In last season’s Brasileirão, Santos became completely reliant upon the presence of Neymar. With him on the field, their form was that of a top three team; without him, their form was worse than that of Sport Recife, who ended the season in 17th place and relegated.
Less than two months ago, when Neymar sealed his transfer to Barcelona and head coach Muricy Ramalho was fired, Santos fans started to fear for their first division status.
Since then however, they have not reverted to the woeful Neymar-less side of last year, in fact they have shown considerable signs of improvement. Last night’s 4-1 spanking of Portuguesa was Santos’ third consecutive league win, and they currently find themselves in 5th position in the table.
Put simply, they have gone back to their roots. Santos has always been famous for producing their own talent, or as it is known in Brazil: “revealing players”. The all-conquering Santos of the early 60s with Pelé, Pepe and Coutinho leading the line; the 1978 side with Pita, Juary and João Paulo; the championship-winning team of 2002 inspired by Robinho and Diego, then just teenagers; the 2011 Copa Libertadores winners with Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso.
After Muricy’s dismissal, Santos appointed under 20s coach Claudinei Oliveira as his temporary replacement. In January of this year, Claudinei’s youth team won the Copa São Paulo, Brazil’s most prestigious junior tournament, and since taking the reins of the first team he has looked to promote as many of that U-20 squad as possible.
The most prominent examples have been attacking midfielders Neílton and Leandrinho, who have gone straight into the first eleven on either side of playmaker Walter Montillo in Claudinei’s new-look 4-2-3-1 system. Leandrinho is busy and technical with good dribbling skills, while Neílton is quicker and provides a deep threat down the wing and cutting in from the left.
Also gaining space are centre-forward Giva, who came off the bench to score the opening goal in last week’s clássico victory against São Paulo, and tall centre-back Gustavo Henrique, who could well be the lubricant for Santos’ creaking back door.
Although these players seem to have taken many by surprise, Santos’ general improvement on the pitch makes a lot of sense. Muricy Ramalho’s Santos played a negative style that was completely geared towards Neymar and his individual talents. When Neymar was unavailable, no-one knew where to pass the ball and they seemed devoid of ideas. With Claudinei Oliveira and the promotion of his young squad, Santos have a fresh approach and a new style, one which is attacking and attractive. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing this exciting new generation develop.