It’s just not the same

Sunday’s game between Fluminense and Flamengo was the first time the two rivals have met in the newly renovated Maracanã.

After construction work began on the iconic stadium in 2010, Flamengo and Fluminense resorted to playing their home games at the Engenhão, another government-owned stadium in Rio de Janeiro and the traditional home of fellow carioca club Botafogo.

When the Engenhão was closed in March of this year after failing to meet basic safety standards (how a stadium can be inaugurated in 2007 and closed six years later is beyond me), three of Rio’s big four became homeless.

One of the two most influential cities in Brazilian football, Rio de Janeiro had only one functional football stadium (the Estádio São Januário, owned by Vasco da Gama) and four top-flight clubs.

But with the reopening of the newer, shinier, whiter Maracanã, Rio is once again hosting regular matches.

The Maracanâ, though, seems to have lost its soul.

On television, the Maracanã looks empty during league matches. This impression is slightly misleading, as Maracanã attendances have been some of the highest of the 2013 Brasileirão so far. The reason for the empty stands is that touchline seats are so expensive (the most affordable middle seat would set you back a cool R$ 150), prompting fans to congregate behind the goals in the so-called “cheap seats”.

Whereas in the past, fans would come down from the nearby working-class neighbourhoods of Mangueira and São Cristóvão to pack the infamous geral section hours before kick-off (often paying only R$ 1 for entry, as recent as 2005) and create that iconic Maraca atmosphere, today fans file in minutes before the match starts, struggling to hear themselves think over the state-of-the-art PA system blasting awful pop music.

The atmosphere during the match isn’t terrible though, and as I mentioned, the demand for tickets has been reasonable, albeit coming from a far more middle-class clientele. But it is not the same, and never will be. The old Maracanã has gone forever, the New Maracana Stadium stands in its place.

For more on the new Maracanã, I suggest following, where Christopher Gaffney has been closely following every aspect of the new stadium and others around the country.

Now on to the Fla-Flu.

The 3-2 final score was misleading, as Flamengo were in complete control throughout and could just as easily have won the match four or five-nil.

This was probably Flamengo’s best game since Mano Menezes took charge in June. The former Seleção coach has implemented a new system at the club, pressing high up the field in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Elias and André Santos (formerly of Sporting and Arsenal, respectively) creating play in midfield, and two quick, young wingers stifling the opposing full-backs and providing a goal threat.


As the above diagram shows, when Fluminense (right to left) started their first phase of play from their goalkeeper or centre-backs, Flamengo made sure to tightly mark their midfield and full-backs, virtually forcing Fluminense to hand over possession.

When Flamengo won the ball back, they would attack with wonderful combinations on either flank: Elias, Gabriel and full-back Léo Moura on the right; André Santos, Nixon and João Paulo on the left. Fluminense couldn’t get anywhere near their quick one-twos and overlapping runs.

The roles of André Santos and Elias are interesting, but it is hardly a surprise they are performing well considering who is in charge. Mano Menezes worked with both players at Corinthians between 2008 and 2010, and famously called both up to the national team on a regular basis. Menezes knows both players well, and crucially he knows how to get the best out of them.

André Santos, for example, a failure at full-back for Arsenal, is being played higher up the field and more central. Menezes yesterday quipped that André is “like a BMW going forward, but like a Fusca tracking back”.

In the past few weeks, Fluminense have shown the rest of the league the perfect way to beat them. It is all about stopping their full-backs. With Carlinhos, their main attacking outlet from left-back, booked early on and pinned back straight from kick-off, Fluminense’s offensive unit lost its key supply line. With Fred static at centre-forward, Felipe not sharp enough to break away from his marker and both full-backs kept in their own half, Fluminense were completely useless going forward. Whenever their full-backs did manage to get in their opponent’s half, Flu scored.

Last season, whenever an opponent would close down their full-backs, Fluminense could play aimless long balls and rely on the pace and guile of Wellington Nem to keep the ball in attack. Without him, they could be in real trouble.