Sinful Sundays

Sundays are sacred in Brazil. For a population that works long hours, often Monday to Saturday, the 24 hours’ rest at the end of each week is inviolable.

A typical domingo could include a little lie-in, followed by a walk in the park and a stodgy-yet-comforting macarronada for lunch. There are often visits from family and, weather permitting, an impromptu barbecue-cum-samba is not unheard of. However the main event of the day, the one around which all other activities are scheduled, is the afternoon football.

4pm (5pm during Daylight Savings) on a Sunday is the Brazilian version of 3pm on a Saturday. But thankfully, unlike in the UK, Brazilian television networks honour the tradition and schedule the weekend’s prime fixtures for Sunday afternoon, showing the most attractive (in terms of viewing figures) to the whole country on terrestrial television.

I don’t necessarily watch the match selected for public television (being in São Paulo, it’s almost always Corinthians), but I can’t recall the last Sunday in which I wasn’t parked in front of a screen between four and six.

Many of my serenest and most satisfying moments in this country have been on Sundays, whether that be lounging on a beach, sitting outside a boteco watching the world go by or relaxing after a particularly good churrasco. However, these Sundays all incorporated the 4 o’clock kick-off.

That’s why, when the Sunday afternoon match is dull, it’s a bummer.

Yesterday’s game between São Paulo and Santos was one of these such occasions: a meeting between two sides who seemed determined to display every negative trait of Brazilian football from the past decade, made all the more unholy by the sacrosanct time at which it kicked off.

It was a match devoid of intelligence or strategy, as twenty-two players played out 90 minutes of aimless punts, fouls, set-pieces, sprints, dives and failed dribbles, apparently unaware that they were part of two 11-man teams. The final score was irrelevant (0-0, if you must know). It felt like a different sport, not the creative, spontaneous game of football, but something more rehearsed, overly individual and technical. Volleyball comes to mind.

Santos started better, consciously closing their opponents down high up the field, but when they managed to reclaim possession they had nothing to offer.

It was fitting then, that the biggest story of the match wasn’t happening on the field, but on the São Paulo bench, where creative midfielder (and ex-Santos hero) Paulo Henrique Ganso was sat, dropped from the first eleven.

São Paulo boss Muricy Ramalho justified his decision to drop Ganso, stating that he wanted a quicker attacking unit, one capable of exploiting space behind the Santos defence. A perfectly defensible stance, considering that Ganso is often so lethargic he makes Treebeard look hyperactive. However what they gained in pace, they lost in creativity.

With Luis Fabiano playing in front of an attacking midfield trio of Osvaldo, Dorlán Pabón and Douglas, and with Álvaro Pereira overlapping on the left flank, they weren’t short of attacking options, but they were short of someone to link them together. Without a midfield organiser to offer a constant passing option and vary their focus of attack, their forward quintet was like five delicious, freshly-sourced ingredients, without a chef to make them into a meal.

It’s hard to disagree with Muricy’s decision here though, as Ganso has been anonymous since the end of last season. The story of the playmaker, who at the age of twenty was (ridiculously) called the “best player in the world in his position”, seems to have unravelled completely.

Ganso came through at Santos at the same time as Neymar, and the two formed the spine of an excellent side that won the Copa Libertadores in 2011, managed by one Muricy Ramalho. In the early days, Ganso was considered the better player of the pair, possibly due to his position as an old-fashioned cerebral number 10, the like of which Brazil hadn’t produced in years. However while Neymar exploded, revealing his limitless potential and taking the world by storm, Ganso struggled with injuries and failed to develop key aspects of his game.

Neymar was handed a mammoth contract by Santos, while Ganso (who had been told for years that he was just as good, if not better, than his team-mate) was ignored. Jealousy appeared to creep in and Ganso was locked in bitter contract disputes with the club, not helped by the fractious relationship between former Santos president Luis Álvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro and DIS, the investment group that own a large part of the playmaker’s image rights.

Perennially injured or squabbling with the board, the Santos fans soon turned on him and in September 2012, Ganso migrated inland to nest at São Paulo FC in the most expensive transfer between two Brazilian clubs in history.

Despite feeling valued at his new club, the midfielder’s form never recovered. He has shown flashes of his former brilliance, but it never takes long before the dejected, absent, uninterested Paulo Henrique Ganso shows up again. Even Muricy Ramalho, the coach that believed in him unconditionally, has started to drop him.

Now it could be time for us to adjust our expectations of Ganso. The limitless promise of his early years is unlikely ever to be delivered, while the chances of a big European move seem remote. He is, however, a unique player with a distinct style that is best suited to South American football, where spaces are bigger and tempo is lower.

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Muricy and the Ganso question

Two months ago, on the eve of Ney Franco’s dismissal from São Paulo, I floated the theory that Muricy Ramalho would soon return to the club after four years away. And I wasn’t the only one.

It soon emerged that a return for Muricy would be too costly for the São Paulo board at that moment and another former coach, Paulo Autuori, was called in to fill the vacancy instead. Three wins in 17 matches later, Autuori was sacked and with desperation kicking in, Muricy was brought back.

With São Paulo entrenched in a relegation fight, Muricy has nothing to lose upon returning to the Morumbi. If he manages to steer them to safety, he will be the hero; if they eventually suffer relegation, he will argue that the damage was done before his arrival.

The 1-0 win in his first match in charge, at home to Ponte Preta, proves very little. Ponte Preta did not pose much of a threat to São Paulo, and footballers often give above-average performances under a new coach in an attempt to impress and consolidate their place in the team. São Paulo has a difficult month of fixtures ahead and once the “Muricy novelty” wears off, it will be interesting to see where they stand come October.

São Paulo has long been recognised as having one of the best squads in Brazil, an invention with which I struggle to agree. They do have some supremely talented players, like Luis Fabiano and Ganso, and several with great work-rate and fitness, but few are well-rounded or complete. In fact, I regard Jadson as being the only complete player in São Paulo’s squad, someone who has talent, technique, ability and creativity.

Besides Jadson, the São Paulo squad is bursting with creative players who can’t mark, quick wingers with no creativity and hard-workers with no ability. Even more worrying is that Jadson’s role in the squad is being marginalised and he is played out of position (or left on the bench) in order to make space for Paulo Henrique Ganso.

Ney Franco and Paulo Autuori struggled with the Ganso question and their inability to find a suitable solution ultimately contributed to their downfall. When the club’s backroom staff brought the playmaker to the Morumbi for R$ 24 million in 2012, São Paulo already had Jadson playing in Ganso’s position and on magnificent form. Due to the exceptional amount of money spent on the transfer, there was huge pressure placed on the head coach to select him and get him playing well. However, one year into his São Paulo career, Ganso has yet to look comfortable in the tricolor shirt.

Not long before he was given his marching orders, Paulo Autuori uncovered a potential solution to the Ganso question. Two weeks ago, with Luis Fabiano suspended for an away match against Botafogo, Autuori set up São Paulo in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Ganso as a false nine. With Jadson and Lucas Evangelista marking the opposition full-backs and Osvaldo making bursting runs from attacking midfield, Ganso was allowed the freedom to focus on his own game, staying in advanced positions and organising São Paulo’s attacking moves.

spfc-bota

The match finished 0-0, but it was one of São Paulo’s most convincing performances of the season and they successfully neutralised an excellent Botafogo team.

Unfortunately, this was the one and only time São Paulo has played that way, as Luis Fabiano returned from suspension for the following match and went back to his role as centre-forward. Luis Fabiano is a poacher who, like Ganso, contributes nothing to defensive phases. When they play together, the rest of the team is left with much more work to do and they are easily overrun in midfield.

That is not to say that they cannot play together, but when a team plays with these talented “luxury” players, these players need to make up for their lack of defensive work by scoring goals or providing assists.

Brazil is full of good examples of this type of attacker, such as D’Alessandro at Internacional, Douglas at Corinthians, Valdivia at Palmeiras and Alex at Coritiba. Neither of them make much of a contribution to their team’s defensive play, but all of them consistently create goals.

Paulo Autuori’s last match in charge, a 2-0 away defeat to Coritiba, highlighted this perfectly. On one side there was Luis Fabiano and Ganso; on the other, Alex.

Luis Fabiano and Ganso were easily marked and made next to no impact on the match. Alex organised his entire team, created several chances and scored both of Coritiba’s goals. He didn’t mark, he didn’t need to.

Against Ponte Preta on Thursday evening, Ganso played a good through ball for Luis Fabiano to score the only goal of the match, justifying their selection.

Returning to their roots

In last season’s Brasileirão, Santos became completely reliant upon the presence of Neymar. With him on the field, their form was that of a top three team; without him, their form was worse than that of Sport Recife, who ended the season in 17th place and relegated.

Less than two months ago, when Neymar sealed his transfer to Barcelona and head coach Muricy Ramalho was fired, Santos fans started to fear for their first division status.

Since then however, they have not reverted to the woeful Neymar-less side of last year, in fact they have shown considerable signs of improvement. Last night’s 4-1 spanking of Portuguesa was Santos’ third consecutive league win, and they currently find themselves in 5th position in the table.

Put simply, they have gone back to their roots. Santos has always been famous for producing their own talent, or as it is known in Brazil: “revealing players”. The all-conquering Santos of the early 60s with Pelé, Pepe and Coutinho leading the line; the 1978 side with Pita, Juary and João Paulo; the championship-winning team of 2002 inspired by Robinho and Diego, then just teenagers; the 2011 Copa Libertadores winners with Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso.

 

Claudinei's new 4-2-3-1
Claudinei’s new 4-2-3-1

After Muricy’s dismissal, Santos appointed under 20s coach Claudinei Oliveira as his temporary replacement. In January of this year, Claudinei’s youth team won the Copa São Paulo, Brazil’s most prestigious junior tournament, and since taking the reins of the first team he has looked to promote as many of that U-20 squad as possible.

The most prominent examples have been attacking midfielders Neílton and Leandrinho, who have gone straight into the first eleven on either side of playmaker Walter Montillo in Claudinei’s new-look 4-2-3-1 system. Leandrinho is busy and technical with good dribbling skills, while Neílton is quicker and provides a deep threat down the wing and cutting in from the left.

Also gaining space are centre-forward Giva, who came off the bench to score the opening goal in last week’s clássico victory against São Paulo, and tall centre-back Gustavo Henrique, who could well be the lubricant for Santos’ creaking back door.

Although these players seem to have taken many by surprise, Santos’ general improvement on the pitch makes a lot of sense. Muricy Ramalho’s Santos played a negative style that was completely geared towards Neymar and his individual talents. When Neymar was unavailable, no-one knew where to pass the ball and they seemed devoid of ideas. With Claudinei Oliveira and the promotion of his young squad, Santos have a fresh approach and a new style, one which is attacking and attractive. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing this exciting new generation develop.

You can’t repeat the past

At the time of writing, Ney Franco is still the head coach of São Paulo. By the time you read this, he will most likely have been dismissed. In his time at the club (one year to the day) São Paulo has neither worsened nor improved. In fact, the club has been stuck in the mud since 2009, since the sacking of Muricy Ramalho.

In four years at São Paulo, Muricy transformed the club into a winning machine, racking up three consecutive national championship titles, making them the first club to achieve such a feat since Pelé’s Santos in the 1960s. However after a poor state championship campaign in 2009, club president Juvenal Juvêncio gave him his jotters – but more about him later.

Since 2009, São Paulo has been through six different head coaches. Ricardo Gomes, Sérgio Baresi, Paulo César Carpegiani, Adílson Batista, Emerson Leão and now Ney Franco. The club has just one trophy to show for the last four years: the 2012 Copa Sul-Americana, won under the command of Ney Franco.

Each of their six former head coaches has a different style of working. The squad has undergone continuous changes, too. The only constant at the club is the old man at the end of the corridor: president Juvenal Juvêncio.

If there was any doubt about who makes the decisions at São Paulo, then this week’s news of the sale of right-back Paulo Miranda to Olympique Marseille and the arrival of Boca Juniors left-back Clemente Rodríguez should clarify the distribution of power. Both signings have been made while Ney Franco is about to lose his job, with no replacement in line to take over.

In May, the day after São Paulo was eliminated from the Copa Libertadores by Atlético-MG, Juvenal marched into the club’s training ground and presented a list of seven first-team players he decided would no longer play for the club and would be sold immediately.

Paulo Henrique Ganso, signed from Santos months after Ney Franco took the job, was brought by Juvenal and his cronies. It is suspected that Ney Franco was not keen on the transfer, and a struggle to shoehorn Ganso into São Paulo’s line-up has become a stick for which to beat the departing coach.

Juvenal’s authoritarian regime is what is holding São Paulo back. The club has invested millions in their infrastructure, training and medical facilities and the playing squad itself, but it will be for nothing unless proper political change happens within the Morumbi.

It is likely that Muricy Ramalho will return to São Paulo to fill Ney Franco’s vacancy. As an idol of the fans, he would be given more time and patience to try to turn things around. However, when the group disintegrates in Juvenal’s hands once again, Muricy will not be spared.

This week, I went to the cinema to watch Baz Luhrmann’s remake of “The Great Gatsby”. I am reminded of the novel’s famous line in which Nick tells Gatsby that he cannot repeat the past. I picture Juvenal Juvêncio today, sitting on the balcony of his luxury home overlooking the Marginal Pinheiros (a far less glamorous, smellier version of Manhasset Bay) and hearing one of his advisers utter those same words.

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

And with that, São Paulo beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Game of the Week: Santos 2×0 Vasco

Upon choosing which game to feature in this Game of the Week section, I am more often than not left with a tricky decision. Each week I intend to cover the most ‘significant’ match, but with so many exciting games going on, naturally some decent candidates get ignored. What I prefer to do with these weekly articles is to cover a particular team(s)’s system, and to do so in a match which showcases the qualities and/or flaws of said system. The best examples of that are from October 15th when I covered Atlético Goianiense in their demolition of São Paulo, and just last week when I took a close look at Grêmio in their 4×2 victory over Flamengo. Following on in that style this week, I decided to study Santos’ home win against Vasco, and to delve in to the inner tactical workings of the 2011 Copa Libertadores champions. Continue reading Game of the Week: Santos 2×0 Vasco

Honours even in disappointing clássico

Santos and Corinthians faced off in the Vila Belmiro last night, and as this blog erroneously predicted, we were anticipating a fantastic game. In truth, what we got was the absolute opposite. With both sides missing some of their top players, we had a match that was almost completely bereft of attacking quality.

The home side were without their eminent talents Ganso and Neymar, and Corinthians had to cope with the absences of Liédson and winger Jorge Henrique. Santos coach Muricy Ramalho set up his side in rather naïve fashion, believing that with Elano as the main playmaker and Diogo attempting to emulate Neymar’s second striker role, they could supply the same creativity and threat. Their opponents however, realised that they had a weakened squad, and consciously played a more contained, defensive match. Continue reading Honours even in disappointing clássico