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.

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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.

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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.

 
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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.

Back to business

The Brasileirão is back after the month-long pause for the Confederations Cup. Plenty has changed since then: managers have been sacked, players have been signed and others sold. It’s almost as if we are back to week one.

This weekend’s headline games are on Sunday with two clássicos due to take place, but there is still plenty of interest in this evening’s four fixtures.

Renato Gaúcho will coach his first match at Grêmio since returning to the club earlier this week. Their first opponents are recently promoted Atlético-PR, whose quick and direct style will certainly cause Grêmio problems. Renato is unlikely to impose any drastic strategy changes early on and Grêmio should line up similarly to how they did under former coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo.

Renato’s primary objective is to restore confidence in the players, who have been struggling since their Copa Libertadores exit in May.

With the sale of Fernando to Shakhtar Donetsk for €11 million, Grêmio have lost an important presence in midfield. Fernando is an intelligent and strong defensive midfielder, able to defend and attack. His replacement, Adriano, is more of an auxiliary centre-back. He marks well, but does little else.

Flamengo will face Coritiba in the Mané Garrincha in Brasília, some 1,400 km from their home city of Rio de Janeiro. With the ongoing licitation process for the new Maracanã and the closure of the Engenhão for repairs, Flamengo have not played a match in the city of Rio de Janeiro since 6th April.

Although Flamengo do have a big support in Brasília (the match is expected to sell out), this situation cannot go on. With the constant travelling, the playing squad are starting to get upset, with goalkeeper Felipe commenting on social media that perhaps he “should move to Brasília, seeing as that’s where Flamengo play now”.

Since Mano Menezes has taken control at Flamengo, they are a more compact and organised side. Today’s match may not be a classic, but if Flamengo can get back to Rio soon they could have a very respectable year.

In Brazil’s northeast, Náutico – Ponte Preta marks another coach’s debut, that of Ponte’s new man Paulo César Carpegiani. Former manager of the Paraguayan national team and World Champion with Flamengo in 1981, Carpegiani is one of my favourite coaches in Brazil. While many of his peers are set in their ways and repeat the same mistakes over and over, Carpegiani is always looking to innovate and improve his methods.

For example, he was one of the first Brazilian coaches to choose to watch the match from the stands, where he has a better view of the field of play. Such practice is unheard of in Brazil, and usually frowned upon by supporters, who prefer their coach to be waving his arms and screaming on the touchline.

Tonight’s late game is between Portuguesa and Cruzeiro at the Canindé in São Paulo. Out of Brazil’s traditional big clubs, Cruzeiro is the one that has improved most during the current transfer window. Diego Souza, Dedé, Nilton, Everton Ribeiro and Dagoberto are all premium Série A quality players. The team is playing well and looking organised under Marcelo Oliveira. They are suffering from injuries today however, and will hope to avoid dropping points away to Lusa.

A ida do parlapatão; a volta do garotão

Ontem, o Grêmio confirmou a volta do Renato Gaúcho no lugar do ex-técnico Vanderlei Luxemburgo.

Em seus dezesseis mêses no cargo, Luxemburgo não entregou o resultado que a diretoria do Grêmio esperava. Mesmo com grande investimento para contratações, a campanha gremista na Copa Libertadores deste ano foi um fracasso.

Há anos que o Luxemburgo não é mais o mesmo. Foi engolido pela vaidade e a fama. Desde seus tempos no comando da seleção, vive em busca de elogios e publicidade e, aos poucos, se tornou numa caricatura dele mesmo.

Mudar de técnico durante a temporada raramente dá certo. Às vezes, tem aquela ‘lua de mel’ no início, em que o time consegue uma sequência de bons resultados, talvez porque o elenco se esforça mais para impressionar o novo treinador. Mas, cedo ou tarde, tudo volta ao normal.

É por isso que não vejo mais o Grêmio entre as quatro vagas para a Libertadores do ano que vem. Tem pelo menos quatro times mais entrosados e melhor preparados.

No entanto, é muito bom ver o Renato Gaúcho de volta ao futebol brasileiro. Nunca entendi por que ele não recebeu mais elogios como treinador. Talvez seja por causa da imagem dele, do garotão da praia. Imagino que seria difícil ser levado a sério quando todo mundo só consegue pensar em você na Copacabana, de sunga.

Renato ainda não é um ótimo treinador, mas é um bom treinador com potencial para se tornar ótimo, ou até excelente.

As diretorias de clubes brasileiros ainda têm medo da palavra ‘projeto’ – que, por acaso, é uma das palavras prediletas do Luxemburgo. Com demissões rápidas e sem segurança no cargo, técnicos brasileiros são mais cautelosos e o papel de treinador se reduziu ao de um cheerleader bem pago.

Renato Gaúcho, por ser ídolo da torcida gremista, tem chances de fazer um trabalho longo e bem sucedido no Grêmio. Tomara.