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.

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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.

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Clássicos

One of the more frustrating clichés in football is that on derby day, the form book goes out of the window. Derbies are different, but only because of the increased levels of pressure. The way in which the players deal with this pressure often has an impact on the final result, though that applies to any match against any opponent.

When faced with the prospect of playing against their rivals, some professionals are able to build themselves up mentally and use the increased adrenaline to produce higher levels of substances that enhance performance, like a form of emotional doping.

Others can be overwhelmed with nerves and opt instead to hide on the field, afraid of making a mistake. There is a Japanese proverb that says “the stake that sticks up gets hammered down”.

This weekend in Brazil we were treated to three clássicos that did a good job of illustrating exactly why playing your rivals is so important.

On a historic run of eight defeats in a row, São Paulo managed to stop the rot with a 0-0 draw against Corinthians. With confidence at an all-time low and coach Paulo Autuori’s job hanging by a thread (after only four matches in charge), São Paulo’s prime objective was not to concede and therefore, to avoid a ninth consecutive defeat.

Autuori dropped World Cup winner Lúcio from the centre of defence after a series of bad performances and repeated indiscipline. Though it is impossible to doubt Lúcio’s quality, São Paulo looked more secure without him. His absence allowed Rafael Tolói to return to the right centre-back role where he is most comfortable, and it gave their defence more shape and discipline.

São Paulo started the match with three defensive midfielders and though they did have space to attack into (Jádson and Fabrício often had two-on-one situations in the middle against Corinthians midfielder Ralf), they did not seem interested in bringing numbers forward.

Corinthians were in control for most of the match and kept the play in São Paulo’s half, but they didn’t create many clear chances and appeared to believe a goal would come along naturally. Alexandre Pato was once again disappointing coming off the bench, and many in Brazil are now coming to terms with the fact that he will never become the excellent forward they once thought he was.

Corinthians appear to be on auto-pilot mode in the Brasileirão and they have dropped far more points than expected at this early stage. They will most likely focus heavily on winning the Copa do Brasil to ensure a place in the 2014 Copa Libertadores.

It wasn’t another defeat, but São Paulo have now gone twelve matches without a win, and they now embark on a trip to Europe and Asia to play the Audi Cup and Suruga Bank Championship respectively, facing teams like Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Milan and Benfica. That winless streak will probably go on a bit longer.

In Belo Horizonte, Cruzeiro battered Atlético-MG 4-1, only days after watching them lift the Copa Libertadores trophy. Still in the party mind-set, Atlético fielded a largely second-string side, with only Júnior César and Michel remaining from the team that beat Olimpia in midweek.

Often when a squad is as close-knit and successful as Atlético’s, the reserve players are able to step into the first team and perform well, having trained side-by-side with the starters on a daily basis. However, Atlético’s sluggish centre-back partnership of Gilberto Silva and Rafael Marques struggled against a dangerous Cruzeiro team.

Since last season, Cruzeiro have conducted some superb business in the transfer market. Dedé, Nílton, Souza, Éverton Ribeiro and Dagoberto are all top-level Série A players, and their attacking unit has plenty of depth with Luan, Ricardo Goulart and Martinuccio keeping the starters on their toes. The signing of Júlio Baptista could also be decisive, and If they can keep him fit he should do well on his return to Brazil.

At this stage, Cruzeiro is one of the three or four teams who has what it takes to win the Brazilian championship.

The third match, Flamengo versus Botafogo, was a fascinating game in the new Maracanã. However the event raised further questions about the “elitization” of the Brazilian game, about which I would like to go into more detail tomorrow.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to Ecuadorian forward Cristián Benítez, who died today in Qatar, aged just 27. Benítez was a wonderful, intelligent and powerful striker who could lead the line on his own and was a class-act on and off the pitch. Earlier this year I suggested he would be reaching his peak just in time to lead his nation in the World Cup in Brazil next year, so it is hard to fathom that he is now no longer with us. My thoughts go out to his family, friends and team-mates.

Adiós Chucho, you will always be remembered.

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Breaking records

Atlético-MG overcame all variety of records, statistics and tabus to clinch their first ever Copa Libertadores trophy last night in Belo Horizonte. Not since 1996 has the team with the best record in the group stage gone on to win the tournament. Not since 2002 has a team lost in the first leg and went on to win the tournament. Not since 1989 has a team overcame a deficit of two goals in the final. Not since 1975 has one nation provided four consecutive Copa Libertadores champions.

In the end, they deserved their win. Though Galo had a poor first half, constantly launching aimless high balls against Olimpia’s solid defensive unit, everything changed when they opened the scoring early in the second half. The goal gave them the confidence to shift into Galo doido mode – pressing their opponents high up the field, throwing players forward – as opposed to the apathetic, nervous showing in the opening 45.

The goal came from a cross from the right side by Rosinei, who had just been brought on by Cuca. Football commentators and analysts often give far too much importance to coaching decisions made throughout the game, as if the coach is the sole person responsible for winning or losing a match, but in Atlético’s two recent home legs Cuca has made substitutions that have almost instantly resulted in goals. Coincidence? Maybe.

The most crucial impact of the first goal was how it improved the performance of the goalscorer, Jô. With his confidence increased, Jô was back to the player we saw in the group stage and early knockout phase, competing for every ball, winning every knock down and posing a constant threat to the Olimpia defence.

The Paraguayans went down to ten men after Manzur was sent off, and Atlético began to feed more and more high balls into the penalty box. It isn’t the most efficient of tactics, but with great aerial presence they always threatened to score. With minutes left on the clock, an excellent looping header from Leonardo Silva eventually dropped in at the far post.

Again, Atlético’s fate was decided from the penalty spot and some excellent penalties won them the match.

It could have been so different though. Had Rosinei not delivered the cross that (only after being fluffed by Wilson Pittoni) fell for Jô to score, had Juan Ferreyra not slipped and fell when facing an open goal, had Leonardo Silva’s header came back off the post instead of creeping into the net, had the referee allowed Miranda to retake his missed opening penalty after Victor encroached a good three yards off his line, perhaps there would be a different name on the trophy. Or maybe Atlético would have won regardless, but in different circumstances. Football is full of fine lines, which makes proper, coherent analysis a tricky job.

Meanwhile, at the Morumbi, São Paulo are breaking records of their own after a 1-0 loss to Internacional. They have now gone eleven matches without winning, losing their last eight in a row for the first time in their history. New coach Paulo Autuori has lost all of his first four matches in charge, another record for the São Paulo history books.

Earlier this month, I discussed São Paulo’s problems in more detail.

Juvenal Juvêncio is running a dictatorship at São Paulo FC. They are one of the few clubs in Brazil not to hold direct elections for the role of president (something Juvêncio himself got rid of to hold on to power). The club’s largest supporters group, the Torcida Independente, is essentially hired muscle for Juvêncio, and in the past few weeks there members have been going around the stadium removing banners criticising the president, and starting chants against Juvêncio’s political “opponent” Marco Aurélio Cunha.

Do the common supporters of São Paulo need to rise up and stage a “coup du club”?