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.
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.
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.