While far from being an encyclopaedic examination of this current Santos side who take on Barcelona for the World Club Championship prize, hopefully this will serve as a primer and give an idea of how the Peixe might approach the tie – if recent evidence is anything to go by.
Whatever about tactics, how will Santos approach the game?
Understandably somewhat, considering the identity of their opponent, it will be without the level of abandon that the Vila Belmiro outfit display in their pomp that Santos play in Yokohama. But, and this is crucial here, coach Muricy Ramalho has been at pains to stress over the past few months the ultimate futility of trying to sit back to absorb pressure and capitalise on a precious break as a means to overcoming Barcelona, an approach that proved successful for São Paulo vs Liverpool in 2005 and for Internacional vs Barcelona in 2006. “They’ll eventually work their way through you” is what the wily boss offers in his defence. And he has a point here. Whatever about the heroic feat of Inter in 2006, it must be said that that was against Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, which if not then in irreversible decline was at least beginning to show hints of a loss in competitivity. Guardiola’s Barcelona, even on a bad day, is a tougher proposition and an altogether more evolved realistion of the Michels-Cruyff-Van Gaal model.
There is yet a more salient point here. Santos by their very nature are not a watertight side at the back. Muricy’s argument can be summed up as “Why should I try covering up my flaws when instead I should be maximising my strengths”, and there can be little doubt that it is the static offensive phase and the attacking transition where his men feel most comfortable, playing in their own skin, as it were. Obviously, Santos will have to live off the transition a bit more than they would like under other circumstances but even in static phases Muricy will instruct his players to strike a balance between precipitating when in possession to overindulgence; Santos will have to direct their attacks rapidly towards specific areas of the pitch where doubtless they will have trained some movements to the point of automation. Santos will live every second of their offensive phase as if it were prelude to a transition to defense. Improvisation is to be avoided and the plays must be swiftly finalised.
When it comes to the counter, however, arguably the most pivotal player in a white shirt will be exactly that, a pivot. Borges.
1) Borges as a pivot
No doubt that there more talented strikers, more complete even, operating in the Brazilian championship but few have honed one aspect of play quite as well as the 31-year old veteran, a past collaborator of Ramalho in the all-conquering São Paulo side from 2007-2009. That working relationship is significant because it was Muricy’s São Paulo who moulded counter-attacking and defensive miserliness into an art form, rarely straying from fielding three centre-backs and often packing the midfield behind the ball even during offensive phases. Offense-wise, that side lived off Hernanes’ passing and Borges’ laser-guided sense of when to come short, hold up the ball and lay it off for the onrushing midfielders. Now of course at Santos he finds himself within a much more creative ecosystem than at São Paulo. Also, the Bahian striker is a more than decent finisher but it is his link-up play that will prove so crucial an assett in a game where Santos must capitalise on whatever counter-attacks they can force upon Barcelona.
2) Space behind Alves for Neymar and Ganso to exploit.
The only incognito concerning Neymar’s initial positioning is whether he will spend more or less time buzzing around the left flank of the attack before sinewing his way inside on a diagonal. This is likely to be the position he occupies during the defensive phase, either tracking the Barcelona right-back to midfield before his midfielders can commandeer duties or else trying to disrupt Barcelona from circulating the ball out along the right-side in the event of the blaugrana playing a three-man defence.
There is also the distinct possiblity, as witnessed during most of the Kashima game, whereby Neymar might adopt total freedom of movement in attack and as a genuine second-striker, working whatever channels Borges is not occupying at a given moment.
3) Ganso behind the ball and/or drifting towards the left
It almost goes without saying that the space vacated by Dani Alves down Barcelona’s right flank offers ample space into which Neymar can drift and it is here that the youngster offers Santos a wealth of options. Should Ramalho wish to accelerate the attack, Neymar may head directly for goal with only Borges in support. However, Neymar also has the vision and the temperament to masticate the ball and wait for the arrival of Arouca, Elano or Danilo as they stream forward, should he wish to gain numerical superiority.
Perhaps this is where Ganso can prove so useful to Neymar as a third option in this particular facet of play. By feeding Ganso, Neymar himself can overload the Barcelona defence whilst the elegant playmaker can activate practically any other teammate who registers on his 360-degree radar. It is therefore vital that Ganso overrides his frequent temptation to wait in a space of his choosing, much like Juan Román Riquelme, where he then expects his teammates to seek him as a magnet. A little measure of dynamism from Ganso wouldn’t go amiss, and he may well drift towards that pocket of space that Neymar finds down the left.
There is a defensive justification for this movement too. Since Ganso and Neymar are the Santos players most capable of maintaining possession (each in his own particular way), it follows that a Santos attack that breaks down or stagnates inside Barcelona territory must not result in gifting possession to the Catalans, who will surely descend in packs upon the Santos player(s) in possession. Therefore, the likeliest escape route for Santos in the event of the traffic lights turning red and no visible opening appearing in an ever-encroaching Barcelona defence is for Santos to play their way out of trouble and shepherd the ball into less congested zones, even if such zones be harmless and Santos give the impression of not progressing with the ball.
Irrespective of the shape that Santos adopt, we are likely to see Ganso spend most of his time behind the line of the ball. In fairness, this is what Ganso tends to do anyway; even when nominally stationed between the lines he seeks to drop deep and initiate play since he needs to feel wedded to the build-up play in order to be happy. Against Barcelona we are likely to see him concretely in a Xavi-type role as a playmaking interior.
Something which has almost ceased to concern Barcelona, who arguably have reached Sacchi’s ideal of transcending shape and symmetry and instead manifest themselves through movement.
But what of Santos? In the Brazilians’ case, it’s more a question of making best do in what is already an injury-hit collective (in light of his injury, Adriano, the defensive midfielder, has thrown Muricy’s plans of course somewhat) who no longer have the crucial pieces needed for making seemless shifts in shape without recourse to substitutions. So Santos’ shape may be more defined without necessarily being static.
A) 4-4-2 (4-3-1-2/4-1-3-2) with a compact four-man midfield
A stalwart at left-back, Leo’s age (36) has led Muricy to use him sparingly of late. Whilst still possessing the technical attributes for the position, doubts remain over his suitability for a role which in Brazilian football is the sole avenue of attacking and defensive width. Hence Santos’ use of centre-back Durval as a conservative occupant of the position. To an extent, it could be that Ramalho will use Durval’s conservatism as an incentive for Barcelona, and particularly Daniel Alves, to venture forward along this flank and thus leaving behind space for Neymar, Borges and Ganso to exploit.
Henrique will be the constant at the base of midfield and what he lacks in Adriano’s dynamism he makes up for in positional awareness. Arouca’s attacking dynamism from a left-of-centre compensates for the lack of pure width ahead of Durval. Elano the consumate all-rounder, performs a slightly different role to the right-of centre in this arrangement helping to prolong possession. It is Elano, however, who looks set to loose out should Muricy opt for that old reliable of his, 3-5-2.
B) 3-5-2 (3-1-4-2/5-3-2): symmetry in width, numbers in the middle.
With Arouca switching to the right of Henrique, and not forgetting Ganso’s likely positioning as a more integral part of the midfield, Santos can still count on three bodies in the centre so as to avoid being completely overrun by Barcelona. Muricy could well play Leo as a genuine wing-back ahead of Durval, who himself would become the left-sided centre-back. Danilo’s role is interesting. In truth, very little in his attacking disposition would change and independently of whether he had the comfort of a genuine back-three behind him or the makeshift four. In this regard, he his similar to Dani Alves, in constant locomotion up and down the right-hand sideline. But also like Alves, and more so like Maicon, another feature of Danilo’s play are the diagonal forays through the midfield and this trait is likely to be accentuated in the event of his being played as a wing-back.
The unthinkable: Santos without Ganso?
We should not be completely shocked were Ganso to be omitted from the Starting XI. Of course, it would be a big dissappointment in the sense of it being a dilution of Santos’ footballing ideology but Ramalho is anything if not pragmatic. The benefactor of Ganso’s absence would likely be bustling forward Alan Kardec who brings two gifts to the table in the forms of his height and athleticism. The latter is not among Ganso’s attributes, much less disposition, but such an ability to hassle and to harry may prove invaluable for Santos in trying to impede Barcelona from progessing down both flanks, assuming Alan Kardec would guard one wing whilst Borges and Neymar would alternate duties on the other. Indeed, the latter two could be seen putting in such a defensive shift versus Kashiwa whilst Ganso, almost disengaged from strenuous running, was given a less taxing brief in the centre whereby he looked to obstruct passing angles around the Japanese deep-lying midfielder.
That arrangement may suffice against most adversaries against whom Santos have come up, but is it too big a strain on the other nine outfield players when facing Barcelona? Alan Kardec can give Muricy peace of mind and a degree of defensive symmetry (4-1-4-1) in that respect. He also provides a differential in offensive terms, particularly when Santos have goal-kicks or set-pieces from deep within their own half. We saw in the semi-final how the towering Kardec, on as a subsitute for Elano after the 50th minute, was clearly instructed to act as a long-range conduit just behind a Borges and Neymar duo (Ganso retreating deeper into midfield towards the side of the diamond) whenever Santos sought to launch the ball from deep. The idea here being that Kardec would knock the ball on for either Borges to hold and delay (whilst Santos would advance as a block) or for Neymar to attack immediately.
That being said, if Alan Kardec is to feature it will more likely be as a substitute. Muricy is aware of the odds stacked against him winning this final. But even an arch-pragmatist like he is acutely conscious of the Santos tradition of which Ganso is such a fibre, and it could be that if Santos are to succumb it would be better to go down fighting and honoring as close as they can the expansive football writ large across the club’s history. Were such a posture to result in ultimate triumph, it would be all the more satisfactory for Brazilian football as a whole, especially when one considers the winners in 2005 and 2006. São Paulo largely played true to their cagey style, it is true, but Internacional were an expansive side replete with playmakers who felt obliged to take the complete opposite approach in deference to Barcelona.
It would be nice if Santos did not need to compromise to such extremes, but as long as the upset is delivered, in whatever fashion, few voices will object.