side, and more than that, he leads the entire league in completed passes.

While researching this article, I decided to share that statistic on Twitter. It was not long before I had received a number of replies from sceptic Arsenal supporters, suggesting that Denílson only ever passes the ball square or backwards. Despite not having any statistical evidence to the contrary, I suspected that this was inaccurate.

So I dug deeper, and decided to track all of Denílson’s passes during a league game against Palmeiras from October.

The graphic above was made by me, but the design is based on FourFourTwo’s excellent Stats Zone app which you should definitely download.

The first thing to note from the diagram is Denílson’s superb pass completion rate. Out of 73 attempted passes, only five failed to reach their target (93% completion), all of which were attempted through balls to Luis Fabiano or Osvaldo.

Furthermore, the diagram successfully debunks the square passing claims. Out of Denílson’s 68 completed passes, 41 (60%) were forward, with only 16 (24%) square and 11 (16%) backward passes. His primary passing targets are Jadson, Osvaldo and Lucas, so it is clear that he is not playing simple sideways passes, instead he is creating attacking moves from deep.

Franco’s Fearsome Foursome

While it is Denílson who provides the bullets, it is the Tricolor’s lethal front four that really sets them apart. Although São Paulo can play a direct game, using the pace of Lucas and Osvaldo on either wing, they can also play a more patient style, using Jadson and Luis Fabiano as central reference points.

The two are able to hold the ball up in advanced positions, either with Luis Fabiano’s strength or Jadson’s guile and awareness. This ball retention enables the wingers to play off the man in possession and get behind the opposition defence, and more importantly it offers more time for São Paulo’s raiding full-backs to get forward and overload the flanks. This allows São Paulo to attack in great numbers and even the most defensive sides in the league struggle to handle the Tricolor’s attacking force.

So where can São Paulo go with this system? The 2012 Brasileirão has all but finished, and they already look assured of a place in next year’s Copa Libertadores.

However, São Paulo are still active in the Copa Sul-Americana (South America’s Europa League equivalent) after thumping an off-colour Universidad de Chile side 7×0 over two legs in the quarter finals. The prospect of silverware certainly appeals to the São Paulo support, seeing as their last major trophy was won in 2008.

Ganso may ruffle Franco’s feathers

Looking further into the future, it seems likely that this system will require some adjustment with the sale of Lucas to PSG and the signing of Paulo Henrique Ganso.

The loss of a precocious talent such as Lucas would be felt by most squads worldwide, never mind São Paulo. His mazy dribbles and jaw-dropping solo goals have been entertaining Brazilian crowds since 2010, and at times when his team-mates have deserted him, he has decided matches by himself.

Having said that, I do not feel that São Paulo’s playing style genuinely depends on Lucas. He is certainly a key player in the squad and a wonderful individual talent, but his collective play leaves a lot to be desired and I see no reason as to why São Paulo could not continue to play the same way after Lucas joins up with Zlatan & co. in Paris.

The more crucial matter is the integration of Paulo Henrique Ganso.

It is important to note that even though Ganso’s record-breaking R$23.9m (£7.3m) transfer from state rivals Santos demonstrated a big commitment from São Paulo, head coach Ney Franco did not ask for him.

At São Paulo, as is the case with most big South American clubs, transfer targets are determined by a backroom committee consisting of club president Juvenal Juvêncio, director of football Adalberto Baptista, his vice João Paulo de Jesus Lopes, and head of coaching staff Milton Cruz. Even club captain Rogério Ceni is consulted in some cases. Ney Franco doesn’t get a look in.

With a player of similar characteristics already a crucial part of his first eleven (Jadson), Franco may suffer a serious headache trying to shoehorn Ganso into this side.

There are a number of alterations Franco could make in order to accommodate Ganso, the simplest of which would see him take Jadson’s place as the No.10. However, should Franco want to keep both playmakers in the side, he does have some options.

As shown on the left side of the diagram, Ganso could feasibly take Lucas’s position on the right of midfield. Although instead of running at defenders, he would play more centrally and share the creative workload with Jadson. This would nudge their shape into something resembling a 4-2-2-2, and could enable the team to stay more compact.

Another option (presented on the right side of the diagram) would be to play Ganso in a deeper midfield role. The idea of Ganso adopting this position has been floated round for the past year, but has never been put into practice. The obvious concern with this formation is that São Paulo would be left too light in midfield. With only Denílson tasked with breaking up play, that is a real possibility.

When discussing a team’s system at length, it is crucial to remember that a style of play cannot be solely defined by a set of numbers or positions on a diagram. A football team’s system comprises the behaviour of individuals and the team as a whole, so minor position changes do not necessarily need to alter the entire team ethos.

Losing Lucas and bringing in Ganso is likely to bring about some shape changes, but that does not mean that São Paulo’s interesting new playing style cannot remain.

(Header image: UOL)

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