2011: A Tumultuous Year for Brazilian Football

Time for change in the Samba nation?

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In a year that was believed to herald a new dominance of Brazilian club football with higher quality players, partially from repatriated imports, and ever-growing revenue, one can perhaps feel a little disappointed at the outcome and sense a change in direction is needed.

Despite Santos earning the country’s 15th Copa Libertadores title – still seven behind Argentina – they were not particularly convincing winners in a tournament where the other Brazilian clubs bowed out far too early. Shortly after came the abysmal Copa America performance from the national team followed by the crushing of supposed Brazilian powerhouses in the Copa Sudamericana by a side from Chile.

Santos only earned their first win in the 2011 Copa Libertadores on match-day four and only won one game by a margin of greater than a single goal – including aggregate scores. With qualification for the knockout stages scraped; as ninth seeds they drew the eight seeds – Club America of Mexico.

It was an extremely tight tie against a team that finished top in a group with Fluminense, Nacional (URU) and Argentinos Jrs. However, a solitary goal from Ganso in the first leg at the Vila Belmiro proved to be enough for Peixe. They were perhaps aided by the fact that America could not play the second leg at the daunting Azteca stadium, as U2 had hijacked it for a concert that night.

Such a level of fortune evaded the other Brazilian teams who were all eliminated in the round of 16 after Corinthians failed to even reach the group stage. Top-seed Cruzeiro and Fluminense both suffered second leg aggregate reverses to Once Caldas and Libertad respectively whilst Gremio’s exit came courtesy of two defeats at the hands of Universidad Catolica. A slow start to the second half in the second leg cost Internacional a spot in the quarter-finals to eventual finalists Penarol.

It was a night that severely shocked South America as one of the least impressive Brazilian sides were the ones to progress. The others had shown tremendous complacency as they succumbed to what was thought to be weaker opposition. With momentum against them a degree of petulancy emerged in the Brasileiro squads that damaged team morale and ultimately the outcome of the ties. There needed to be a shift in attitude of the Brazilian clubs and players who seemed to think the rest of the continent was out to get them.

As the Libertadores reached its conclusion the Copa America began shortly after, with a number of Brasileiro players forced to miss the early stages of the season in order to represent their country.

The tournament did not begin well for Mano Menezes’ side. A 0-0 draw with Venezuela was followed by a late goal from Fred to secure a 2-2 draw with Paraguay. They overcame Ecuador 4-2 in the final group game before being eliminated by Paraguay in the quarter-final via penalty shootout.

Menezes used a 4-2-2-2 formation for the tournament and his top-heavy line-ups have been a constant source of problems for the national team since. Against teams with three attackers, such as Paraguay, the full backs could not attack as they were occupied by the wingers. Everything therefore had to flow through the congested middle where Brazil were outnumbered.

Ganso was too heavily burdened by the immense responsibility in operating as the side’s number 10 and playmaker-in-chief. He was the only creative link in an attacking unit which lacked a focal point and was isolated from the deep-lying midfield duo of Ramires and Lucas Leiva.

Menezes managed to hold onto his job despite the appalling campaign and results have since improved, though his side still faces many of the same issues. He seems unwilling to alter his formation and is relatively inconsistent with his squad selection. Fortunately he has another 30 months to find the winning formula before the 2014 World Cup and can count on promising youth as the Under 20 side won the world title in Colombia this summer.

Though some of the most exciting players were lost to the Copa America, the Brasileiro did not fail to entertain. It was a great year with what seemed like 8 different teams contesting the title at different stages.

When the others fell away it was Vasco da Gama, Corinthians and Fluminense that remained in the title hunt with just two games left. A late goal from Bernardo ended Flu’s title hopes as Vasco won Rio de Janeiro’s Classico dos Gigantes in round 37. However the title ended up in Sao Paulo as Corinthians were crowned champions after a goalless draw against their Paulista rivals Palmeiras.

It was a truly fascinating season with the quality praised by many pundits. However, the evidence from the Copa Libertadores earlier in the year and the Copa Sudamericana suggest otherwise.

Most Brazilian clubs field a second-string team for the Copa Sudamericana when focussing on the league. This year was no different. Of the four Brazilian clubs that made it to the round of 16 (the first round proper) only one side progressed – Vasco da Gama.

Sao Paulo’s first team were sent packing by Libertad and Botafogo’s second-string were thrashed by Santa Fe. But perhaps the most humbling defeat befell Flamengo.

With Ronaldinho and Thiago Neves in the starting line-up, they were destroyed 4-0 at home in the first leg by Jorge Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile. The Chilean side adopt a 3-4-3 formation and press high, with great intensity, for a possession-based attacking game. The opposing 4-2-2-2 formation failed to cope as the full backs could not vacate their own half and the Chileans dominated the midfield.

They played, and won, with swiftness, flair and assurance as they surged to the title. They exposed similar weaknesses in Vasco da Gama in the semi-final, playing with traits traditionally attached to Brazilian football. Though clubs from Brazil may be streets ahead of their South American clubs in financial terms, it is not a wholly similar case for their football.

Another Brazilian club to be taught a footballing lesson was Santos as they were trounced 4-0 by Barcelona in the much-anticipated Club World Cup final on December 18th. Peixe never got anywhere near the Catalan giants who embarrassed the Copa Libertadores champions. Ganso and Neymar could not stamp their mark on the game as their team barely had the ball, allowing for little fight to be put up against the European champions.

As Tim Vickery has suggested, it shows the lack of players in Brazil of a similar make-up to Xavi and Iniesta who contribute hugely to possession control. Universidad de Chile possess Marcelo Diaz and Charles Aranguiz and though they are inferior in ability to the Spaniards, they have much the same role in the side.

The preference for attacking full backs has caused the production of creative midfield players in Brazil to be diminished. The country now seems to produce only holding midfielders and attacking midfielders. There is no middle ground in which a player like Xavi could operate as that position rarely exists in modern Brazilian football.

Barcelona have demonstrated that a player such as Daniel Alves can be used as an attacking full back, without compromising midfield creativity in a contemporary 4-3-3. The Brazilian game must no longer forego the innovative central midfielder in order to allow maximum forward roaming for a full back. Versatility has been sacrificed and therefore the teams have often become predictable and therefore beatable.

So 2011 has been a year of mixed fortunes for Brazilian football. It has lost a degree of the creativity and versatility that made it not only the best in the world, but also the most pleasing to watch. Results take precedence over displays in Brazil. This has created an extremely quick-to-sack nature in the Brasileiro which perhaps accounts for the tactical shift in the nation’s football.

Brazil is not the force that it once was. Change is needed. The game needs to evolve at both domestic and international level if both clubs and the national side are to maintain competitiveness. They must rejuvenate the spirit of traditional samba style football that has somewhat inspired sides such as Universidad de Chile and Barcelona to numerous titles.

Follow Tom on Twitter @thwebber

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