The return of the Little Slipper

Palmeiras have made a solid start to this year’s Série B, with yesterday’s win away to Figueirense taking them to four victories in a row. Although leading the league comes as absolutely no surprise for a club of their size and wage budget, in this recent run of good form head coach Gilson Kleina appears to have done something once thought impossible: reinvigorate Jorge Valdivia.

In his first spell at the Verdão between 2006 and 2008, Valdivia became an idol to the Palmeiras fans; since he returned in 2010, he has been nothing but trouble. High wages, absent performances, suspensions and a never-ending series of injuries transformed the playmaker into a target for abuse from the fans, especially during some of Palmeiras’ most abject seasons in recent memory.

After his last injury in mid-March, Palmeiras torcida organizada Mancha Alviverde decided to create a “chinelômetro” (literally “slipper-o-meter” as injury-prone players are mockingly known as “little slippers” in Brazil) in Valdivia’s honour, tracking how many games the Chilean was missing and how much it was costing the club. The page still exists, although it hasn’t been updated since his return to form.

Since that last injury however, Palmeiras have been extremely careful with Valdivia’s recovery in an effort to ensure some return on the millions of reais spent since 2010. The Chilean returned to light training months ago, and while his team-mates were resting during the Confederations Cup in June, Valdivia was training every day.

When the Série B returned in early July, Valdivia went straight into Palmeiras’ starting line-up and was given a standing ovation in a 4-0 demolishing of Oeste. He has looked close to his old self, creating space for his team-mates, picking out near-unthinkable through passes and carrying the creative workload. His winning goal in yesterday’s match (albeit a simple finish into an empty net) drew a line under his return.

It has been interesting to see how Palmeiras have altered their system to accommodate Valdivia’s return. Though he is traditionally a number 10, he has been playing in a role approaching that of a false nine, between two quick wide forwards. When Palmeiras are in possession, he steps back and leaves gaps in the opposing defence to be exploited by forward runs from the wide players, central midfielders or full-backs.

However when Palmeiras lose the ball, it is the wide players who track back to defend, leaving Valdivia as the furthest man forward in a 4-5-1 shape. This could be an effort to conserve the Chilean’s energy by sparing him from any defensive duties, but having being closer to goal allows him to be more decisive.

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Palmeiras started yesterday’s match against Figueirense in that shape, but on a slow, wet surface they were forced to play long, aimless balls out of defence and midfield. Without a proper reference point in attack and minimal space to exploit behind the Figueirense defence, Palmeiras were giving away possession constantly and Valdivia barely got near the ball.

One-nil down at half-time, Gilson Kleina decided to bring on centre-forward Alan Kardec for his debut, and he brought Valdivia back into the midfield three. Kardec’s presence gave Palmeiras someone to aim for up front, meanwhile Valdivia and Wesley stayed close to the forward to receive any knock-downs. The game opened up considerably at that point, and Palmeiras eventually came back to win 3-2.

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Tomorrow evening I will be recording a guest appearance on the Clube Mondo Verde podcast, an excellent internet radio show created by Palmeiras fans, for Palmeiras fans. The other guest on the show will be none other than Gilson Kleina, so if you have any questions you would like me to put to him, leave them in the comments below or on the Facebook page.

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The Lone Star on top of the tree

After six rounds, the Brasileirão table has yet to take shape. Many sides are struggling for form, with only four teams in the top ten winning their matches this weekend (and only one in the top five). However, it comes as no surprise that Oswaldo de Oliveira’s Botafogo are leading the way.

The current Rio de Janeiro state champions possess three qualities fundamental to form a good team. Firstly, they have an effective tactical system; secondly, they have players with the relevant characteristics and qualities to fit into that system; and finally, they have formed a cohesive team unit.

Botafogo defeated Fluminense yesterday in the clássico vovô thanks to superior strategy. Against the current Brazilian champions, Bota were content to position themselves deeper on the pitch, tightly marking Fluminense’s midfield and full-backs and allowing their centre-backs to remain unchallenged, but without any passing options.

For years now, Flu’s game-plan has been dependant on the support they receive from the flanks. Their two full-backs, Carlinhos and Bruno (Mariano, in 2011), are the most attacking in Brazilian football and it is their energy and attacking thrust that has so often tipped the balance in Fluminense’s favour.

On Sunday that supply line was cut, and Fluminense ran out of ideas. Centre-forward Fred confirmed this after the match, suggesting that they played too much of their football through the middle of the field.

Botafogo sealed the 1-0 win with a lovely right-footed strike from Clarence Seedorf, and in the end they were good value for the three points.

Seedorf’s Brazilian adventure is now just over a year old, and in that time he has made such a profound impact on this Botafogo team. When Seedorf first arrived from Milan, head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira was worried that he would not be able to fit him into their system. However, after a bit of trial-and-error, Oswaldo stopped trying to fit Seedorf into the system, and instead adapted the system to fit around Seedorf.

The Dutchman is the number 10 in Botafogo’s 4-2-3-1, but as he pushes forward or drifts wide, the other three attackers instinctively reposition themselves around him, still managing to maintain their attacking shape. This way, Seedorf has more freedom, he is involved more in the match, and the opposition never get the chance to man mark.

At this point, Botafogo is among the strongest and best prepared sides in Brazil, along with Corinthians, Atlético-MG, and at a stretch, Cruzeiro. That is no guarantee that they will form the top four come the end of the season, though. The Brasileirão is a gruelling campaign, with a high volume of games in a short space of time. Often, staying injury free is half the battle.

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In Série B, Palmeiras were impressive in their 4-0 home win against Oeste. The match saw the return from injury of Chilean playmaker Jorge Valdívia, who has been perpetually out of action since returning to the club in 2010. In these past three years, Valdivia has featured in 92 matches for the club, missing 110 through injury or suspension.

On Saturday however, Valdívia was playing with a point to prove. The Chilean was instrumental in all four of Palmeiras’ goals (including a wonderful passing move for goal number three) and was roundly applauded when substituted in the second half.

Palmeiras coach Gilson Kleina altered his team’s system slightly for Valdívia’s return. For most of the match, Palmeiras operated in their usual 4-3-1-2 shape, with Valdívia as the enganche, however when wide forwards Vinícius and Leandro worked back to mark, Valdívia was left as the furthest man forward, in a shape resembling a 4-3-3.

Having Valdívia in the line-up, accounting for the majority of the creative workload, all of Palmeiras’ other attacking players gave better performances, Wesley in particular.

Tactical shift propels Palmeiras to Copa do Brasil glory

Palmeiras are one of Brazil’s most prestigious football clubs, but since the start of the 21st century, they have been sorely starved of success. The end of the last millennium was a different story though, and with the backing of Italian food corporation Parmalat, Palmeiras amassed a wide range of trophies in the 1990’s: two Campeonato Brasileiro wins (1993 & 94), three Campeonato Paulistas (1993, 94 & 96), the Torneio Rio-São Paulo (1993), the Copa do Brasil and Copa Mercosul (both in 1998), and of course, the Copa Libertadores of 1999.

However, at the turn of the century the Parmalat partnership came to an end. The Italians upped sticks and so, it seemed, did Palmeiras’ winning attitude. The Verdão fell on hard times, even suffering relegation in 2001. Years of mediocrity followed, and their only notable honour in the 2000’s was the Campeonato Paulista of 2008.

Now, nearly 20 years on from their momentous Paulistão triumph over rivals Corinthians in 1993, Palmeiras are showing tentative signs of recuperation. Luiz Felipe Scolari (or Felipão as he is known in Brazil), the coach who led Palmeiras to those famous Copa do Brasil and Copa Libertadores triumphs, is back in charge, and despite constant behind-the-scenes power struggles, they are managing to build a competitive squad once again. Wednesday evening’s Copa do Brasil victory was as a testament to that. Continue reading Tactical shift propels Palmeiras to Copa do Brasil glory