Robinho’s return

After fulfilling his lifelong dream of sitting on the bench for a Chinese first division club, Robinho is back in Brazil. Though this comes as no shock, the fact he will play for Atlético Mineiro (and not Santos) has raised a few eyebrows.

Robinho’s connection with Santos and their fans is quite spectacular. Having grown up in the nearby town of São Vicente, Robinho joined Santos when he was 12 years old. In 2002, his first season of professional football, he helped take Santos to the Brazilian title, an astonishing achievement considering the club had not won a trophy since 1984 and that their two key players (Robinho and Diego) were teenagers.

On loan from Manchester City, he returned to Santos in 2010 and led the club to two titles: the São Paulo state championship and the Copa do Brasil. Besides the silverware, Robinho’s second spell at Santos was marked by the arrival of a new generation of exciting young talent at the club. Under Robinho’s wing, Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso began to flourish. The following year, with Robinho back in Europe with Milan, Neymar and Ganso took Santos to the Copa Libertadores title.

In 2014, he was back home once more. At 30 years old, Brazilian football fans saw Robinho’s transition from lightning-fast forward to intelligent playmaker. Despite not having the same physical condition as his younger days, Robinho’s vision and reading of the game allowed him to stand out at domestic level. While the club hemorrhaged money and struggled to find any sustainable source of income, Robinho’s exploits on the pitch helped keep the wolves at bay.

Today, with more exciting talents coming through the ranks at Santos, particularly 19 year old forward Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa, was Robinho not tempted to return for a fourth time? One last hurrah? I’d imagine so, but I’m glad he turned them down.

Santos no longer represents a challenge for Robinho, it is his home and the fans adore him unconditionally. Furthermore, during his last stay at Santos he was owed thousands in unpaid wages. Knowing the club was going through hard times and aware of his own financial security, he chose to stay silent while his team-mates took Santos to court. This was a sacrifice he made as a senior player, but returning to the club after what happened would be very strange indeed.

At this stage, it is impossible to know whether Robinho will be a success at Atlético. He has joined a much bigger and more demanding club where he will need to prove his worth.

In 2012, Ronaldinho Gaúcho was in a similar position having joined Atlético. The following year he led the club to their first ever Copa Libertadores triumph, playing his best football since leaving Barcelona.

Atlético Mineiro x Corinthians

This year’s Brazilian championship has made for an intriguing race, in which we are approaching the final curve. Corinthians have a significant lead, but before they get their hands on the trophy they must survive one final test when they visit second-placed Atlético Mineiro this Sunday. Continue reading Atlético Mineiro x Corinthians

The football season that never ends

Brazilian football is hamstrung by its calendar, while Minas Gerais duo remain favourites for silverware in 2015


Exactly one month after the 2014 season came to a close, the majority of Brazil’s big football clubs got together last week to begin their pre-season training. In under 20 days, these teams will play their first competitive match of the Brazilian season, one of the longest and most demanding campaigns in the sport, comprising several competitions and precious little rest.

São Paulo FC, as an example, will play a bare minimum of 62 competitive matches in 2015. If they advance beyond the first round of the bloated São Paulo state championships, the Copa do Brasil and the Copa Libertadores (all of which are extremely likely), that figure would surpass 70 matches. Were they to reach the finals in all competitions (unlikely, but not impossible), they would have contested 81 games over the space of 44 weeks.

This obvious overkill of football has a predictably high number of negative consequences for the game in Brazil. The most important of these is the detrimental effect this calendar has on the quality of football being played. The hectic schedule allows a minimal amount of time for squads to train together, with players spending the days between matches catching their collective breaths rather than developing tactical strategy or working on their skills. As a result, Brazilian league matches are often turgid events, littered with fouls and misplaced passes, with results usually decided by goals from set-piece situations.

The spectacle is disappearing, fans are put off by the lack of quality and scandalous ticket prices, pitches are ravaged due to not having sufficient time to recover and even with the golden opportunity of having the World Cup in their back yard last year, the popularity of the Brazilian domestic game has not increased overseas. For those of us left behind, the devoted fans, regardless of how tedious the league may be, all that remains is the hope of a brighter future.

Things move quickly in Brazilian football. One week away from the game and you are likely to miss a manager losing his job, a high-profile falling out, a headline transfer move and the birth of a new craque. During the off-season, this is intensified, with clubs trying to pack months’ worth of rebuilding into the space of a few weeks.

Brazil’s anticlimactic state championships all but destroy the magical pre-season anticipation found in other leagues around the world, but with so many changes and question marks, there is still plenty to fill the pages of Brazilian sport pull-outs in the month of January.

Over the next few weeks, I shall be posting a series of blogs looking forward to the Brazilian football in 2015, focusing on several big clubs and the questions surrounding them going into this new season, beginning with a trip to the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais.

For the last two years, Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, Minas’ big two from the state capital of Belo Horizonte, have ruled the roost in domestic Brazilian football. The former, with their iconic ocean blue shirts, have won the national championship two years in a row and should be the favourites to clinch a third successive title in 2015, a feat only achieved once previously, by Muricy Ramalho’s São Paulo side of 2006-2008.

Cruzeiro’s secret has been in their stability, which has in turn bred consistency. For the last decade, while under the presidency of the “Perrela brothers”, the club had a reputation for being mismanaged, with woeful transfer policy and rumours of shady behind-the-scenes activities. When Zezé Perrela (now a Senator for the State of Minas Gerais) left the club in 2011, he did so on the back of a disastrous season in which Cruzeiro avoided relegation by only two points.

His successor, Gilvan Tavares, has managed to successfully transform Cruzeiro into one of the best run clubs in the country. As opposed to the “savage capitalism” approach adopted by the Perrelas, the transfer policy of Tavares’ Cruzeiro is far more intelligent. There is no annual rush to cash in on every remotely talented footballer in the squad as would happen under the previous regime, instead the club look to maintain the spine of their team year on year, only selling when the time (and price) is judged to be right.

Another key factor to their recent success has been coach Marcelo Oliveira. In his time at Cruzeiro he has been able to form an effective tactical system, but far more important has been his ability to manage his squad.

In recent years, Cruzeiro have had one of the deepest rosters in Brazilian football, with several talented options available in key positions, as well as promising youngsters pushing the senior players for places. Generally, the more the merrier when it comes to personnel in Brazil, especially considering the gruelling calendar, but this pressure cooker of egos so often ends up exploding all over the manager’s face. Where Oliveira has succeeded is in keeping his entire squad happy, rotating and substituting at the right time, making sure everyone feels valued.

marcelo-oliveira
Cruzeiro head coach Marcelo Oliveira is hoping to lead his side to a third consecutive national championship in 2015. Photograph: Washington Alves/Vipcomm

In these last few victorious seasons, Cruzeiro have always had some form of rebuilding to do, but thanks to being able to hold on to most of their first team year on year, it has been minimal. This off-season, however, could be the exception. Marcelo Moreno, their long-haired Bolivian goal-getter, has left Cruzeiro after a season-long loan, returning to parent club Grêmio. In an attempt to replace him, the club has moved for Santos’ Leandro Damião, generally regarded as one of the biggest flops in Brazilian football in 2015.

There is no doubt that Cruzeiro is a better fit for Damião than Santos – the champions focus a lot of their attacks on high balls into the penalty area, where the 17-times capped striker excels – but Cruzeiro’s system requires their No 9 to be a lot more than just an aerial threat. The reason Marcelo Moreno was so successful at Cruzeiro was his off-the-ball movement, creating space for the attacking midfield trio to infiltrate the area and score goals. Leandro Damião is far more cumbersome than the Bolivian, and may struggle to fulfil the role asked of him.

Elsewhere, last year’s star player Ricardo Goulart seems set to sign for Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande, reliable left-back Egídio is on his way to Ukraine to play for Dnipro, while talented midfielder Lucas Silva is likely to join Real Madrid at some point during Europe’s winter transfer window. Cruzeiro have recruited Chilean midfielder Felipe Seymour to fill Silva’s shoes, and although it will be interesting to see how he gets on in Brazil, it certainly feels like the Foxes will go into 2015 with a considerably weaker side than in previous years.

While Cruzeiro have been the gold standard in consistency, the best side over the course of a 38-game season, their city rivals Atlético Mineiro have proved themselves to be the knockout specialists. When the stakes are high and the chips are down, there are few teams capable of getting past Atlético, including Cruzeiro.

After going through a transformation not too dissimilar to Cruzeiro’s in 2011 (albeit with the same president, the outspoken Alexandre Kalil), Atlético managed to build a team that dazzled spectators, led by attacking coach Cuca and his number 10: Ronaldinho Gaúcho. In a campaign that had several last-minute winners, incredulous comebacks and saved penalties, Atlético were crowned the best in South America after winning the 2013 Copa Libertadores, the first time the club had lifted the continent’s grand prize. Even with the odds stacked against them, Atlético always pulled through, playing an extremely fast tempo brand of football which constantly forced their opponents into making mistakes and became known as estilo galo doido, or “crazy rooster style”, a play on the club’s nickname, Galo.

Earlier last year, however, many thought the Galo bubble had burst. They had embarrassed themselves at the 2013 Club World Cup, not reaching the anticipated final against Bayern Munich and losing to Raja Casablanca in the semi-finals; coach Cuca had gone to China; nippy winger Bernard was sold to Shakhtar Donetsk; Ronaldinho was playing poorly and on his way out and new coach Levir Culpi seemed unable to control his squad.

The 2014 Copa do Brasil dispelled those doubts and marked the return of the galo doido. Curly-haired Luan took Bernard’s old role on the flank, Argentine midfielder Jesús Dátolo, who had gotten off to a slow start to his Atlético career the previous year, became a critical part of the team, scoring seven goals and laying on 20 assists in all competitions, while Diego Tardelli seemed to be playing in five positions at once in attack, capping a superb return to form with a call-up to the Brazilian national team. The dramatic turnarounds returned, and Atlético marched on to the Copa do Brasil title, playing their rivals Cruzeiro off the park in the two-legged final.

This January the doubts have returned, all revolving around one issue: Diego Tardelli, will he stay, or will he go? The forward seems set on securing a transfer to Chinese football, the announcement of which could happen any day now. If he is to leave, Atlético will soon reach the harsh conclusion that he is irreplaceable. That is not to say that Galo are destined to fall short of expectations without Tardelli, however his departure would force a style change at the club, as there is no-one available on the market that would be capable of performing his function.

Striker Lucas Pratto has arrived from Argentinian club Vélez Sarsfield, where he has been elected player of the year for the past two seasons, but he offers the team a different threat, more physical and able to lead the line, with a touch of flair and creativity thrown in. If Tardelli stays, they could form a very formidable partnership; if he leaves, Culpi’s reshuffle will no doubt be designed around his new Argentinian striker.

Next time, Palmeiras and São Paulo: a dispute that goes back more than 70 years resurfaces – football loses.

Cover image: Bruno Cantini / Atlético-MG

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

Breaking records

Atlético-MG overcame all variety of records, statistics and tabus to clinch their first ever Copa Libertadores trophy last night in Belo Horizonte. Not since 1996 has the team with the best record in the group stage gone on to win the tournament. Not since 2002 has a team lost in the first leg and went on to win the tournament. Not since 1989 has a team overcame a deficit of two goals in the final. Not since 1975 has one nation provided four consecutive Copa Libertadores champions.

In the end, they deserved their win. Though Galo had a poor first half, constantly launching aimless high balls against Olimpia’s solid defensive unit, everything changed when they opened the scoring early in the second half. The goal gave them the confidence to shift into Galo doido mode – pressing their opponents high up the field, throwing players forward – as opposed to the apathetic, nervous showing in the opening 45.

The goal came from a cross from the right side by Rosinei, who had just been brought on by Cuca. Football commentators and analysts often give far too much importance to coaching decisions made throughout the game, as if the coach is the sole person responsible for winning or losing a match, but in Atlético’s two recent home legs Cuca has made substitutions that have almost instantly resulted in goals. Coincidence? Maybe.

The most crucial impact of the first goal was how it improved the performance of the goalscorer, Jô. With his confidence increased, Jô was back to the player we saw in the group stage and early knockout phase, competing for every ball, winning every knock down and posing a constant threat to the Olimpia defence.

The Paraguayans went down to ten men after Manzur was sent off, and Atlético began to feed more and more high balls into the penalty box. It isn’t the most efficient of tactics, but with great aerial presence they always threatened to score. With minutes left on the clock, an excellent looping header from Leonardo Silva eventually dropped in at the far post.

Again, Atlético’s fate was decided from the penalty spot and some excellent penalties won them the match.

It could have been so different though. Had Rosinei not delivered the cross that (only after being fluffed by Wilson Pittoni) fell for Jô to score, had Juan Ferreyra not slipped and fell when facing an open goal, had Leonardo Silva’s header came back off the post instead of creeping into the net, had the referee allowed Miranda to retake his missed opening penalty after Victor encroached a good three yards off his line, perhaps there would be a different name on the trophy. Or maybe Atlético would have won regardless, but in different circumstances. Football is full of fine lines, which makes proper, coherent analysis a tricky job.

Meanwhile, at the Morumbi, São Paulo are breaking records of their own after a 1-0 loss to Internacional. They have now gone eleven matches without winning, losing their last eight in a row for the first time in their history. New coach Paulo Autuori has lost all of his first four matches in charge, another record for the São Paulo history books.

Earlier this month, I discussed São Paulo’s problems in more detail.

Juvenal Juvêncio is running a dictatorship at São Paulo FC. They are one of the few clubs in Brazil not to hold direct elections for the role of president (something Juvêncio himself got rid of to hold on to power). The club’s largest supporters group, the Torcida Independente, is essentially hired muscle for Juvêncio, and in the past few weeks there members have been going around the stadium removing banners criticising the president, and starting chants against Juvêncio’s political “opponent” Marco Aurélio Cunha.

Do the common supporters of São Paulo need to rise up and stage a “coup du club”?

Learn from your mistakes

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Cuca failed in his approach to Atlético-MG’s semi-final first leg away to Newell’s Old Boys. He instructed his team to play deeper than usual, abandoning their usual attacking style and shape in an attempt to stymie their opponent’s effectiveness. Their attempt failed and Atlético lost 2-0.

Excellent coaches learn from their mistakes. Cuca is not yet an excellent coach.

In last night’s first leg in Asunción, once again Atlético forsook their usual game-plan to try and hinder their opponents, and once again they lost 2-0.

Their downfall last night against Olimpia was in their insistence on man marking. Cuca’s Atlético always mark their opponents individually, which is often frowned upon at the top level but can be effective when one team has a clear technical advantage.

So far in this year’s Copa Libertadores, Atlético have faced teams that play variants of 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, which suit Atlético’s marking style. The full-backs deal with the wide midfielders or attackers and vice-versa, while the central players each have an opponent to watch over. However, against Olimpia’s staggered 3-4-1-2 shape, Atlético ran into some problems.

olimpia galo

Without a full-back to play against, Cuca moved speedy winger Luan into a central role to cover Olimpia’s Wilson Pittoni, which changed Atlético´s overall shape into a rough 4-4-2 diamond. Left-back Richarlyson was assigned to mark Alejandro Silva, who despite originating in a wide position, constantly cut inside and took Richarlyson with him.

On the other flank, Atlético’s Marcos Rocha was given a huge job, marking Olimpia wing-back Nelson Benítez whilst also being on hand to cover the runs of Matías Giménez and Fredy Bareiro whenever they broke past their markers. As a result, Marcos Rocha rarely crossed the half-way line.

As if being forced to play an entirely different wasn’t enough, Atlético’s man-marking also resulted in Olimpia’s first goal. In the build-up, Alejandro Silva comes deep away from his marker and receives the ball close to Luan, who tries to retrieve possession from him. Instead of covering Luan, Richarlyson moves infield to mark Pittoni, who Luan has abandoned, opening space for Silva to run into. Diego Tardelli tries to close him down, but realising he is leaving his own man in space he hesitates to make a tackle. Réver, the only “spare man” in Atlético’s system, is then slow to get to Silva, allowing the Olimpia midfielder to score.

If that was difficult to follow, this video may help:

Persisting with a man marking system and abandoning their usual style of play was a mistake by Cuca, but the popular media will probably focus more on another one of his decisions last night: substituting Ronaldinho after 65 minutes.

Cuca was completely right to take off Ronaldinho. Thanks to a wonderful marking job by Eduardo Aranda (like Newell’s Diego Mateo in the semi-final), Gaúcho barely saw the ball. After his departure, Atlético started to create more and although they eventually conceded a second goal, they improved significantly.

Once again, Atlético will have to do it the hard way and come back from 2-0 down if they want to win their first Copa Libertadores trophy. They will be without Marcos Rocha after he picked up a third yellow card, and as the match will be played at the Mineirão, they will not be able to count on the “Independência” factor.

Coming back from this result will be a much tougher test than the semi-final. But that’s not to say it is impossible.

É Galo na final

Apologies for not updating the blog yesterday, with the unprecedented amount of stoppages and a penalty shootout to boot, Wednesday evening’s semi-final sapped me of all energy. After the final whistle, when I would usually be writing, I was sleeping off a heavy Copa Libertadores comedown. For those who can read Portuguese, I recommend Idelber Avelar’s wonderful account over at Impedimento.

In the end, Atlético-MG overcame the odds and a two-goal deficit to eliminate Newell’s Old Boys on penalties in one of the most gripping and tense football matches in recent memory.

Whoever said that ‘penalty shootouts are a lottery’ has no idea what they are talking about. Hours of study and practice go into penalty kicks, while the mental strength and emotional state of the takers also plays a huge part. There is nothing random about it. Atlético goalkeeper Víctor made another penalty save at a crucial moment, and if Galo do go on and win the trophy, he will rightly be remembered as the hero.

Image: UOL

Spare a thought for Newell’s however, who were unlucky not to go through. The Argentinians were superior throughout the first leg, and they were the better team in the second half on Wednesday, at least until the power failure. Head coach Gerardo Martino now leaves the club after two good years in charge, saying he will take an “indefinite rest”. He deserves it.

Coming at such a critical moment in the tie (with 15 minutes remaining in the second half of the second leg) the floodlight failure could have helped or hindered either of the two sides. In the end, it helped Atlético.

With his team struggling to create any chances against a very well-organised Newell’s defence, Atlético coach Cuca used the pause to alter their offensive tactics. He ordered right-back Marcos Rocha to push forward more (he barely crossed the half-way line over the two legs, due to the threat of Newell’s left-winger Maxi Rodríguez) and brought on unpopular forwards Guilherme and Alecsandro in place of fan favourites Diego Tardelli and Bernard.

It’s impossible to know exactly how decisive his changes were (even though Guilherme scored the vital second goal), but Cuca has to be commended for taking the risk.

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Conmebol has announced that the second leg of the final will be played at the Mineirão, instead of the Estádio Independência, Atlético’s current stadium of choice. This is due to the competition’s rule that the final must be played at a venue with a capacity of over 40,000 people. The Independência holds just over 23,000.

The rule is clear, but Conmebol also announced that the first leg will be played in the Estadio Defensores del Chaco, which holds only 36,000. With any luck, both teams will be allowed to play their respective home legs at their preferred stadiums, and Conmebol can do away with this pointless regulation. However, this is Conmebol we are talking about…

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With Wednesday’s 2-1 loss against Bahia, São Paulo completed a run of four consecutive defeats at the Estádio Morumbi – for the first time in their 77 year history. But I thought that the problem was meant to be Ney Franco?

With Muricy unavailable due to his high salary demands, club president Juvenal Juvêncio has brought back another former coach in Paulo Autuori. While the old man at the end of the corridor remains in control, it is difficult to see how things can change.