Robinho’s return

After fulfilling his lifelong dream of sitting on the bench for a Chinese first division club, Robinho is back in Brazil. Though this comes as no shock, the fact he will play for Atlético Mineiro (and not Santos) has raised a few eyebrows.

Robinho’s connection with Santos and their fans is quite spectacular. Having grown up in the nearby town of São Vicente, Robinho joined Santos when he was 12 years old. In 2002, his first season of professional football, he helped take Santos to the Brazilian title, an astonishing achievement considering the club had not won a trophy since 1984 and that their two key players (Robinho and Diego) were teenagers.

On loan from Manchester City, he returned to Santos in 2010 and led the club to two titles: the São Paulo state championship and the Copa do Brasil. Besides the silverware, Robinho’s second spell at Santos was marked by the arrival of a new generation of exciting young talent at the club. Under Robinho’s wing, Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso began to flourish. The following year, with Robinho back in Europe with Milan, Neymar and Ganso took Santos to the Copa Libertadores title.

In 2014, he was back home once more. At 30 years old, Brazilian football fans saw Robinho’s transition from lightning-fast forward to intelligent playmaker. Despite not having the same physical condition as his younger days, Robinho’s vision and reading of the game allowed him to stand out at domestic level. While the club hemorrhaged money and struggled to find any sustainable source of income, Robinho’s exploits on the pitch helped keep the wolves at bay.

Today, with more exciting talents coming through the ranks at Santos, particularly 19 year old forward Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa, was Robinho not tempted to return for a fourth time? One last hurrah? I’d imagine so, but I’m glad he turned them down.

Santos no longer represents a challenge for Robinho, it is his home and the fans adore him unconditionally. Furthermore, during his last stay at Santos he was owed thousands in unpaid wages. Knowing the club was going through hard times and aware of his own financial security, he chose to stay silent while his team-mates took Santos to court. This was a sacrifice he made as a senior player, but returning to the club after what happened would be very strange indeed.

At this stage, it is impossible to know whether Robinho will be a success at Atlético. He has joined a much bigger and more demanding club where he will need to prove his worth.

In 2012, Ronaldinho Gaúcho was in a similar position having joined Atlético. The following year he led the club to their first ever Copa Libertadores triumph, playing his best football since leaving Barcelona.

Who’s up for the Cup?

The quarter finals of Brazil’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, get underway this midweek. Recently adapted to include all top-flight teams (those participating in the Copa Libertadores were previously exempt) and align its final stages to the last few months of the league season, the Copa has become one of the biggest attractions of Brazilian football’s long and packed calendar. It provides full stadiums, quality football and quenches the Brazilian fan’s thirst for knockout tournaments.

The Copa do Brasil is quite different from most of the traditional European domestic cups, owing more of a debt to Spain’s Copa del Rey in its two-legged format. Major upsets are rare, while the idea of a “cup run” is alien. Due to Brazilian teams’ overcrowded fixture lists, competing seriously in the Copa is a calculated choice as opposed to naturally building momentum.

Challenging in both the league and cup is difficult. It is no coincidence that at this late stage in the tournament, Corinthians and Atlético Mineiro, 1st and 2nd in the league, are already eliminated from the cup. Continue reading Who’s up for the Cup?

Santos in crisis

Unable to pay their players and with no revenue coming in, could this be the end of Santos as we know it?


This is the third in a series of previews of the 2015 Brazilian football season. The first, covering the league’s chronic calendar problems and looking at the prospects of Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here. The second, detailing the restructuring effort currently being made at Palmeiras, can be found here.

On the evening of the 14th April 1912, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. At the same time, in the Brazilian port city of Santos, a group of sportsmen gathered at their local athletics club to create a new football team – Santos Futebol Clube. They would go on to become one of the most important clubs in football history, helping to spread the sport worldwide during the 1960s and 70s.

Santos, however, have hit hard times. They are mired in a financial crisis that is undoubtedly the most severe in their long and proud history. Over a century after setting sail, the club are running a genuine risk of capsizing.

Nearly all major clubs in Brazil are in a ludicrous amount of debt. There are several explanations for this, but most stem from the fact clubs in Brazil are not businesses with shareholders, they are social clubs, where presidents are elected every two years by members. This system removes any personal responsibility that regular chief executives have, leading to irresponsible financial management and widespread short-termism.

For the past seven years, BDO Consulting have conducted an annual survey to calculate exactly how much Brazilian clubs owe. In their last study, covering the 2013 season, Flamengo retained the unwanted crown of being the most indebted club in Brazil, with a total bill of nearly R$ 760 million (around £190m). Santos, owing a comparatively modest R$ 297m, would appear to be some way away from Flamengo. However, the rubro-negro from Rio de Janeiro are the most popular club in the country, with a fan base countable in the tens of millions; Santos, on the other hand, do not have the structure to make a recovery any time soon.

Though they are one of the best-known Brazilian teams around the world, at home Santos are considered a small- to medium-sized club. The city of Santos is not particularly large, with a population comparable to that of Edinburgh, and it lies only 77km from the vast metropolitan area of São Paulo, which is over 40 times larger than Santos.

São Paulo’s three giant clubs: Corinthians, São Paulo FC and Palmeiras, are such institutions that there is little space left for Santos. Even in their own city, with less than half a million inhabitants, it is common to see people walking around with the shirts of either one of the state capital’s trio de ferro (iron trio).

Santos’ stadium, the Estádio Urbano Caldeira (commonly known as Vila Belmiro), is a charming but cramped venue, with its capacity of 16,798 making it the smallest in Brazil’s top flight. Not only is it undersized, it is rarely over half-full. Brazilian football has a problem with low attendances, one that hits clubs such as Santos harder than anyone else.

In the 2014 national championship, Santos’ average attendance at home matches was a paltry 8,560. Unsurprisingly, of all 20 top-flight clubs, Santos made the least profit from match-day income last year: an insignificant R$ 813k (just over £200k). To compare, rivals Corinthians raised almost R$ 17m of match-day profit over the same time period.

Then there is the television money. Under the current broadcasting rights agreement, Brazilian clubs receive an annual payment that varies from club to club according to their popularity: those who draw the bigger audiences command more money. Therefore, the country’s two largest teams, Flamengo and Corinthians, each receive R$ 110m per year from television behemoths Rede Globo. São Paulo and Palmeiras collect R$ 80m and R$ 70m respectively, while Santos get R$ 40m.

With a smaller fan base, less TV money and a tiny stadium, Santos have always been at a disadvantage when compared to their big-city neighbours. Crucially, they have always been aware of this and have conducted their business accordingly. Like many other South American clubs, Santos stay afloat by producing and selling talented young footballers.

In 2002, the last time Santos found themselves in financial trouble, they decided to promote a number of their youth players to the first team, notably Diego, Robinho and Elano. The youngsters were so effective that they ended up winning the national championship of that year, and the eventual sales of the trio helped the club regain financial stability.

Robinho (L) and Diego, the “Vila boys”, proved in 2002 that in Brazilian football, you can win things with kids. Photograph: Ari Ferreira
Robinho (L) and Diego, the “Vila boys”, proved in 2002 that in Brazilian football, you can win things with kids. Photograph: Ari Ferreira

In the late 2000s however, Brazil’s economy was booming and there were sponsors and investors aplenty, prompting Brazilian clubs to start spending money. Santos, with Neymar on their books, saw what they thought was a golden opportunity and decided to abandon their usual business model. They won the Copa Libertadores of 2011 and spent a fortune holding on to Neymar despite interest from Europe’s giants.

However, the subsequent success that Santos had banked on was very short-lived. In 2012, Neymar spent an inordinate amount of time out of the country playing for the national team, managing to miss over half of the Brazilian championship season. Without their key player, Santos struggled and finished the year in mid-table, missing out on continental qualification.

Neymar eventually signed for Barcelona in May of 2013 in what was meant to be Santos’ big pay day. However, of the €57.1m paid by Barcelona for the player, only €17m went to Santos. A sizable chunk of money for a Brazilian club, but hardly sufficient to cover the massive investment made to keep him at the club during 2012. That same year, Brazil’s economy began to slow down, bursting domestic football’s financial bubble. Sponsorships and investments disappeared and Santos’ future was thrust into uncertainty.

Their situation became so desperate that without a main sponsor and next to no match-day revenue, the entire R$ 40m Santos were due to receive later this month for 2015’s television rights was already spent in September of last year. The club asked Rede Globo for an advance in order for them to pay their wage bill.

Since then, the club have failed to pay players for the months of October, November and December, with Christmas bonuses (equivalent of one month’s wages, prescribed by Brazilian law) also going unpaid. Several of Santos’ key players have taken the club to court, as three months of unpaid salaries is considered grounds for contract termination.

One of the suing players in question is centre-forward Leandro Damião, whose transfer to the club in early 2014 could yet turn out to be a deathblow. Santos have yet to pay for Damião, having struck a deal with investors Doyen Sports to bring the striker to Vila Belmiro. Doyen paid R$ 42m to Internacional, Damião’s former club, for ownership of his contract, passing on his rights to Santos.

The plan was for the player to attract a move to Europe for a fee larger than R$ 42m, with Santos retaining any profit made. In practice, the transfer failed miserably. In 44 games for the club, he scored only 11 goals and fell out of favour with the fans. He was loaned out to Cruzeiro earlier this month.

In normal circumstances, it would be very difficult for Santos to get out of this deal without making a significant loss. With this court case, however, the club stand to lose an incredible amount of money. If the judge rules in favour of Damião, he will no longer be a Santos player, the club will be unable to make anything back on his transfer, they will owe Doyen Sports the entire R$ 42m fee as well as paying Damião the remainder of his contract and a sizable sum in compensation.

The paradox is that amid this woeful financial situation that only looks to be getting worse, Santos are aware that they still need to build a competitive football squad in order to stay in Brazil’s top division. They may have lost the spine of their first team to the courts: goalkeeper Aranha, veteran centre-back Edu Dracena, full-back Eugenio Mena, defensive midfielder Arouca and Leandro Damião, without receiving any compensation for their transfers, but what they really cannot afford is to be relegated.

Big clubs who have been relegated recently, Palmeiras and Vasco da Gama, received plenty of television and media coverage in the second division, they still did fairly well with their gate receipts and had enough quality to come straight back up. With Santos, this is less likely, they would run the risk of staying there.

However, it seems they will have enough quality to survive for this season at least. The current administration, elected in January when the damage was already done, have scoured the market for some affordable signings. Three players have come in on loans that involved no extra fees for the club: Grêmio centre-back Werley and wingers Marquinhos Gabriel and Chiquinho, while Fluminense midfielder Edwin Valencia, former AC Milan forward Ricardo Oliveira and returning favourite Elano have all joined on short-term deals.

Ignoring the severity of Santos’ situation would be unwise. Brazilian clubs have an air of invincibility surrounding them, regarding themselves as too big to fail. For the most part, this is true, even if a club such as Flamengo were to see their debts double over the next 12 months, they would be unlikely to run any palpable risk of collapse. Santos, however, are not in that tier. They are taking on water, some of the crew have jumped ship. Hopefully it’s not too late to keep them from sinking.

Next time: They say you should never return to a club where you have already had success, obviously no-one told Tite. After becoming world champions in his first spell, where can he take Corinthians second time around?

The convenient magic of the Cup

As far as Brazilian football tournaments go, the country’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, ticks all the boxes.

Firstly, it provides a straightforward path into South America’s most prestigious tournament: the Copa Libertadores. Since the mid-1990s, Brazil’s bloated state championships have become more and more irrelevant, while the Libertadores, South America’s answer to the Champions League, is king. The four best-placed clubs at the end of the Brazilian championship gain qualification to the continent’s premier competition, but the easiest way in is by winning the Copa do Brasil. Earning a place in the national championship’s top four requires consistency and squad depth over 38 matches, while a club can reach the cup final with a brief spurt of investment and a successful run of only six or eight games.

Secondly, it offers something that fourth place in the league cannot: silverware. If there is one thing that Brazilian clubs crave above all else, it is trophies. With so many big clubs distributed among the country’s several big cities, only a small fraction of these equally traditional teams can be successful at one time, leaving an ever-present and sizeable demographic of upset Brazilian football fans.

Winning the cup serves to temporarily placate these supporters and quench their trophylust. According to Mauricio Savarese, journalist and co-author of “A to Zico: an alphabet of Brazilian football” along with myself: “Between finishing second in the league and winning the Copa do Brasil, everyone prefers winning the cup.”

The cup competition also satisfies a basal desire of the neutral fan, which is decisive, winner-take-all knockout football. Since the beginning, the sudden death format (which is emphatically referred to in Brazil as mata-mata, literally “kill-kill”) has been deeply ingrained in the Brazilian football experience.

Before 2003, the national championship comprised a league structure followed by a deciding knockout phase to determine which club went home with the trophy. This was definitely counter-intuitive, as the idea of a long championship is to crown the team that has performed best overall, not just in the final two weeks, and the second half of the league phase was hampered by tiny attendances and equally poor television ratings.

However, mata-mata is so important to Brazilian fans, who revel in the spectacle and tension the games provide. So much so, that there are still many who defend the return of a knockout system to the national league. When the Brazilian championship made the switch to a straight points system, the Copa do Brasil grew in importance, providing the sudden death format loved by the fans without the obvious drawbacks.

Origins

Although those involved may tell you otherwise, the Copa do Brasil was created as a political tool. To fully understand why, we need to take a step back to the 1970s as Brazil’s military dictatorship’s iron grip on the country began to slip.

The generals’ ruling party, Arena, began holding local elections around Brazil which were inconsequential but gave the impression of a fair, democratic system to overseas onlookers. The plan began to backfire around 1974, as Arena were beaten at the polls in many regions. Aware of the popular power in football, the dictatorship attempted to appease locals in the areas they had suffered bad results, by building stadiums and promoting regional clubs to Brazil’s top division.

This process continued for some time and reached a critical mass as the Brazilian championship swelled to an incomprehensible size. In 1979, as democracy was about to return to the country, the tournament had an incredible 94 teams. When the generals were deposed, the championship returned to a practical number.

Although the military dictatorship was defeated, Brazilian football’s ruling body, the CBF (previously CBD), lived on and still craved these confederal relations in order for them to remain in power. With a number of upset associations throughout the country, the CBF created the Copa do Brasil to reclaim their favour, guaranteeing that major clubs from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre would travel Brazil, once again playing in these local stadiums against these smaller clubs.

Such interests are still very much alive, as was shown last year when a leaked fax showed Parnahyba Sport Club from the northern state of Piauí requesting that their state federation lobby the CBF so the club could draw Flamengo or Santos in the first round of the cup.

One leg good, two legs bad

A criticism often aimed at the Copa do Brasil is its insistence in having two-legged ties. With the Brazilian calendar incredibly crowded as it is, having all of these extra fixtures seems nonsensical. Furthermore, it makes life incredibly difficult for smaller clubs who, even if they manage a heroic victory over one of the biggest clubs in the country, are required to play a second leg, making progress to the next round even less likely.

One such example happened earlier this season, as fourth division Londrina played Santos in the third round. Londrina have built an interesting side and are dead certs for promotion this season, and in their home leg they managed an incredibly tense and well-deserved 2-1 win against the first division club. Such a result should have been rewarded with a place in the last 16, but a 2-0 victory in Santos cut them down to size.

Traditional cup competitions around the world, such as the FA Cup and the Coupe de France, are made richer by these rare moments of giantkilling, but the very format of the Copa do Brasil makes these situations near impossible.

This brings up an interesting topic however: do Brazilian fans actually like giantkilling? Leonardo Bertozzi, journalist and pundit at ESPN Brasil, doesn’t believe so. “The Brazilian television audience is interested in seeing big, well-known teams. There’s also a large slice of that population that is only interested in watching their own team.”

“Therefore, these big achievements of smaller sides aren’t received with much enthusiasm, especially from those who hold the television broadcasting rights, as invariably these matches see a decrease in audience figures.”

Teams from the second division have performed well this year, but ultimately, a final between national champions Cruzeiro and second division Bragantino would be seen as a non-event, not a spectacle. “Seeing the small sides is fun, but it takes away some of the weight of the title,” says Mauricio Savarese.

Furthermore, when these giantkillings do happen in Brazil, it is interesting to observe how they are remembered. The focus is always placed on the shame of the slain giant instead of the glory of the plucky underdog. “Flamengo lost the 2004 cup final to Santo André, and that has gone down as one of their biggest embarrassments in history,” recalls Savarese. The 2004 Copa da Brasil is not referred to as the one Santo André won, but the one Flamengo lost.

Intelligent itinerants

One of the underdogs in this year’s tournament, the aforementioned Bragantino, are entirely aware that the odds are stacked against them and after drawing some high-profile teams, they have decided to use their presence for their own financial gain. After being pitted against (and defeating) São Paulo FC and progressing to play Corinthians, Bragantino opted to move both of their home legs to other cities in order to make more money from gate receipts.

First, against São Paulo, the fixture was moved to the city of Ribeirão Preto and the 30,000-capacity Estádio Santa Cruz; then, against Corinthians, they went all in and took the game to Cuiabá and the Arena Pantanal, one of the 2014 World Cup stadiums. Such an attitude would be unthinkable in the FA Cup, for example, where home advantage and the cramped, noisy atmosphere of lower league stadiums can make all the difference, but the decision becomes more understandable when you consider Bragantino’s financial position.

In this year’s second division, Bragantino have an average home attendance of 732. They are not a newly-formed club without any tradition, having been founded in 1928. When going through such difficult times, smaller clubs such as Bragantino are forced to look elsewhere to make money. Aware that clubs such as São Paulo and Corinthians have huge pockets of support all over the country who don’t often get a chance to watch their club, Bragantino used that to their advantage.

Bragantino may well have the chance to earn even more money from gate receipts in this year’s cup, as they managed to win their first leg against Corinthians, 1-0 in Cuiabá. Tonight though, they will face Mano Menezes’ side in São Paulo for a much tougher test.

This year’s Copa do Brasil hasn’t exactly been one of giantkillings, but bigger clubs being defeated by lower-ranked, but still competent sides. The biggest surprises have been a pair of second-division sides from Brazil’s north-east: Ceará and América-RN. Their home cities of Fortaleza and Natal have always been difficult away trips for the traditional big clubs in the south-east, but both sides have been playing incredibly well, even away from home. Both are in action this evening, against Botafogo and Atlético Paranaense respectively, hoping to book their place in the quarter-finals.

Elsewhere, the biggest tie of the round was set to be Grêmio v Santos, but after the away side’s goalkeeper Aranha was racially abused by home fans in the Arena Grêmio during the first leg, the second leg was suspended and is unlikely ever to be played, with Grêmio facing expulsion from the tournament. That, unfortunately, is a story for another day.

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.

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.

Corinthians x Santos: Tactical preview

Tonight sees two of Brazil’s biggest sides Corinthians and Santos face off for a place in the 2012 Copa Libertadores final. Last week, Corinthians won the opening leg 1×0 away from home and go in to tonight’s match knowing that they just need to avoid defeat in order to reach the first Libertadores  final in their history.

Santos, last year’s champions, have it all to do under the lights of the Pacaembu, but with the tournament’s most efficient offence and the continent’s best player, they can not be counted out.
Continue reading Corinthians x Santos: Tactical preview