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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.

Summary
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.