Adiós, Osorio

After over a month of humming and hawing, back and forth and ‘will he, won’t he?’, Juan Carlos Osorio has resigned from his post as São Paulo head coach. The Colombian will take over the Mexican national team, whose World Cup qualification campaign begins next month.

The feeling is one of a missed opportunity for Brazilian football. Having arrived in São Paulo at the end of May, Osorio has not had nearly enough time to make a lasting impression on the league. Continue reading Adiós, Osorio

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Tough times ahead for Timão

World champions in 2012, Corinthians have failed to build on success and face years of austerity


This is the final post in a four-part series previewing the 2015 Brazilian football season. The first in the series, covering Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here; the second, looking forward to a promising year for Palmeiras, can be found here and the third, detailing Santos’ financial crisis, can be found here..

In December 2012, Corinthians defeated European champions Chelsea by one goal to nil to win the Club World Cup in Yokohama, Japan. The triumph was the crowning achievement of a marvellous year for São Paulo’s largest club, who had become South American champions for the first time after beating Boca Juniors in an ultra-tense Copa Libertadores final in July. However, becoming champions of the world was just phase one of the Corinthians master plan.

Weeks after Corinthians’ win in Japan, British professional services firm Deloitte released their annual Football Money League report. Corinthians’ revenue of €94.1m saw them reach 31st place, an all-time high for South American clubs. With their brand-new stadium close to completion, the plan was to consolidate their position as the biggest club on the continent and break into the world’s top 20.

The following year, the project appeared to be well on track, with the club jumping seven places in the ranking and becoming the 24th richest club in world football, ahead of the likes of Benfica, Newcastle United and Ajax.

A lot can change in the space of 12 months, however, and with the bursting of Brazilian football’s financial bubble accompanied by underwhelming on-pitch performances, the name Corinthians is nowhere to be seen in this year’s Money League study. As it turned out, the second phase of the Corinthians master plan was far tougher to execute than the first.

In early 2013, in an attempt to flex their financial muscles and show the world what they were capable of, Corinthians prepared a sizable investment to sign AC Milan forward Alexandre Pato. Outbidding clubs in Europe, Corinthians repatriated the 22-year-old, with the €15m transfer fee still standing as the highest paid by any Brazilian club.

Although the club seemed to solve Pato’s chronic injury problems that hampered his career at Milan, his on-pitch performances were not nearly as impressive as Corinthians had hoped. He made 57 appearances for the club in 2013, scoring 17 goals, five of those coming in state championship matches. Despite showing some flashes of quality, Pato was regularly criticised by the Corinthians fans for a perceived lack of effort and commitment to the club’s success. Their patience with the forward completely expired after he missed a crucial penalty in a cup shootout against Grêmio, having attempted a Panenka that went harmlessly into the arms of opposing goalkeeper Dida.

In February 2014, one year after his record-breaking transfer, Pato was loaned to rivals São Paulo, in a deal that sees Corinthians pay 50% of his R$ 800k monthly salary.

Besides the disastrous Pato investment, Corinthians had many other reasons to lament their fortunes in 2013. Their march towards retaining the Copa Libertadores title veered off course in their first group match, an away trip to Bolivia to play San José, a game that ended in tragedy. Only five minutes into the first half, one of the home supporters, 14-year-old Kevin Beltrán, was struck in the eye and fatally wounded by a flare released by a member of Corinthians’ travelling support.

Corinthians coach Tite, a father of two, was visibly shaken by the events, putting the situation into perspective by affirming he would exchange the world championship they had won the year before for Kevin’s life.

Although the punishment handed to the club was remarkably lenient (they were forced to play their three home group matches behind closed doors, a decision later overturned after appeal), the incident did appear to have an effect on the squad. They advanced from their group, but faced Boca Juniors in the round of 16 and were eliminated.

They were equally disappointing in the national championship, quickly becoming known for their uninspiring football and results that read like lines of binary code. The consensus was that the team had gone stale: they had played the same system without variation for a long period of time and became starved of creativity.

Corinthians finished the 2013 season in 10th place, missing out on qualification for the Copa Libertadores. The club chose not to extend Tite’s contract as head coach, and the man who led them to South American and World titles left at the end of the season, tipped for the Brazilian national team job after the 2014 World Cup.

His replacement was an old acquaintance of the Corinthians faithful having managed the club between 2008 and 2010: former Brazil boss Mano Menezes. Born in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, Menezes belongs to the escola gaúcha of Brazilian coaches (as does Tite), giving priority to defensive solidity and physicality over flair and creativity.

Menezes did not do a terrible job, largely reproducing Tite’s tactical system with some new faces in the squad, but fans demanded more from the team, unhappy with their ultra-conservative approach in away matches. Corinthians finished 4th in the Brazilian championship, qualifying them for this year’s Copa Libertadores. Despite the reasonable return in his first season back, revolt from radical factions of the club’s supporters and behind-the-scenes power plays led to the sacking of Mano Menezes. Tite, still a free agent since his dismissal the year before, was subsequently brought back to lead the team in 2015.

After being snubbed by the Brazilian national team, Tite is back for another spell at Corinthians. Photograph: Folhapress
After being snubbed by the Brazilian national team, Tite is back for another spell at Corinthians. Photograph: Folhapress

Corinthians did have some embarrassing results in 2014, but they primarily came off the field. In 2013, even with the disastrous investment in Alexandre Pato and poor performances on the pitch, the club managed to close the year with a slim profit of R$ 1m. In contrast, though balance sheets have yet to be released for 2014, Corinthians are expected to announce a loss of around R$ 90m for the year.

The deficit is largely due to the club’s new stadium, which opened in the middle of last year. The Arena Corinthians, despite being the pride and joy of the fans, has left the club with debt of around R$ 750m (£190m). Money from gate receipts (usually a significant source of income for the club) is all going towards repaying the stadium debt. Corinthians have yet to negotiate a naming rights contract for the stadium, which will be discounted from the R$ 750m, but their short-term future remains bleak. Their wage bill has increased 40% in relation to last season and the club is already behind on image rights payments to players and departed coach Mano Menezes.

Their transfer budget for this year has been set at a modest R$ 10m (£2.5m), with that figure relying at least R$ 38m of income from selling players. To put this into perspective, Peruvian forward Paolo Guerrero, arguably the club’s most important player and whose contract expires in June, is currently demanding a signing-on fee of R$ 18m to renew his deal at the club, almost double the budget Corinthians have set out for the entire year.

Not only is Guerrero the club’s principal goal threat, he is also the central figure in Tite’s vision for Corinthians in 2015. Though they seem unable to afford him, losing such a quality player could be disastrous to their chances on the pitch.

After being scandalously overlooked for the national team job after the embarrassment of the 2014 World Cup, Tite spent his period of unemployment travelling, studying the game and speaking with peers. The biggest influence on his current coaching philosophy comes from the time he spent in Spain, visiting Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti.

Wanting to learn more about the 4-1-4-1 system employed at the Bernabéu, Tite went along to matches and training sessions, trying to gather as much information as he could to implement the same style in his next job. The principal virtue of Ancelotti’s Real Madrid team, superbly examined by Michael Cox, is their ability to successfully marry the two most effective philosophies in modern football: possession and counterattacking. It is this mixture that Tite wants to bring to Corinthians.

In the words of Michael Cox, Real Madrid’s attacking unit consists of “three midfield playmakers, two brilliant counterattackers and a hard-working, selfless number nine”. The midfield trio allow the team to establish control of possession, while their wide attackers exploit any space left by their opponents on transitions.

Such a complete attacking force would be too difficult to recreate in Brazilian domestic football, but with some alterations to the standard 2-2 block midfield setup in Brazil, Tite has brought his side somewhat closer to the Real Madrid model. Renato Augusto, for example, usually regarded as an out-and-out attacking midfielder, has been brought back into central midfield, along with Elias and Ralf. For their wide attackers, Tite has proposed playing a playmaker on the right (one of Nicolás Lodeiro, Danilo or Jadson) with a deep option on the left (Emerson, Malcom or Mendoza). Paolo Guerrero leads the line, getting on the end of any service coming his way, while also helping to create space for forward runs from midfield.

It will be interesting to see whether they can achieve the balance between possession and counterattack, pre-season performances indicate that it will be difficult. Against Bayer Leverkusen, Corinthians surrendered possession to their German opponents, mainly threatening from set-pieces, and in last week’s friendly against English non-league outfit Corinthian Casuals, they had the ball but lacked the guile and incisiveness to get behind a part-time defence.

Either way, instant success is unlikely. Though he has some of his old squad, Tite is a coach that requires time to make a team his own. The question is, will he be allowed that time? Since 2012, Corinthians is a completely different organisation, with loftier expectations and even less patience. Tite, partly responsible for the world and continental honours, was not given the chance to rebuild the team in 2013. Mano Menezes, with a proud history in his first spell as coach, was not even allowed to settle at the club before he was sacked. With what are sure to be some tricky and austere years ahead for Corinthians, Tite has to be prepared for much unjust criticism if results do not come along right away.

Time will tell

On Sunday evening, this year’s Brazilian championship reaches its half-way stage. Cruzeiro currently lead the way with 37 points, four clear of their nearest rivals. Regardless of their result against Flamengo this weekend, the Minas Gerais side has already won the symbolic title of “campeão do primeiro turno”, or first term champions.

Although there is no trophy or financial reward for being on top of the league after 19 matches, in Brazil, the “winner” of the first term usually ends up holding on to their place come the 38th round. In fact, in the last ten editions of the Brasileirão, seven of the first term champions have gone on to win the trophy.

It is not by chance that Cruzeiro are in front. They play some of the most attractive football in the country and have one of the most talented squads to back that up. Since Marcelo Oliveira (a forward for Cruzeiro’s bitter rivals Atlético-MG in the 1970s) took charge in January, he has implanted his successful playing style and tactical system: a 4-2-3-1 built on constant movement and quick passing triangles. This approach brought good results during Marcelo’s two years at Coritiba and now with a more talented group of players at his disposal, the Belo Horizonte-born coach is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

One impressive quality of this Cruzeiro team is the vast number of options they have in attack. For the line of three behind the centre-forward, there are nine relevant players able to occupy the three positions. Éverton Ribeiro, Dagoberto, Luan, Martinuccio, Willian, Lucca, Élber, Ricardo Goulart and Júlio Baptista. Their team is missing a craque to organise the play and serve as an attacking reference, like Seedorf at Botafogo or Alex at Coritiba, but by that same token they are not over reliant on one player to make the team tick.

cruz

There have been some defensive troubles, however. Since joining from Vasco, centre-back Dedé has struggled to regain his form and has made several high-profile errors, while his defensive partner Bruno Rodrigo is little more than an average stopper.

The real issues appear to be in midfield, where first-choice pairing Nílton and Souza have only started together in half of Cruzeiro’s matches. When they are at full strength, the team looks solid and rarely concedes, but substitutes Leandro Guerreiro and Lucas Silva are not up to the job, as they demonstrated at home last weekend by allowing Vasco to score three times.

The only other team that looks genuinely equipped to challenge Cruzeiro is current world champions Corinthians. The Timão made a slow start to the national championship, but have now lost only one of their last eleven league matches.

While his starting eleven has been more or less constant for the last two years, Corinthians coach Tite has been varying his tactics a lot this year, trying to find a suitable balance in the wake of bellwether midfielder Paulinho’s departure to Tottenham Hotspur.

Their defensive solidity has remained however, thanks in part to the signing of former Cruzeiro centre-back Gil from French side Valenciennes. Corinthians have the most secure defence in the league by some distance, conceding only eight goals in eighteen matches. The second best defence is that of Santos, who have conceded fourteen goals after playing two fewer games.

Antithetical to the league leaders, Corinthians have been responsible at the back yet shy in front of goal. At times they seem content to stay strong in defence, getting bodies behind the ball, hoping that they can win the match on a stray counterattack or set-piece. This approach has worked for them before, namely in the 2012 Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup final against Chelsea, but when you are inviting pressure and not creating many chances it becomes an ineffective way to play.

Alexandre Pato has yet to live up to the expectation of being the most expensive signing by a Brazilian club, but at the very least Corinthians have got him playing and injury-free, something Milan were never able to do. Pato is a strange case, in that he is regarded as an elite centre-forward without having done anything in his career to properly merit such a status. Fame and his lengthy injuries have contributed to this, making us see something that was never there.

Behind Cruzeiro and Corinthians, there is a small group of outsiders comprising Botafogo, Grêmio and Atlético-PR.

Botafogo started the season extremely well, playing a modern, attractive style of play led by veteran playmaker Clarence Seedorf. The surprise departure of Vitinho leaves them a little sluggish in attack though, they will miss his direct threat.

21 year-old Hyuri made his debut for the club on Thursday night against Coritiba, scoring twice in a 3-1 win. I don’t know much about the player, who joined the club on loan last month from Audax after an impressive state championship campaign, but Botafogo’s knowledgeable coach Oswaldo de Oliveira seems to believe Hyuri has what it takes to fill Vitinho’s absence. Time will tell.

Renato Gaúcho has made a good start to his time at Grêmio, as has Vagner Mancini in charge of Atlético-PR. Both teams are organised and on a good run of form, Grêmio playing a 3-5-2 system that focuses on width and attacking support from their wing-backs, while Atlético have constructed a dangerous attacking unit, with plenty of speed and off-the-ball movement, spurred on by the evergreen Paulo Baier.

Clássicos

One of the more frustrating clichés in football is that on derby day, the form book goes out of the window. Derbies are different, but only because of the increased levels of pressure. The way in which the players deal with this pressure often has an impact on the final result, though that applies to any match against any opponent.

When faced with the prospect of playing against their rivals, some professionals are able to build themselves up mentally and use the increased adrenaline to produce higher levels of substances that enhance performance, like a form of emotional doping.

Others can be overwhelmed with nerves and opt instead to hide on the field, afraid of making a mistake. There is a Japanese proverb that says “the stake that sticks up gets hammered down”.

This weekend in Brazil we were treated to three clássicos that did a good job of illustrating exactly why playing your rivals is so important.

On a historic run of eight defeats in a row, São Paulo managed to stop the rot with a 0-0 draw against Corinthians. With confidence at an all-time low and coach Paulo Autuori’s job hanging by a thread (after only four matches in charge), São Paulo’s prime objective was not to concede and therefore, to avoid a ninth consecutive defeat.

Autuori dropped World Cup winner Lúcio from the centre of defence after a series of bad performances and repeated indiscipline. Though it is impossible to doubt Lúcio’s quality, São Paulo looked more secure without him. His absence allowed Rafael Tolói to return to the right centre-back role where he is most comfortable, and it gave their defence more shape and discipline.

São Paulo started the match with three defensive midfielders and though they did have space to attack into (Jádson and Fabrício often had two-on-one situations in the middle against Corinthians midfielder Ralf), they did not seem interested in bringing numbers forward.

Corinthians were in control for most of the match and kept the play in São Paulo’s half, but they didn’t create many clear chances and appeared to believe a goal would come along naturally. Alexandre Pato was once again disappointing coming off the bench, and many in Brazil are now coming to terms with the fact that he will never become the excellent forward they once thought he was.

Corinthians appear to be on auto-pilot mode in the Brasileirão and they have dropped far more points than expected at this early stage. They will most likely focus heavily on winning the Copa do Brasil to ensure a place in the 2014 Copa Libertadores.

It wasn’t another defeat, but São Paulo have now gone twelve matches without a win, and they now embark on a trip to Europe and Asia to play the Audi Cup and Suruga Bank Championship respectively, facing teams like Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Milan and Benfica. That winless streak will probably go on a bit longer.

In Belo Horizonte, Cruzeiro battered Atlético-MG 4-1, only days after watching them lift the Copa Libertadores trophy. Still in the party mind-set, Atlético fielded a largely second-string side, with only Júnior César and Michel remaining from the team that beat Olimpia in midweek.

Often when a squad is as close-knit and successful as Atlético’s, the reserve players are able to step into the first team and perform well, having trained side-by-side with the starters on a daily basis. However, Atlético’s sluggish centre-back partnership of Gilberto Silva and Rafael Marques struggled against a dangerous Cruzeiro team.

Since last season, Cruzeiro have conducted some superb business in the transfer market. Dedé, Nílton, Souza, Éverton Ribeiro and Dagoberto are all top-level Série A players, and their attacking unit has plenty of depth with Luan, Ricardo Goulart and Martinuccio keeping the starters on their toes. The signing of Júlio Baptista could also be decisive, and If they can keep him fit he should do well on his return to Brazil.

At this stage, Cruzeiro is one of the three or four teams who has what it takes to win the Brazilian championship.

The third match, Flamengo versus Botafogo, was a fascinating game in the new Maracanã. However the event raised further questions about the “elitization” of the Brazilian game, about which I would like to go into more detail tomorrow.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to Ecuadorian forward Cristián Benítez, who died today in Qatar, aged just 27. Benítez was a wonderful, intelligent and powerful striker who could lead the line on his own and was a class-act on and off the pitch. Earlier this year I suggested he would be reaching his peak just in time to lead his nation in the World Cup in Brazil next year, so it is hard to fathom that he is now no longer with us. My thoughts go out to his family, friends and team-mates.

Adiós Chucho, you will always be remembered.

chucho

Getting in the way

On Wednesday evening, at the same time as the Copa Libertadores final between Olímpia and Atlético-MG, Corinthians and São Paulo will decide the 2013 Recopa Sul-Americana.

I’ve never understood the Recopa. It’s South America’s answer to the Uefa Super Cup but unlike its European equivalent that serves as a harmless introduction to the league season, the Recopa strikes me as being poorly planned and frankly, it gets in the way.

The problem, like many things in South American football, is the space it takes up in the calendar. It is played just as the Brazilian national championship is trying to gain momentum and after the other major South American leagues have come to a close. It is also contested over two legs, home and away.

My other qualm is with the name. Tomorrow evening will determine the winner of the 2013 Recopa, even though São Paulo won the Copa Sul-Americana in December of 2012, and Corinthians won the Copa Libertadores over a year ago, in July 2012. The fact that the second leg clashes with the 2013 Copa Libertadores final tells you everything you need to know about how well-thought out this trophy really is.

So, why do people pay any attention to it? Before the first leg, I asked a friend of mine – a São Paulo fan – this very question.

“We only have to play these two matches, and we can win a trophy. The Brasileirão takes 38 matches…”

Therein lays the Brazilian mentality toward sport. You could argue that many fans don’t love football; they just love cheering the winner. For the clubs involved, the Recopa is a notch on the proverbial bedpost. It might not be the Libertadores, but they all count, right?

Here in São Paulo, extra importance has been placed upon this year’s edition as not only do we have two Brazilian teams in the final, we have two of São Paulo city’s trio de ferro, and both are desperate for a result.

I have discussed São Paulo FC’s problems on more than one occasion over the past few weeks, and Sunday’s demoralising 3-2 defeat away to Vitória only served to drag them deeper into the thick stuff. In truth, 3-2 was kind on the tricolor, who were outplayed for the entire 90 minutes by Caio Júnior’s gutsy Vitória. While the home side were pressing hard, making overlapping runs and contesting every loose ball, São Paulo were absent, lethargic and looked mentally exhausted (see diagram below).

Vitória's mobile midfield versus São Paulo's static diamond
Vitória’s mobile midfield versus São Paulo’s static diamond

Perhaps they could take a leaf out of Santos’ book and instead of indulging certain overrated and overvalued first team players, they could look to their youth squad and promote from within. It certainly couldn’t be any worse than their current situation, that’s for sure.

Their opponents Corinthians hold a 2-1 aggregate advantage from the first leg, but they are also in a precarious situation. They have had few decent performances since the national championship got underway, and Sunday’s 1-0 home loss to a mainly second-string Atlético-MG side has made Wednesday’s second leg crucial. In Brazilian football, crisis is never more than two bad results away.

Corinthians problem is different to that of their rivals. The effort is there, but the team is making too many mistakes in front of goal and in defence. Alexandre Pato, the most expensive signing in the history of Brazilian football, has underwhelmed, while goalkeeper Cássio is still living off his heroic performance against Chelsea in the World Club Cup final.

The loss of Paulinho has also hit them hard. Tottenham Hotspur’s new midfielder was the lynchpin of this current Corinthians side, and replacements Ibson and Guilherme look to be a considerable step down in quality.