When it comes to the Brazil team’s shape, Mano Menezes essentially has two preferences in mind, and both revolve around the advanced playmaking figure of Paulo Henrique ‘Ganso’.
With the exception of Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 1994 World Cup-winning side, most Brazil teams in recent decades have sought to enter a tournament built around at least one No.10 of some description, be he a playmaker or more of an attacker, yet unvaryingly a supreme individual talent.
Mano Menezes enters the Copa America hoping to mantain that tradition whilst juggling it with demands for a modernisation that would entail the kind of tactical framework within which his Brazilian charges play for their respective European clubs.
Those who have worked alongside him vouch for Luiz Antônio Vencker’s sobriety and unyielding self-discipline; qualities which he in turn demands from his players. “He basically acts as a father figure,” says Pericles da Costa, a physical preparation coach under Menezes at SER Caxias in 2004, “firm but with the best interests of each player at heart, trying to foresee any personal problems or conflicts which might be just around the corner. But things like impunctuality…drinking, he won’t stand for that, he himself always takes care never to be seen drinking in the company of players.”
But it is not so much personality or his German heritage that makes Mano Menezes widely considered the most “European” among Brazilian coaches, rather it is the meticulousness of his approach to organization, training and above all a tactical philosophy to which he adheres. As early as 2006 his Grêmio side was playing a 4-2-3-1, something practically unheard of in Brazil at the time and still something of a rarity today.
It is a tricky path for the coach to thread, attempting to marry European and Brazilian components following two decades of divergence between the type of football practised in the homeland and that to be found in the Champions League. Pressing from forwards, compacting of all the lines, and a high defensive line are not really practices which have translated across the Atlantic, certainly not to domestic Brazilian football. Thiago Silva, for instance, spoke of his initial shock at having to adapt to Milan’s relatively high defensive line upon his arrival in Italy. Conversely, Menezes would like to allow enough space for the kind of languid game that suits Brazilian playmakers or even free reign so that his individually-minded attackers might improvise.
Whilst Dunga designed a system that was not only defensively watertight but arguably boasted the best defence-to-offence transition in world football, the 2007-2010 Brazil side were less impressive in – indeed practically renounced- the static offensive phase, lacking as it did any semblance of a playmaker (Kaká by his nature being an auxiliary attacker). Menezes’ offering seeks to capitalise on the passing game of Ganso, who probably would have ill-fitted Dunga’s coiled-spring-like approach of contract-absorb-explode. Dunga’s team lived off transitions, dominating two phases of play (static defence and defence-to-offence ). The current Brazil side seeks to be more adept across all passages of play.
1) Mano’s ‘European’ 4-2-1-3 (4-2-3-1 in defensive phase)
Above, Figure 1: red arrrows indicate general player movement; purple shows Neymar’s and Robinho’s defensive positioning; blue line represents first line of pressure centred on Ganso.
Mano’s ideal set-up, since it allows him to combine European-style attacking width and the cadence of a South American football in central areas. A pro-active, risk-assuming variant on the 4-2-3-1 with wide forwards Robinho and Neymar flanking centre-forward Pato and yet fed by Ganso. Essentially, Brazil will be playing with a front four, the danger being of course that it could become stretched and fragmented, especially if Ganso receives a designated man-marker.
Another difference between Dunga’s and Menezes’ sides lies in their respective shapes during the defensive phase; whereas previously Kaká and Robinho would generally initiate pressing just ahead of the midfield in what became a 4-3-2-1 (Elano dropping off to form a deeper trio), Menezes is determined to win back the ball higher up the pitch and not sentence his offensive players to living off counter-attacks during the subsequent transition. Therefore more players will be tasked with pushing up and squeezing the space. Regardless of formation, Robinho and Neymar will be tasked with forming the first wave of pressure, with Ramires assisting Ganso in disrupting the opponent in central areas.
2) ‘Brazilian’ assymetrical 4-2-2-2 (4-2-3-1 in defensive phase)
Above, Figure 2a): freedom of movement for Neymar across the front line; Ganso assisted by Jadson (or Lucas Moura) amidst switching of positions (indicated by pink arrows); maroon arrow shows defensive positioning of Elano (should he feature); blue line represents first line of pressure. Neymar must also integrate with it at some interval (to form 4-2-3-1).
If Brazilian footballing language abounds in terms such as ‘third man of the midfield’ it is indicative of Brazilians not conceiving of formation in terms of collective bands, but rather in terms as individual functions and the proximity of players to defense and attack. Given a scenario in which players are effectively staggered relative to one another’s position, Lucas Leiva is said to be the ‘first midfielder’, with Ramires slightly ahead of him as the ‘second man of the midfield’ and so forth.
This bears some resemblance to Brazil’s system in South Africa which itself was not dissimilar to classic Brazilian 4-2-2-2’s (see figure 2 b), in terms of shape at least. In terms of vocation and mechanisms, however, it was a different beast all together.
Above, Figure 2b) - Brazil at the 1982 World Cup. Note some of the similarities with the current side: Sócrates interchanging positions with the relatively narrow Zico, Júnior moving into a central corridor vacated by the previous two, and Éder cutting in from outside-left to aid the centre-forward.
But whereas Dunga used Elano (with Ramires or Daniel Alves as backup) as a shuttling ‘third midfielder’, Menezes has been keener to place another playmaker close to Ganso. Again we see the similarities with the 1982 squad which featured Socrates and Zico in close proximity to one another and tilting slighty towards the right. Of course we shouldn’t rule out Elano reprising his shuttling ‘third man’ role in those cases where Menezes opts for caution, defending a lead for example.
The main advantage of this set-up is that it relieves an already burdened Ganso of exclusive playmaking duties, which is essential when one considers that the holding pair behind him (two from Lucas, Ramires and Sandro) are hardly creative types. The likely candidate to partner Ganso will be Shaktar Donetsk’s Jadson or possibly São Paulo starlet Lucas Moura. In truth, Moura is more of a supporting forward who seeks to dribble and dart towards goal, not unlike Lionel Messi in that respect, and as such he could serve as a differential ingredient in linking with the Brazil forwards and a useful foil for the more nuanced, paused game of Ganso.
Brain-drain: the lack of imaginative players in deeper areas of midfield (such as Hernanes, above, when at São Paulo) has still not been addressed by Brazilian coaches.
This writer shares the reservations expressed by Jack Lang of ‘Snap Kaká and Pop!’ with regard bull-dogs being replaced with Labradors, so to speak, given the current seleção coach’s predilection for fielding hyperactive box-to-box midfielders. This comes in the wake of Mano’s earlier announcements protesting the importance of quality passing in deep areas. His seeming reluctance to more evenly spread the playmaking duties throughout all the lines as opposed to heaping all the responsibility on the three-quarters player could entail Ganso becoming muzzled and the entire team’s attack dissipating as occurred with Juan Román Riquelme during the second half of Argentina’s quarter-final exit to Germany in 2006.
This is the arrangement that sits most easily with Brazilian players, resembling as it does the shape that abounds in domestic Brazilian football of pairing two number 10s together in the centre and ahead of two more defensive players. Menezes however will be aware that this kind of rigid sectorisation of duties is deficient for football at the highest level (as Brazil’s anaemic showing at WC 2006 proved) and will ensure some degree of assymetry and overlapping of roles to prevent the ‘broken team’ scenario from enveloping. He is also acutely aware that, however assymetrically players may position themselves when in possession, it is no longer possible to defend assymetrically in zonally-marking modern football, at least outside of Brazil and certainly at European club and international levels. And so it was that the right-winger Éder, for all that he hassled his opposing right-back, did not not need in 1982 to defend in tandem with Socrates and Zico – which today surely would constitute an anomaly as teams cannot simply renounce space. Thus Neymar will shuffle over to the left of Ganso and Jadson (or Lucas Moura) to form a first line of pressure during the defensive phase.
Evocations of the 1982 seleção might well be an exercise in nostalgia or an ideologically driven re-vindication of utopia, but one area where this Brazil squad considerably falls short is through the exclusion of Marcelo, apparently on the grounds of club-instigated disloyalty, who perhaps more than any full-back in recent years can offer the variety of play that Júnior provided from left-back almost three decades ago.
Left-back and left-out: Júnior (from the 1982 side and Flamengo) and Marcelo (of Real Madrid) were/are playmakers operating from left-back.
There have been some formidable attacking Brazilian laterais, notably Roberto Carlos, Cafu and recently Maicon and Daniel Alves, but their games essentially involve a degree of hyperactivity; the more they slowed down, the longer they kept their foot placed on the ball, the more they had to think – the less effective their contribution to the attack became. Marcelo is different in that, while he does offer overlapping width, he also enters diagonally through the middle. So too do Alves and Maicon, but whereas they seek to surge, the Real Madrid man always seems less hurried. It is in this sense that Marcelo’s game echoes the displays of Júnior during the 1982 World Cup. Constantly seeking to move inside and find central corridors that had been vacated by his midfielders, Júnior would pirouette, pause and pick out a pass. By 1986, Telê Santana saw fit to use him as a central midfielder on occasion. In excluding Marcelo, Brazil lose an element of unorthodoxy from left-back.
Third (Ganso-less) Option: 4-3-3 (4-1-4-1 in defensive phase)
Above: Figure 3 - Without Ganso’s creativity at hand, Robinho and Neymar must move inside and drop deeper to generate passing angles (indicated by red arrows).They can also exchange positions, as per in the friendly versus the Netherlands (represented by broken pink arrows) in what is a 4-3-3. Both these forwards adopt a defensive posture alongside Elano or Elias and Ramires (whose defensive movements are shown in maroon) with Lucas Leiva screening in what becomes a 4-1-4-1 in defensive phase.
Experiments with this Plan C have produced mixed results; the team does appear more compact, and it no longer runs the risk of seeing opponents stifle their main creative source, but then again the array of midfield trios thusfar selected have only served to highlight the team’s reliance on Ganso, and this becomes too evident when Robinho and Neymar find themselves dropping deep to make things happen with the centre-forward being left isolated. Arguably this is the result of Brazil no longer producing or simply overlooking the importance of deeper-lying playmakers in the mould of Gerson or Toninho Cerezo. There is Hernanes who played a deep-lying role at São Paulo but his omission seems as much due to his infantile red-card infraction against France in February as it is a result of his redeployment as an advanced midfielder by Edy Reja’s Lazio.
The likes of Lucas Leiva-Elano-Ramires constitute a well rounded midfield, solid but unspectacular, and notably lacking in passing vision. Essentially, what Mano has done is to take a midfield diamond devoid of its advanced playmaker and to leave it intact without consideration as to whether the remaining trio can generate a similar level of imaginative passing. The recent friendly versus Holland showed the players struggling to generate spaces through their movement and to make incisive passes.
Perhaps this set-up will be used when Brazil are defending a lead or if Menezes, up against a formidable side (such as the hosts), errs on the side of caution and seeks the counter-attack. But that would have the Brazilian public bemoaning a lack of departure from the Dunga Era.
It seems that for Mano Menezes and the Brazil side that will enter the Copa America, Paulo Henrique ‘Ganso’ lies at the heart of everything.