Modern day Brazil as much about function as flair
When you think of Brazilian footballers, different generations will bring up their own amazing memories.
From the grainy images of wonderful winger Garrincha in 1958 and 1962 to the grit of defensive midfielder Dunga en route to scooping the 1994 World Cup; Gordon Bank’s sensational save from Pele in 1970 to that decisive Ronaldo double in 2002 and so on.
More often than not, though, the common thread running through Samba feet is flair. Luiz Felipe Scolari, christened ‘Big Phil’ by the British tabloids during his stint at Chelsea, is somewhat going against the grain of Brazilian orthodoxy during his second spell.
There is one constant, however, between then and now; wing backs. Carlos Alberto and Djalma Santos’ mantle was passed on to Cafu and Roberto Carlos – quite possibly the best ever players down their respective sides in such positions – and now in turn to Dani Alves and Marcelo.
Gone are players in the mould of wide greats Garrincha and Jairzinho in favour of an en vogue tactic of cutting inside. That is the charge of forwards Hulk and Neymar, who are an awesome physical specimen and in possession of the wow factor respectively.
Neymar is, indeed, the poster boy of this World Cup finals and this Brazil – Scolari’s second team. Hopes of the host nation rest largely on the shoulders of the Barcelona star. During Big Phil’s first stint, however, the burden was somewhat shared.
Three was a magic number for the Samba Boys 2002 vintage. Ronaldo had both Ronaldinho and Rivaldo in behind him, with Scolari putting out a 3-4-2-1 formation to great effect in Japan and South Korea.
As current Italy coach (and shameless pragmatist) Cesare Prandelli would tell you, that tactical set-up gets the most out of wing backs and allows at least one of the advanced midfielders some freedom.
Nowadays, supply comes from three in behind the striker rather than two as the way Scolari sets them up is 4-2-3-1. Add Chelsea’s Oscar, and the box-to-box Tottenham talent that is Paulinho from deep, to Hulk and Neymar as the supporting cast behind target man Fred – a far cry from Pele, Ronaldo and other famous forwards.
What Fred lacks in pace and ability is compensated for by a hugely effective function he performs. He gives the Brazil of today, heaven forbid, something to aim form. Scolari’s selection of him is also smart because he occupies opposition defenders.
Pinned down by Fred, full backs have a difficult choice to make; do they track the infield runs of Neymar and Hulk, thus ceding the wide areas to Alves and Marcelo, or allow the forwards to come inside and have a pop? It’s an interesting dilemma, and one that nobody has come up with an antidote to yet.
Another curious difference is Scolari’s midfield anchor of today is a left-footer. Luiz Gustavo, who showed questionable ambition when he quit Bayern Munich for fellow Bundesliga side Wolfsburg instead of being tempted by rumoured interest from Arsenal, is vital to a delicate balance – just as Gilberto Silva and Dunga were before him.
Big Phil’s real sea-change is in heart of defence. There is a departure from predecessors choosing physically gifted pair Lucio and Juan in favour of ball-playing centre halves David Luiz and Thiago Silva. Both are comfortable coming out from the back in possession, but discipline from one or both in this regard is essential.
Where Scolari has been strong and decisive in his second stint as Brazil boss is not bowing to pressure or sentiment when it came to his continual omission of the old guard. AC Milan duo Kaka and Robinho are household names like Ronaldinho, but have done nothing like enough to force their way into his thinking.
That generation has had its day, and it was a dozen years ago. Big Phil is banking on his own modern blend, a mixture of traditional Samba soccer style and more practical, tactical need, to deliver the trophy that the host nation demands this summer.