The seeing had become purblind so gradually that they scarcely noticed their loss. They guided the sightless youngsters hither and thither until they knew the whole valley marvellously, and when at last sight died out among them the race lived on.
-H.G. Wells, The Country of the Blind
After a tense 1-1 draw away to Vasco da Gama on Thursday evening, Corinthians were crowned champions of Brazil for the sixth time in their history. Although they stumbled over the finish line somewhat, helped by second-placed Atlético Mineiro losing 4-2 away to São Paulo, Corinthians have been by far and away the best side in the country and are fully deserving of the trophy.
With three matches left to play, Corinthians have the most points, the most wins, the least defeats, the most goals scored and the least conceded. It is rare in any 38-game football season that one team can express such superiority over the chasing pack.
Tite, Corinthians’ coach, is the talk of the town. This is the second time he has won the championship with the club (the last time coming in 2011, preceding Corinthians’ Copa Libertadores and World Club Cup wins the following year), and it would be hard to look beyond him as the greatest coach in the team’s history.
His intense personality, hyperactive touchline behaviour and apparently innovative coaching methods have endeared Tite not just to Corinthians fans, but to supporters of other clubs too. After Brazil’s embarrassing 7-1 loss against Germany in the 2014 World Cup, he seemed to be the national team’s only choice to replace Luiz Felipe Scolari, and deservedly so.
However, his success overshadows his shortcomings. His coaching career pre-2011 was patchy, and his teams often employ an over-pragmatic approach that is not easy on the eye. Furthermore, his efficiency is based on hours upon hours of work on the training ground, something he would not be offered were he to get the Brazil gig.
H.G. Wells once wrote about a mountain valley in South America, cut off from the rest of the world, that had in it all that the heart of man could desire. The only problem was that the people of this valley suffered from a strange disease that made them, and their children, blind.
He tells the story of a man, “who had been down to the sea and had seen the world, a reader of books in an original way”, who happened upon this Country of the Blind. Discovering that all of its inhabitants were in fact blind, the man garnered aspirations to lead and command them, repeating to himself the old proverb: “In the land of the blind, the One-Eyed Man is king.”
Brazilian football is a modern-day Country of the Blind. After decades of inertia and a dearth of new ideas, the quality of the Brazilian game has suffered greatly. Tactical trends that dominate the highest levels of European football only arrive in Brazil four or five years later. For instance, the idea of high defensive lines is still unthinkable in domestic Brazilian football, with centre-backs long accustomed to playing on the edge of their own penalty box, leaving huge gaps in front of them.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those involved in Brazilian football are desperate for something new. Tite, Brazil’s One-Eyed Man, went on a Pep Guardiola-inspired sabbatical in 2014, studying strategy and training techniques while spending time with Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti. He has attempted to implement these “new ideas” into his Corinthians team and has been rightfully applauded for doing so.
However, despite their overwhelming dominance in this year’s Brazilian championship, Corinthians are not a world-beating side. They are organised, well-drilled and, crucially, they do the simple things well.
This is not to take anything away from Corinthians’ success, but to criticise their opposition. That simply making fewer mistakes than their peers is enough for Tite’s side to become Brazilian champions says plenty about the quality of the rest of the league.
Tite may well turn out to be an elite-level coach, but he’s not there yet. And without competent opposition, he never will be.
No, not a rejected line from the Ghostbusters theme song, but the words of Corinthians coach Tite after seeing his side destroy Colombian opponents Once Caldas 4-0 in the first leg of their Copa Libertadores first round tie, last night in São Paulo.
The ghost in question was that of Deportes Tolima. Four years ago, at the same stage of the competition, Corinthians faced Tolima, a modest club from the Colombian city of Ibagué. Despite the Brazilians having a squad that included World Cup winners Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, they were held to a goalless draw in São Paulo before going down 2-0 in Colombia.
Their failure to negotiate their way past such average opposition and precocious elimination (or, as their rivals saw it, “tolimanation”) from the Copa Libertadores plunged Corinthians into a mini crisis. Fans protested, fingers were pointed and both Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos decided to part ways with the club.
A lot has changed at Corinthians since Tolima, they have since won the Brazilian championship, the Copa Libertadores and even the Club World Cup. Despite that, when these two teams were drawn together Brazil’s sports press ran amok with Tolima comparisons.
While the first leg in 2011 was a tense, uneventful affair, last night’s match at the Arena Corinthians was anything but. The action started from the very first minute, with the home side taking the lead after only 30 seconds of play. Three red cards, a wrongly disallowed goal and two wonderful passing moves later, Corinthians all but sealed their place in the Copa Libertadores group stage.
This was an overwhelmingly impressive performance from Tite’s men. Straight from the first whistle they pressed Once Caldas very high up the pitch, giving their defenders no time on the ball and forcing them into several mistakes. After winning back possession, they looked comfortable, patiently looking for openings in the Once Caldas defence.
Their real merit came in the second half however, as they were playing with a man disadvantage after Paolo Guerrero’s red card. As Once Caldas threw players forward, Corinthians remained extremely compact in a 4-2-3 shape and managed to keep their opponents at bay.
As the Colombians’ desperation became evident, Corinthians began punishing them on the counterattack and we were treated to two magnificent examples of quick passing football, ending in goals for Elias and Fagner. The comprehensiveness of the result perhaps was not an accurate representation of the 90 minutes, but was a testament to Tite’s marvellous adaptability and the squad’s determination so early in the season.
Corinthians’ performance was not perfect, gaps behind the full-backs and poor defensive positioning, already evident in the weekend’s state championship match against Marilia, reared their ugly heads once again. Once Caldas identified these weaknesses early on, and had they been able to count on a centre-forward more talented than the lumbering Sebastián Penco, it is likely they would have scored an away goal.
It is too early to tell, but after apathetic performances from the Brazilian clubs in last year’s Copa Libertadores, it is refreshing to see a motivated and energetic Corinthians side, while the group stage clássico against São Paulo on Ash Wednesday has the potential to be one of the games of the year.
World champions in 2012, Corinthians have failed to build on success and face years of austerity
This is the final post in a four-part series previewing the 2015 Brazilian football season. The first in the series, covering Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here; the second, looking forward to a promising year for Palmeiras, can be found here and the third, detailing Santos’ financial crisis, can be found here..
In December 2012, Corinthians defeated European champions Chelsea by one goal to nil to win the Club World Cup in Yokohama, Japan. The triumph was the crowning achievement of a marvellous year for São Paulo’s largest club, who had become South American champions for the first time after beating Boca Juniors in an ultra-tense Copa Libertadores final in July. However, becoming champions of the world was just phase one of the Corinthians master plan.
A lot can change in the space of 12 months, however, and with the bursting of Brazilian football’s financial bubble accompanied by underwhelming on-pitch performances, the name Corinthians is nowhere to be seen in this year’s Money League study. As it turned out, the second phase of the Corinthians master plan was far tougher to execute than the first.
In early 2013, in an attempt to flex their financial muscles and show the world what they were capable of, Corinthians prepared a sizable investment to sign AC Milan forward Alexandre Pato. Outbidding clubs in Europe, Corinthians repatriated the 22-year-old, with the €15m transfer fee still standing as the highest paid by any Brazilian club.
Although the club seemed to solve Pato’s chronic injury problems that hampered his career at Milan, his on-pitch performances were not nearly as impressive as Corinthians had hoped. He made 57 appearances for the club in 2013, scoring 17 goals, five of those coming in state championship matches. Despite showing some flashes of quality, Pato was regularly criticised by the Corinthians fans for a perceived lack of effort and commitment to the club’s success. Their patience with the forward completely expired after he missed a crucial penalty in a cup shootout against Grêmio, having attempted a Panenka that went harmlessly into the arms of opposing goalkeeper Dida.
In February 2014, one year after his record-breaking transfer, Pato was loaned to rivals São Paulo, in a deal that sees Corinthians pay 50% of his R$ 800k monthly salary.
Corinthians coach Tite, a father of two, was visibly shaken by the events, putting the situation into perspective by affirming he would exchange the world championship they had won the year before for Kevin’s life.
Although the punishment handed to the club was remarkably lenient (they were forced to play their three home group matches behind closed doors, a decision later overturned after appeal), the incident did appear to have an effect on the squad. They advanced from their group, but faced Boca Juniors in the round of 16 and were eliminated.
They were equally disappointing in the national championship, quickly becoming known for their uninspiring football and results that read like lines of binary code. The consensus was that the team had gone stale: they had played the same system without variation for a long period of time and became starved of creativity.
Corinthians finished the 2013 season in 10th place, missing out on qualification for the Copa Libertadores. The club chose not to extend Tite’s contract as head coach, and the man who led them to South American and World titles left at the end of the season, tipped for the Brazilian national team job after the 2014 World Cup.
His replacement was an old acquaintance of the Corinthians faithful having managed the club between 2008 and 2010: former Brazil boss Mano Menezes. Born in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, Menezes belongs to the escola gaúcha of Brazilian coaches (as does Tite), giving priority to defensive solidity and physicality over flair and creativity.
Menezes did not do a terrible job, largely reproducing Tite’s tactical system with some new faces in the squad, but fans demanded more from the team, unhappy with their ultra-conservative approach in away matches. Corinthians finished 4th in the Brazilian championship, qualifying them for this year’s Copa Libertadores. Despite the reasonable return in his first season back, revolt from radical factions of the club’s supporters and behind-the-scenes power plays led to the sacking of Mano Menezes. Tite, still a free agent since his dismissal the year before, was subsequently brought back to lead the team in 2015.
Corinthians did have some embarrassing results in 2014, but they primarily came off the field. In 2013, even with the disastrous investment in Alexandre Pato and poor performances on the pitch, the club managed to close the year with a slim profit of R$ 1m. In contrast, though balance sheets have yet to be released for 2014, Corinthians are expected to announce a loss of around R$ 90m for the year.
The deficit is largely due to the club’s new stadium, which opened in the middle of last year. The Arena Corinthians, despite being the pride and joy of the fans, has left the club with debt of around R$ 750m (£190m). Money from gate receipts (usually a significant source of income for the club) is all going towards repaying the stadium debt. Corinthians have yet to negotiate a naming rights contract for the stadium, which will be discounted from the R$ 750m, but their short-term future remains bleak. Their wage bill has increased 40% in relation to last season and the club is already behind on image rights payments to players and departed coach Mano Menezes.
Their transfer budget for this year has been set at a modest R$ 10m (£2.5m), with that figure relying at least R$ 38m of income from selling players. To put this into perspective, Peruvian forward Paolo Guerrero, arguably the club’s most important player and whose contract expires in June, is currently demanding a signing-on fee of R$ 18m to renew his deal at the club, almost double the budget Corinthians have set out for the entire year.
Not only is Guerrero the club’s principal goal threat, he is also the central figure in Tite’s vision for Corinthians in 2015. Though they seem unable to afford him, losing such a quality player could be disastrous to their chances on the pitch.
After being scandalously overlooked for the national team job after the embarrassment of the 2014 World Cup, Tite spent his period of unemployment travelling, studying the game and speaking with peers. The biggest influence on his current coaching philosophy comes from the time he spent in Spain, visiting Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti.
Wanting to learn more about the 4-1-4-1 system employed at the Bernabéu, Tite went along to matches and training sessions, trying to gather as much information as he could to implement the same style in his next job. The principal virtue of Ancelotti’s Real Madrid team, superbly examined by Michael Cox, is their ability to successfully marry the two most effective philosophies in modern football: possession and counterattacking. It is this mixture that Tite wants to bring to Corinthians.
In the words of Michael Cox, Real Madrid’s attacking unit consists of “three midfield playmakers, two brilliant counterattackers and a hard-working, selfless number nine”. The midfield trio allow the team to establish control of possession, while their wide attackers exploit any space left by their opponents on transitions.
Such a complete attacking force would be too difficult to recreate in Brazilian domestic football, but with some alterations to the standard 2-2 block midfield setup in Brazil, Tite has brought his side somewhat closer to the Real Madrid model. Renato Augusto, for example, usually regarded as an out-and-out attacking midfielder, has been brought back into central midfield, along with Elias and Ralf. For their wide attackers, Tite has proposed playing a playmaker on the right (one of Nicolás Lodeiro, Danilo or Jadson) with a deep option on the left (Emerson, Malcom or Mendoza). Paolo Guerrero leads the line, getting on the end of any service coming his way, while also helping to create space for forward runs from midfield.
It will be interesting to see whether they can achieve the balance between possession and counterattack, pre-season performances indicate that it will be difficult. Against Bayer Leverkusen, Corinthians surrendered possession to their German opponents, mainly threatening from set-pieces, and in last week’s friendly against English non-league outfit Corinthian Casuals, they had the ball but lacked the guile and incisiveness to get behind a part-time defence.
Either way, instant success is unlikely. Though he has some of his old squad, Tite is a coach that requires time to make a team his own. The question is, will he be allowed that time? Since 2012, Corinthians is a completely different organisation, with loftier expectations and even less patience. Tite, partly responsible for the world and continental honours, was not given the chance to rebuild the team in 2013. Mano Menezes, with a proud history in his first spell as coach, was not even allowed to settle at the club before he was sacked. With what are sure to be some tricky and austere years ahead for Corinthians, Tite has to be prepared for much unjust criticism if results do not come along right away.
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.
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.
Only four months after the first round, the 2012 Copa Libertadores has already reached the semi final stage. We’ve had a wonderful tournament so far, full of drama, tension and some superb football, but oddly enough there have been very few surprises. In a setting that usually throws up a fair amount of shock results, we have seen the better sides prosper, and this year’s semi final quartet are arguably the continent’s four best teams.
From Brazil, we have last year’s winners Santos and the current Brazilian champions Corinthians, and they are joined by Boca Juniors and Universidad de Chile, the champions of Argentina and Chile respectively. Thanks to CONMEBOL’s ruling that pairs together clubs from the same nation in the semi final draw, the two Brazilian sides will face each other in the first semi, while Boca and Universidad de Chile will battle it out for the other place in the final.
Internacional and Corinthians have both yet to feature on Game of the Week, but these are two huge teams with equally huge followings, and matches between them have always delivered grand spectacles. Internacional – from the southern city of Porto Alegre – and Corinthians – one of the city of São Paulo’s three giants – have met in a few momentous games in Brazilian football history, most famously the Campeonato Brasileiro final of 1976, when the great Paulo Roberto Falcão’s Inter disposed of Corinthians and clinched their second national championship.Continue reading Game of the Week: Internacional 1×1 Corinthians