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This blog reflects on soccer qua football all over the world. The blog has a specific investment in attractive, attacking football and, as such, focuses on Brazil, the most emphatic historical exponent of the beautiful game.

Monday, December 31, 2012

5 Things To Expect From Luiz Felipe Scolari

As the debate about the correctness of the CBF's decision to fire Mano Menezes continues, Menezes’s successor, Luiz Felipe Scolari, has remained tight lipped about his tactical plan for the future of the Brazilian national football team.  Meanwhile, speculation proliferates about the kind of team that Scolari will field on the pitch in light of his work with Gremio, Palmeiras, the Brazilian national team from 2001-2002, Chelsea, Portugal and Bunyodkor. Predicting the strategy and tactics of any coach of the Brazilian national team at the World Cup itself is invariably a difficult exercise, but we can say how Scolari is likely to commence his tenure as coach of Brazil, particularly if we operate on the premise that he is likely to begin with a tactical strategy that is familiar to him qua Brazil 2002, and then adapt that strategy based on the performance of the team. Whether Scolari ultimately chooses the formation he deployed in Korea and Japan for World Cup 2002 for World Cup 2014 is anyone’s guess, but for now, we should expect the following from “Big Phil”:

Greater freedom for the fullbacks
Expect Scolari to unleash the fullbacks and restore Brazil’s wide play. Menezes had focused on attacking down the center by nurturing creative midfielders such as Oscar who would orchestrate attacks from the center of midfield. Under Menezes, wide play from Marcelo and Alves supplemented the Brazilian attack but was never fully a pivotal component of the formation. Scolari, however, had the luxury of Roberto Carlos and Cafu as his fullbacks, and he is likely to expect the same attacking contribution from Marcelo, Alves, Adriano, Rafael and company. In other words, expect to see more wide play from Brazil.

The return of Hernanes
Scolari himself has said that he has been watching Hernanes carefully in recent games, and, given the recent human cry in Brazil about Hernanes’s absence from the national team, it would make sense to see the Lazio playmaker in the yellow jersey again soon. Hernanes is known for his ability to play on both the left and right sides of midfield, as well as for his dead ball prowess and skill in the air. If Ronaldinho, in particular, fails to step up to the plate, Hernanes is likely to command the attacking midfield and may well inherit the famed number 10 jersey from Oscar.

The return of Ronaldinho
In recent interviews, Scolari repeatedly stresses the importance of bringing more experienced players into the squad to partner with those who have never played in a World Cup. Big Phil has a deep and well known professional relationship with Ronaldinho, who—as we all know—played a crucial role in Brazil’s success in 2002. If the choice were between Ronaldinho and Kaka, Scolari will surely go for Ronaldinho, whereas Carlos Dunga took the other path and went with Kaka in 2010.

A holding midfielder such as Sandro
It’s hard to imagine who Brazil’s holding midfielder might be, particularly given Leiva’s prolonged layoff due to injury. One option would be Tottenham's Sandro, who played at the Olympics and did a decent job of keeping the defensive end of midfield tidy and free from worry. Paulinho or Ramires represent other options, though both are not classical holding midfielders in the vein of Gilberto Silva or Carlos Dunga.

A classical centre forward such as Leandro Damiao
Scolari has explicitly said that he is not “enamored” of the false number 9 formation favored by Spain and an increasing number of club and international teams. He feels the false number 9 formation, which lacks a target striker or two up front, fails to play to Brazil’s strengths and footballing tradition. Expect Leandro Damiao to be given the lion’s share of the attacking responsibility while being flanked by Neymar and Hulk. We should also expect to see Wellington Nem join the first team on a more regular basis as well.

In his initial phase as coach, we should expect Scolari to restore width to the Brazilian attack and transfer significant responsibility for the attack back to the strikers as opposed to the midfield. Whereas Menezes focused most of his attention on the Brazilian midfield, Scolari will initially focus on attacking down the flanks and getting the ball to a target striker such as Leandro Damiao. The recalibration of attention on wide play and pure strikers should complement all of the work done on Brazil’s midfield by Menezes and set the foundation for a highly offensive-minded team. The key question, however, concerns the ability of the current set of fullbacks to pose a consistent and varied attacking threat as well as the ability of Neymar, Damiao and Hulk to score goals against highly defensive minded teams.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Underdogs Corinthians Beat Chelsea 1-0 In Club World Cup Final

Corinthians came away with a dramatic 1-0 victory against Chelsea in the Club World Cup Final in Yokohama, Japan in a hard fought, pacy match marked by high quality, attacking play from both sides. Chelsea claimed more in the way of dangerous, high percentage chances on goal in the first half. In the 11th minute, Gary Cahill had a shot narrowly saved off the line by Corinthians goalkeeper Cassio while in the 38th minute, Cassio similarly made a remarkable save from a Victor Moses shot delivered from near the left side of the box. Chelsea coach Rafael Benitez elected to field a midfield composed of Ramires, Lampard, Victor Moses and Eden Hazard, with Oscar starting the match on the bench.

Early in the second half, the tide gradually turned toward Corinthians as the Brazilian team took control of midfield and sought to unleash their colorful strikers Emerson Sheik and Paolo Guerrero. Paulinho predictably orchestrated the transition from defensive to attacking midfield and was joined by left full-back Fabio Santos and striker Henrique in putting pressure on the Chelsea defense.  In the 69th minute, Corinthians finally broke through with an attack on the right flank leading to a flick and a pass from Paulinho that subsequently fell to Danilo, whose deflected shot was headed into the back of the net by Paolo Guerrero.

Chelsea piled on the pressure in the remaining twenty minutes. The Blues came very close to equalizing on a number of occasions, but Fernando Torres was unable to convert in the final instance. The victory by Corinthians represented the first win by a South American team since the 2006 Club World Cup, when Internacional beat Barcelona 1-0. The victory marks a powerful affirmation of South American football and an example of a well organized Brazilian team that knows how to defend as well as attack. Despite having few superstars in their lineup, Corinthians delivered a fantastic performance marked by teamwork, disciplined defending, pacy attacks and a fluid transition from defense to offense. Given the club's performance in recent years, coach Tite may well be on the CBF's list as a potential coach for the Brazilian national team in the future.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why The CBF Was Right To Replace Menezes With Scolari

In the last two weeks, the soccer blogosphere has been rife with news of the firing of Mano Menezes, now former coach of the Brazilian national team, and the subsequent appointment of Luiz Felipe Scolari. Many were quick to criticize the CBF’s decision to fire Menezes just days after he won the Superclasico against arch-rival Argentina for the second year running. 2002 World Cup champion Ronaldo, 1970 World Cup champion Tostao and journalist Lucas Sposito all differentially criticized the CBF’s decision to fire Menezes, almost unilaterally from the position that the team had started to blossom and that, with 19 months to go before the World Cup, the timing was not right to prohibit Menezes from realizing his vision for the national team.  

Nevertheless, the CBF’s decision to fire Menezes and replace him with Scolari is, without any question, the correct choice for the Brazilian national team. On one hand, Mano’s contributions to the team are undeniable and significant. Few coaches in Brazil have Mano’s eye for new, promising players that can be transformed into world class superstars through powerful mentoring and experience in the national spotlight. It was Mano who vaulted Oscar to the position of international prominence in world football even though it deserves mention that Oscar had already drawn some attention by virtue of his hat-trick in the U-20 World Cup final. And it was Mano who insisted that the current squad be built around Neymar while gifting national team experience to the likes of Lucas Moura, Rafael, Dede, Fernandinho, Hulk and Leandro Castan. 

But Mano’s cardinal weakness lay in his inability to get his team to conform to a game plan in the heat of the battle. Nowhere was this more evident than in his constant use of deceit to shuffle the starting lineup hours before a game, and surprise the opponent with a new player and formation. The most glaring example of this was in the 2012 Olympic final against Mexico, when Mano decided to leave Hulk out of the starting lineup in favor of Alex Sandro in an attacking midfield position. The move was intended to surprise Mexico, but instead, El Tri took advantage of the weakness on the right flank and scored their opening goal within seconds of kickoff. 

Similarly, in the recent friendly against Colombia, Mano opted for Thiago Neves as a substitute for the injured Hulk in an entirely incoherent substitution of a striker with a playmaker. The result emaciated the Brazilian attack, with the most threatening opportunities on goal resulting from Neymar going one on one against the Colombian defense. Mano’s repeated use of surprise in announcing starting lineups amounted to an admission of a weakness in terms of the team’s ability to execute its designated game plan.  Everyone knows how Spain plays, for example, but this doesn’t prevent them from winning.

Scolari, on the other hand, is a drill sergeant and an expert at getting teams to play according to a designated plan. We do not yet know what formation or team Scolari will use, though it is highly likely he will reinstate the role of the holding midfielder in the form of Lucas Leiva or someone analogous. Scolari’s appointment is also likely to reorient the squad back to Ronaldinho as opposed to Neymar, although it remains to be seen what the implications of Ronaldinho’s recall will be for Kaka. Regardless, Scolari will almost certainly instill a strong game plan into the national team that is likely to bring the team success in the short term, and aesthetic power and flamboyance only in the long term. Scolari and technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira will err on the side of caution when it comes to playing the beautiful game by focusing on winning first, and the beautiful game second. The current Brazilian national team is bursting with talent and experience in almost every position. What has been lacking so far is the determination and vision to get the players to play in a consistent way such that the team can grind out key victories and thereby organically acquire the confidence to play the attacking, fluid football that almost all Brazilian football fans want to see.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Brazil Fires Mano Menezes In Search For New Direction and Methods

Mano Menezes's year and a half tenure as coach of the Brazilian national football team came to a dramatic end on Friday when the former Corinthians coach was fired by the Brazilian Confederation of Football. The timing of the move was highly surprising given that Brazil had recently amassed an impressive sequence of results after losing to Mexico in the final of the 2012 summer Olympics. Between August 15 and November 14, 2012, Menezes led Brazil to 6 consecutive victories and 1 draw in which the team scored 25 goals while conceding only 2. With an average of 3.57 goals per game during this period, Brazil notched up impressive 3-0, 8-0, 6-0 and 4-0 victories against Sweden, China, Iraq and Japan respectively. In his year and a half tenure, Mano claimed 21 victories, 6 draws and 6 losses out of a total of 33 matches.

Andres Sanchez, Director of the Confederation of Brazilian Football, noted that the decision to fire Menezes was motivated by President Jose Marin's desire for a new approach to the national team:
The president believes that the national team needs to go in a different direction and for that he needs a new coach. The president wants new methods and new planning for the national team next year.
Sanchez praised Menezes and underscored how the decision to fire Menezes was not motivated by poor results:
Mano did a good job. He faced difficulties but the work being done was improving. If the problem was the lack of good results he would have been fired earlier. He was winning recently.
Charged with bringing back the beautiful game, Menezes restored the Brazilian national team to a quick passing, attacking approach marked by high lines and a creative midfield featuring the likes of Oscar, Kaka, Paulinho and Ramires. His style differed markedly from the counter-attacking strategy of the Brazilian national team under his predecessor, Carlos Dunga, who fielded 8 men behind the ball in a coiled-spring approach that, while defensive in orientation, could "spring" one of the most effective counter-attacking formations in the modern game. Despite Brazil's difficulties beating big name opponents such as France, Germany and Argentina, many including Tostao hailed Menezes for his recent progress in building a creative Brazilian midfield and for the team's stylish, attacking mode of play.

Moreover, Mano introduced significant evolution into the national squad by selecting players such as Neymar, Oscar, Rafael, Marcelo and Lucas Moura that had previously not featured prominently in the national team. One could argue that it was Mano who brought Oscar to international prominence by giving him the famed number 10 jersey both in the lead up to, and the games that constituted the 2012 Olympics.

Former Brazil World Cup champion Romario celebrated the decision to fire Menezes by remarking:
Finally those incompetent (people) at the CBF did something good for Brazilian soccer. I was sure that it would happen, it was unfortunate it took so long, but he's out! When it comes to Mano, it was already late.In my opinion the coach needs to be Felipao. The national team director, Andres Sanchez, has to go, the ideal one to take his place is Rai.
Romario cites Luis Felipe Scolari as his favored choice to run the Selecao. Muricy Ramalho, who already turned down the job in 2010, and Corinthians coach Tite are also rumored to be top candidates for the job, although other indications suggest the CBF may even be considering former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. Whomever the CBF chooses, the new coach will be operating on a foundation squarely laid by Menezes marked by a squad full of new faces as compared to the 2010 World Cup, with Oscar and Neymar leading the attack.

Ronaldinho and Hernanes represent the likeliest beneficiaries of Menezes's firing and may join Kaka and Oscar in a mouthwatering Brazilian midfield unless the CBF decides to return to a Dunga-type clone in the form of Muricy Ramalho. Coach Luis Felipe Scolari is the frontrunner, however, given his success with the Brazilian national team at the 2002 World Cup. Known for his tactical discipline and insistence that his teams play hard, tough tackling football, Scolari may be exactly the type of drill sergeant Brazil needs to convert their cornucopia of talent into a disciplined footballing machine that can grind out victories while playing the entertaining football that fans want to see at the 2014 World Cup. The new coach is expected to be announced in early January.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Brazil Cruise To 4-0 Victory Over Japan: 5 Quick Thoughts

Brazil romped to a 4-0 victory over Japan today in an international friendly in Wroclaw, Poland thanks to goals by Paulinho, a Neymar brace and Kaka. The win represented the Selecao’s sixth consecutive victory and additionally featured an abundance of high percentage goal-scoring opportunities from Brazil with Neymar, Paulinho, Kaka, Hulk and Lucas Moura all narrowly missing the target. Some quick thoughts:

  • This was one of the most impressive Brazil performances in Mano Menezes's tenure as coach. While Japan did have a handful of quality chances on goal, Brazil ran the midfield and dictated the tempo of the game. The team plays with pace, fluidity, artistry and a relentless desire to go for goal. Today, Brazil played against a technically gifted team and netted four goals while creating several high quality goal-scoring opportunities as well. Most impressive was the way in which the midfield quartet composed of Paulinho, Ramires, Kaka and Oscar joined the attack in full force, giving Neymar and Hulk ample support in the movement toward and attack on goal. 
  • Kaka’s return has revitalized the team, and taken some of the pressure off Neymar and Oscar in ways that allow the younger players to express themselves more fully. Meanwhile, in the games against Iraq and Japan, Kaka reminded us of his killer instinct in front of goal as well as his vision, positional awareness, acceleration, physical presence and immaculate fitness. He still has the confidence to take on defenders one on one and to shoot from either the left or right foot like a pure striker.
  • Brazil are bursting with talent in almost every position. For the Japan friendly, the first choice fullbacks of Dani Alves and Marcelo were injured, but the team scarcely lost an inch in attacking wide play through Adriano and Leandro Castan. Similarly, Vasco da Gama centreback Dede represents an exciting alternative to David Luiz and Thiago Silva. Meanwhile, Brazil’s midfield boasts an embarrassment of riches with the likes of Lucas Moura, Ronaldinho, Hernanes, Alex Sandro, Thiago Neves and Fernandinho waiting in the wings to join Oscar and company. 
  • Brazil have scored 20 goals in their last 4 games, admittedly against lesser opponents such as China, Argentina, Iraq and Japan. On the other hand, Spain recently beat China only 1-0 thanks to a goal in the 82nd minute, and Japan beat France last Friday 1-0. 
  • Neymar has now scored 16 goals in 25 appearances for the national team. 
The true measure of Brazil’s progress will come only against more skilled, experienced opponents such as England at Wembley Stadium on February 6, 2013. Before that, Brazil play Colombia on November 14 in New Jersey. Menezes clearly has a lot of options on the table but the squad is generally becoming more consistent, and much of this has a lot to do with Oscar’s ability to wear the number 10 jersey and anchor the transition from midfield to attack. With Menezes’s job more or less secure until the 2013 Confederations Cup, one wonders whether the former Corinthians coach will have the courage to recall Ronaldinho to the lineup as well, particularly if the Atletico Mineiro attacking midfielder continues to impress with his goals, assists and leadership.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ronaldinho Bursts Into Tears, Again

Ronaldinho burst into tears after scoring his first goal for Atletico Mineiro in the team’s 6-0 victory against Figueirense on Saturday. Ronaldinho floated the ball wide from the left flank into the far top corner of the net and then proceeded to kneel and burst into tears as he was mobbed by his teammates. As he got up, the tearful Ronaldinho looked to and pointed at the sky in an apparent reference to the divine. Dinho proceeded to score a hat-trick in a result that kept Atletico Mineiro in second place in Brazil’s Serie A behind Fluminense and ahead of Gremio.

Ronaldinho’s stepfather passed away on Friday of a heart attack. The Brazilian attacking midfielder has generally been in a tearful mood of late due to his mother's struggle with cancer. On September 24, Ronaldinho collapsed into tears after Atletico Mineiro’s goalless draw against Gremio when the fans held up an image of his mother, Miguelina, and a sign with the words “Faith in God.” Usually known for his ebullient smile, Ronaldinho has been in stunning form this season with Atletico Mineiro, so much so that Brazil coach Mano Menezes has suggested he may be recalled to the Brazilian national team.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Brazil Squad For September 19 Friendly Against Argentina

Mano Menezes opted for Brazil-based players for the September 19 friendly against Argentina. Luis Fabiano is back although Mano felt no reason to recall Ronaldinho. Expect Fabiano, Leandro Damiao and Neymar to partner in attack in front of Lucas Moura and Arouca.

Arouca - Santos
Bernard - Atletico Mineiro
Charlie - Fluminense
Cassio - Corinthians
Dede - Vasco da Gama
Fabio Santos - Corinthians
Fernando - Gremio
Jadson - Sao Paulo
Jefferson - Botafogo
Leandro Damiao - Internacional
Lucas - Sao Paulo
Lucas Marques - Botafogo
Luis Fabiano - Sao Paulo
Marcos Rocha - Atlético Mineiro
Neymar - Santos
Paulinho - Corinthians
Ralf - Corinthians
Réver - Atlético Mineiro
Rhodolfo - Sao Paulo
Thiago Neves - Fluminense
Wellington Nem- Fluminense

Brazil Pummels China 8-0: Five Quick Thoughts

Brazil produced the most spectacular display of attacking football and goal scoring power in its recent memory with an 8-0 victory over China today that put their 4-0 victory against China at the 2002 World Cup to shame. Ramires began the drubbing in the 23rd minute by bursting down the left flank after receiving an assist from Oscar and flicking the ball over the diving keeper. Three minutes later, Neymar scored the first goal of his hat-trick from an Oscar pass but the flood gates really opened only in the second half, with additional goals by Lucas Moura, Hulk, two more by Neymar, a Chinese own goal and an Oscar penalty. The scoreline and performance is sure to momentarily ease the pressure on beleaguered coach Mano Menezes who now faces the task of preparing a squad for stiffer opposition against Argentina on September 19 and October 3 in their annual clasico.

Some quick thoughts:

• Brazil’s midfield clicked in a glorious fashion in this match. Yes, it was against China, who failed to offer a whole lot of resistance, but we saw something tonight Brazil fans haven’t seen in decades: four creative playmakers in the middle of the park. Romulus and Ramires were positioned behind Oscar and Lucas Moura and all four did impressive work in initiating attacks. Today, Romulus and Ramires were anything but holding midfielders in the vein of Gilberto Silva or Carlos Dunga. They were key to the attack and supplied pace down the center as well as delivery to the flanks.

• Oscar has finally arrived, and tonight, he arrived with style showing that the number 10 jersey belongs to him and no one else for the time being. He assisted on three goals, scored from the penalty spot and showed his ability to read Neymar’s runs and unconventional style of play. Oscar assisted on two of Neymar’s goals, roamed all over the pitch and showed the courage to shoot at will, from long range included.

• Lucas Moura added pace and creativity to the Brazilian attack alongside Oscar and demonstrated, again, his willingness to go one on one against defenders. Dribbling ability such as Moura's will be key to Brazil’s performance with this squad and style of play because, with the exception of Hulk, the attackers are not built like Ronaldo, Adriano or even Ronaldinho. Neymar, Oscar and Lucas Moura compete with sheer skill and ball trickery as opposed to a strong physical presence in the box.

• Dede delivered a fine performance alongside David Luiz as Menezes juggles his lineup and competition heats up for a place in the Brazilian central midfield. Dede’s physical presence renders him an attacking threat from set pieces as well, one of which he almost converted tonight via a header from a Dani Alves free kick.

• The key to Brazil’s victory today was their pace through the midfield, and once again, the credit goes to Romulus, Ramires, Oscar and Lucas. Yes, Neymar and Hulk put the ball in the back of the net as needed but Brazil, today, attacked down the center, through the heart of the midfield. Brazil did use the flanks, on occasion, but Dani Alves and Marcelo had a relatively quiet game and posed little in the way of a sustained attacking threat.

Overall, this was a goal scoring feast from a Brazil team that, despite its illustrious history of footballing success, is not known for lopsided victories, partly out of sheer respect for the game and their opponents. Menezes’s team can now face Argentina on September 19 with their heads held high and will hope to avenge this summer’s 4-3 loss in a June U.S. based friendly.