A year to remember?

Rigorous restructuring and zealous transfer policy put Palmeiras in good shape for 2015 after centenary disaster


This is the second piece in a series of previews of the forthcoming Brazilian football season. The first in the sequence, focusing on chronic calendar problems and the fortunes of the two big Minas Gerais clubs, Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here.

Last season, I dedicated an above-average amount of space on this blog to discussing Palmeiras. Justifiably so, as their political meltdown and anencephalic management has been one of modern Brazilian football’s major tragedies. Once regarded among the biggest and toughest clubs in the country, two relegations in the space of a decade and perennial battles against the drop have, for the time being, wounded Palmeiras’ reputation. Were they to be involved in another survival scrap in 2015, the club’s stature could suffer irreparable damage.

Early signs for this year, however, are promising. Firstly (and crucially), after the annus horribilis of 2014 where Palmeiras ricocheted head-first from one disaster to another and very nearly found themselves relegated amid muted centennial celebrations, club president Paulo Nobre has recognised that major changes must be made. This may not sound like an earth-shattering revelation, but is a welcoming change from previous regimes who have played down such disasters, such as that of Mustafá Contursi who, after Palmeiras were relegated in 2002, stated that football would become “third priority” at the club, promising to instead focus on improving facilities at their exclusive social club in the leafy, upmarket neighbourhood of Perdizes in São Paulo’s expanded centre. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, which Nobre, with his zealous attitude towards restructuring Palmeiras’ department of football, appears to have done.

Before dealing with the playing squad, the first changes made at Palmeiras for 2015 came off the pitch. Head coach Dorival Junior, director of football José Carlos Brunoro and his right-hand man Omar Feitosa were all dismissed, with Oswaldo de Oliveira, Alexandre Mattos and Cícero Souza brought in as their respective replacements. Oddly enough, it was Mattos, Palmeiras’ new director of football, whose appointment grabbed the most headlines.

The excitement around Alexandre Mattos – not a 20 goal-a-season centre-forward capped by the Brazilian national team but an executive with an MBA in Sports Management – stems from the fact he was Cruzeiro’s director of football during their two consecutive national championship-winning seasons. The off-the-pitch administration of the Belo Horizonte club, as I discussed earlier this week, is widely regarded to have been a crucial part in their success, and Mattos was responsible for the majority of Cruzeiro’s intelligent transfer dealings over the last three years.

Upon arrival, Mattos received the full VIP treatment. He was unveiled at the club’s training ground, handed a replica shirt and gave a press conference which was packed to the rafters with journalists. The entire affair is worrying for the future of the Brazilian game, where a director of football is treated as a marquee transfer. Mattos will undoubtedly help things run smoother at Palmeiras, while his intelligence, work ethic and connections should allow them to build a stronger playing squad. The supporters should not get carried away, however. Directors don’t win football matches.

The new coach, Oswaldo de Oliveira, appears to be a smart appointment but, like his director of football, he cannot be expected to transform the club’s fortunes on his own. Oswaldo has been around the block in Brazilian football, with his move to Palmeiras making him the first coach in history to coach all eight major clubs from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. More importantly, he has evolved over the course of his coaching career, particularly in his four years spent in Japanese football with Kashima Antlers, where he won every trophy available to him. His strategic nous and man management abilities will be important if Palmeiras are to have a good year in 2015.

After cleaning up behind-the-scenes, Nobre, Mattos & co. could turn their attentions to the playing squad. The clear-out of deadwood, promised for years at the club, appears to have finally happened. Twenty-one players have been let go or told under no uncertain terms that they should look for another club, while several others should also leave Palmeiras before the start of the national championship in May.

Oswaldo de Oliveira has made it clear to the Palmeiras directors that he would like to work with a squad of 34: four goalkeepers and three players for each position in his preferred 4-2-3-1 tactical system, preferably with the third-string option being from the youth system. Consequently, the club have wasted no time in signing several players for the new season. At the time of writing, 15 incoming transfers have been announced in the last eight days.

New head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira's primary objective will be to restore self-confidence at Palmeiras. Photograph: Fabio Menotti/Ag Palmeiras/Divulgação
New head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira’s primary objective will be to restore self-confidence at Palmeiras. Photograph: Fabio Menotti/Ag Palmeiras/Divulgação

After Palmeiras confirmed the arrival of four new recruits this Monday alone, leading sports news portal Globoesporte.com ran a sarcastic headline the following day, registering their shock that the club had “not announced any new signings in over 12 hours”, before reporting that Alan Patrick of Shakhtar Donetsk had joined on a one-year deal.

However, while old regimes at Palmeiras have adopted a cheap and cheerful approach to the transfer market, recruitment for 2015 has been primarily concerned with quality and necessity.

Among the new faces are Zé Roberto (of Bayern Munich fame), Coritiba playmaker Robinho, explosive Porto forward Kelvin, Internacional centre-back Jackson and Goiás captain Amaral. Oswaldo de Oliveira has also brought in some of his favourites from his strong Botafogo team of 2013, with right-back Lucas, centre-forward Rafael Marques and promising young defensive midfielder Gabriel all wearing the famous green jersey in 2015.

The club are still hoping to finalise the transfer of Santos’ defensive midfielder Arouca, who has taken his current club to court over months of unpaid wages. Were he to succeed in his legal case, he will be free to sign for Palmeiras, where the number 5 shirt has already been reserved for him.

Perhaps the transfer that created most commotion, however, was that of speedy Dynamo Kiev winger Dudu. The 22-year-old, who spent the 2014 season on loan at Grêmio, became the subject of interest for a number of Brazilian clubs in this preseason. His Ukrainian owners were unwilling to allow Dudu to go out on loan again, instead wanting to cash in on the player. Flamengo and Internacional had offers rejected, before Corinthians appeared to reach an agreement to bring the winger to Itaquera.

Dudu seemed set for Corinthians, in an interview with news portal Terra he spoke as if the deal had already been completed. However, rivals São Paulo hijacked the deal, prompting a drawn-out transfer novela which took up many column inches in Brazil’s sports dailies. It was your classic tug-of-war: one day Dudu was a Corinthians player, the next he was ready to be announced by São Paulo, then Corinthians, São Paulo, Corinthians, São Paulo…

Corinthians, struggling financially, appeared to drop out of the race, leaving Dudu free to sign for their rivals. Final contract discussions were scheduled and the club appeared to finally have their man. Then, out of the blue, on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning, Dudu was announced as having signed not for São Paulo, not for Corinthians, but for Palmeiras.

As it turned out, Alexandre Mattos had been holding surreptitious contact with Dudu’s agents and was able to agree terms to bring the player to Allianz Parque. Reportedly, the winger went into the final contract talks with São Paulo already aware of the agreement made with Palmeiras.

For a club surrounded by rivals and with dangerously low self-esteem, gazumping both Corinthians and São Paulo to sign a player is huge for the ego of many long-suffering Palmeiras supporters. “If anyone didn’t respect Palmeiras before (…), from now on, they will have to,” boasted Mattos.

This transfer saga was the latest in a long line of disputes between Palmeiras and São Paulo, whose deep-seated rivalry dates back to the 1940s, when the latter club attempted to seize Palmeiras’ stadium, claiming they (who had just been forced to change their name from Palestra Italia) were connected to the Axis powers of the Second World War. This perceived betrayal was made all the worse by the fact that a decade earlier, Palmeiras had organised a charity tournament to save a nascent São Paulo from bankruptcy.

The current presidents of both clubs, Paulo Nobre and São Paulo’s Carlos Miguel Aidar, are not on speaking terms and have used their platforms of influence to enact their petty squabbles. This behaviour can only hurt all elements involved: in the case of Dudu, the commotion created by his transfer will increase expectations upon him to insane levels, so much so that it will be almost impossible for the player to adequately live up to the hype surrounding him. In financial terms, Palmeiras are probably overpaying for Dudu (only time will tell) and São Paulo were very nearly drawn into paying the player R$400,000 (around £100,000) per month in wages, at the same time the board are about to announce a deficit of R$71 million for 2014.

The disagreement has no end in sight, as only yesterday São Paulo managed to hijack Palmeiras’ impending transfer for Ponte Preta attacker Jonathan Cafu. Although Nobre’s club are in a healthier financial position, neither can afford to enter into a pissing contest.

Though almost every piece of news coming out of Palmeiras this preseason has been positive, all involved with the club must keep their feet planted firmly on the ground. Palmeiras fans have become conditioned to hoping for the best and expecting the worst, and though they may yet have plenty to celebrate come December with their remarkably competitive squad, it is important to be realistic and recognise the club’s sole objective in 2015 is not to win trophies or qualify for the Copa Libertadores, but to win back their self-respect and avoid being involved in another relegation fight.

Next time, Santos in trouble: coastal club set to take Palmeiras’ place in the danger zone amid financial chaos.

Cover image: Fernando Dantas / Gazeta Press

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Time will tell

On Sunday evening, this year’s Brazilian championship reaches its half-way stage. Cruzeiro currently lead the way with 37 points, four clear of their nearest rivals. Regardless of their result against Flamengo this weekend, the Minas Gerais side has already won the symbolic title of “campeão do primeiro turno”, or first term champions.

Although there is no trophy or financial reward for being on top of the league after 19 matches, in Brazil, the “winner” of the first term usually ends up holding on to their place come the 38th round. In fact, in the last ten editions of the Brasileirão, seven of the first term champions have gone on to win the trophy.

It is not by chance that Cruzeiro are in front. They play some of the most attractive football in the country and have one of the most talented squads to back that up. Since Marcelo Oliveira (a forward for Cruzeiro’s bitter rivals Atlético-MG in the 1970s) took charge in January, he has implanted his successful playing style and tactical system: a 4-2-3-1 built on constant movement and quick passing triangles. This approach brought good results during Marcelo’s two years at Coritiba and now with a more talented group of players at his disposal, the Belo Horizonte-born coach is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

One impressive quality of this Cruzeiro team is the vast number of options they have in attack. For the line of three behind the centre-forward, there are nine relevant players able to occupy the three positions. Éverton Ribeiro, Dagoberto, Luan, Martinuccio, Willian, Lucca, Élber, Ricardo Goulart and Júlio Baptista. Their team is missing a craque to organise the play and serve as an attacking reference, like Seedorf at Botafogo or Alex at Coritiba, but by that same token they are not over reliant on one player to make the team tick.

cruz

There have been some defensive troubles, however. Since joining from Vasco, centre-back Dedé has struggled to regain his form and has made several high-profile errors, while his defensive partner Bruno Rodrigo is little more than an average stopper.

The real issues appear to be in midfield, where first-choice pairing Nílton and Souza have only started together in half of Cruzeiro’s matches. When they are at full strength, the team looks solid and rarely concedes, but substitutes Leandro Guerreiro and Lucas Silva are not up to the job, as they demonstrated at home last weekend by allowing Vasco to score three times.

The only other team that looks genuinely equipped to challenge Cruzeiro is current world champions Corinthians. The Timão made a slow start to the national championship, but have now lost only one of their last eleven league matches.

While his starting eleven has been more or less constant for the last two years, Corinthians coach Tite has been varying his tactics a lot this year, trying to find a suitable balance in the wake of bellwether midfielder Paulinho’s departure to Tottenham Hotspur.

Their defensive solidity has remained however, thanks in part to the signing of former Cruzeiro centre-back Gil from French side Valenciennes. Corinthians have the most secure defence in the league by some distance, conceding only eight goals in eighteen matches. The second best defence is that of Santos, who have conceded fourteen goals after playing two fewer games.

Antithetical to the league leaders, Corinthians have been responsible at the back yet shy in front of goal. At times they seem content to stay strong in defence, getting bodies behind the ball, hoping that they can win the match on a stray counterattack or set-piece. This approach has worked for them before, namely in the 2012 Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup final against Chelsea, but when you are inviting pressure and not creating many chances it becomes an ineffective way to play.

Alexandre Pato has yet to live up to the expectation of being the most expensive signing by a Brazilian club, but at the very least Corinthians have got him playing and injury-free, something Milan were never able to do. Pato is a strange case, in that he is regarded as an elite centre-forward without having done anything in his career to properly merit such a status. Fame and his lengthy injuries have contributed to this, making us see something that was never there.

Behind Cruzeiro and Corinthians, there is a small group of outsiders comprising Botafogo, Grêmio and Atlético-PR.

Botafogo started the season extremely well, playing a modern, attractive style of play led by veteran playmaker Clarence Seedorf. The surprise departure of Vitinho leaves them a little sluggish in attack though, they will miss his direct threat.

21 year-old Hyuri made his debut for the club on Thursday night against Coritiba, scoring twice in a 3-1 win. I don’t know much about the player, who joined the club on loan last month from Audax after an impressive state championship campaign, but Botafogo’s knowledgeable coach Oswaldo de Oliveira seems to believe Hyuri has what it takes to fill Vitinho’s absence. Time will tell.

Renato Gaúcho has made a good start to his time at Grêmio, as has Vagner Mancini in charge of Atlético-PR. Both teams are organised and on a good run of form, Grêmio playing a 3-5-2 system that focuses on width and attacking support from their wing-backs, while Atlético have constructed a dangerous attacking unit, with plenty of speed and off-the-ball movement, spurred on by the evergreen Paulo Baier.

Clássicos, part two

Footballers have various ways of dealing with pressure on match day. Some are able to use the increased adrenaline in order to produce higher levels of substances in the brain that enhance performance, like emotional doping. Others succumb to the nerves and often try to hide on the field to avoid making high-profile mistakes.

Pressure can manifest itself in other, more visceral ways. In a derby match, when full of adrenaline, some players commit over-zealous fouls and get themselves into trouble. Violence can spoil a good game of football, and this happens so often with fierce rivalries.

A perfect example of this was yesterday’s clássico between Grêmio and Internacional in Porto Alegre. The first half was exciting, with some interesting tactical battles and good play from either side. Grêmio took the lead from a penalty kick, before Inter equalised through Leandro Damião.

Renato Gaúcho’s Grêmio surprisingly went for a 3-4-1-2 system, bringing in new signing Rhodolfo as a sweeper in the back three. This switch from their usual 4-4-2 was to give more freedom to the wing-backs, who pushed up the field and occupied Internacional’s full-backs, leaving their opponents light and narrow in attack. Deep-lying forward Kléber played an important role, drifting wide and creating 2 on 1 situations on either flank.

 
grenal

With pressure levels turned up to eleven, the second half turned scrappy and play was repeatedly stopped for violent fouls. The referee lost control of the players and red cards soon followed. We were robbed of a suitable ending to what began as an intriguing match.

Some people relish this type of game. However while violence is clearly a source of entertainment for many (you just need to look at the popularity of sports like mixed martial arts and boxing), football doesn’t need it.

Clássicos aren’t all bad, though. Sometimes they get it right.

Vasco x Botafogo was a good example of why derby matches can be so enthralling. Spurred on by the pressure, both teams played with higher intensity while staying within the rules. As a result, we were treated to some excellent Sunday evening entertainment.

Botafogo is currently the best team in the Brasileirão. Head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira has built a wonderful 4-2-3-1 system that revolves around veteran midfielder Clarence Seedorf. They work extremely well as a unit, pressing high and with superb movement in attack.

Seedorf got on the score sheet once again, his 18th goal in 29 appearances for Botafogo. Before moving to Brazil, Seedorf had scored less than 100 goals in a club career that comprised over 700 appearances. This sudden surge of goal scoring form has nothing to do with a gap in quality between the Brazilian league and any of Europe’s finest, it comes as a result of Botafogo’s playing style, which has the Dutchman at the centre of everything.

With Botafogo leading 2-1 at half-time, Oswaldo de Oliveira had a decision to make. Last weekend, leading at the break in another clássico against Flamengo, Oswaldo changed his team’s approach for the second half, bringing off attacking midfielder Vitinho and replacing him with defensive midfielder Renato in an attempt to “administer the game”. All that did was remove Botafogo’s only deep threat and invite Flamengo to attack. Botafogo conceded a late equaliser, and Oswaldo was a victim of the clássico pressure.

Though Brazilian coaches and commentators love to use the phrase, it is extremely difficult to administer a football match. There are so many factors to administer in a game, and attempting to do so is futile and often counter-productive.

Excellent coaches learn from their mistakes, and Oswaldo did just that. Yesterday, instead of trying to administer the game, Oswaldo kept Botafogo in their usual system, which is strong enough to beat any team in Brazil at the moment. They went on to win 3-2, and are deservedly at the top of the league.

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.