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All Things Footie | Wednesday, August 10 | Jordan

The counter

Later on this month I’ll be clocking up the big quarter of a century, and it got me thinking, Football in 2005 is very different to football in 1980, for all but one team. Brazil.

In 1980, the world famous CBF (Confederacao Brasileira de Futebol) was created as a breakaway governing body from the CBD (Confederacao Brasileira de Desportos—the Brazillian sport federation that governed all sport in Brazil). The national team had legendary players such as Emerson Leão, Rivelinho, Sócrates, Junior, Falção, Eder and one of my favourite players of all time—Zico. Their playing style centred on having no real midfield: attacking midfielders played up with the forwards, a defensive midfielder played just in front of the back-line. When they had the ball, they swamped the opposition, Zico had acres of space every attack because defences were trying to cope with four other ‘forwards’. When they didn’t have the ball, they had to rely on the ability of their back line to win it and get it back up to the other end of the pitch—not by hoofing it, mind—the passing was so intricate and beautifully executed that it mesmerised opponents and supporters alike. In the 1982 World Cup, Scottish FA head Andy Roxburgh said of Brazil:

“Give our lads a paintbrush, and they’ll got to work on the back fence. Hand one to a Brazilian, and he’ll make like Leonardo (da Vinci).”

The audacity of the Brazillian game has not changed … ever. Name me a Brazil team who played 4-4-2? Name me a side that didn’t have at least five (seven including the fullbacks) bona-fide attacking players on the pitch at all times? In 2002 they started the World Cup final with Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kléberson (with Cafu and Robert Carlos practically playing in midfield in front of a back three—they could only be superficially defined as 'defensive' anyway). In 1998 with Cesar Sampaio, Leonardo, Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Bebeto, 1994 with Mazinho, Zinho, Mauro Silva, Bebeto and Romário. See a pattern? While some (well, one) of those sides didn’t win the competition, you’ll still notice they’ve reached the final in the last three World Cups. Not too shabby.

Their formula is simple:

It may have taken however long it’s taken, but the rest of the World is finally catching on.

Arsenal’s unprecedented unbeaten run in 2004 came as a direct result of realising they didn’t need two defensive midfielders, Chelsea’s success last year came through playing the ‘Brazillian’ system. Even Porto and Liverpool’s success in the Champions League use the same formation (if you look at it, Liverpool were much more attack minded in the Champions League last season than they were in the Premiership). The counter attacking system is much maligned, but it’s only a crime when it’s played with 3 attacking players and 8 defensive.

As I’ve mentioned before The key player in the traditional Brazillian formation, and thus in modern football, is the defensive midfielder. With only one on the pitch, and given that his job (and his job alone) is to link defence and attack, he’s so mind-bogglingly important it’s difficult to express it. With someone inferior in the position, a team’s defence is swamped and the only way to the forwards is through long balls. It’s no surprise that the best player in this position in the Premiership is a Brazillian is it? Though Makalele is running Gilberto close.

It’s ironic though that perhaps the most valuable player in any Brazil team is one of the only four defensive ones. Forget Ronaldinho, forget Ronaldo, forget Adriano, forget Kaká (how!), without Emerson and Gilberto they’re near to pointless. It’s worth noting that in the recent Confederations Cup, Brazil looked a totally different team when they played the normally attack minded player Ze Roberto or the inexperienced Renato in the defensive position as opposed to Emerson.

So in 2005, as in 1980 (as in 1970 for that matter), Brazil are great; the difference now is that we’re all catching on, and football should be all the better for it. “It’s just like watching Brazil”, they chant, and they’re more right than they think….

(15) Comment(s) | Permanent link to this article

# Posted by Anonymous Darren at 9:23 PM
Long have Spanish sides played in such a way, or there abouts.

Barcelona for instance play one up with Eto plus 3 attackers in midfield such as Deco, Xavi and Ronadlindo. Motta plays the defensive role and we all know about Barca's wingbacks, well actually perhaps not but they have often done so. Silvinho and Giovanni at left back currently.

With Hleb at Arsenal and also Fabregas Arsenal look set to catch on!

In present day football this set up is king. Gone are the days where the tradional wingers plus defensive middle works. Arsenal for instance can be stopped by halting the attacking flanks. Just sit back and narrow the space.

I wonder if Wenger might try playing the wingers more advanced with Hleb advanced of Gilberto?

Great analysis as ever Jord.
# Posted by Anonymous Rogue at 9:44 PM
Masterful analysis. Glad I am to see the Brazil style finally catching on.
# Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 4:05 AM
Hmmmmm....... very thought provoking, that’s what I like about this blog.

Does the manager start out with an idea as to how he wants to organise his side and recruit players accordingly or does he evaluate the available talent and deploy as dictated?

I don’t give much credit to the notion that managers look for players to populate a preconceived “system” as implied in the blog. I just don’t think they are that clever or the talent pool that deep. I believe the manager knows the highly rated players, drafts them onto the team then works them into a functional (hopefully winning) unit that capitalises on the players' abilities.

In the case of the Brazilian team’s success, they have great players and a manager who lets them do their thing. Pretty smart huh?

Sorry Jord, I think you are giving too much credit to Filipe Scolari for devising the strategy. I believe he picks the best players available and goes with the flow. This said, I acknowledge that every team has a “personality” that reflects that of the manager. However, I attribute this to the fact that each manager recruits certain player types, i.e.: SAF has an aggressive nature and recruits aggressive players. AW is more cerebral and innovative; hence, the Arsenal sides of the last several years.

In the case of the current Brazilian side, Scolari picked the best players and worked them into a functional unit.
# Posted by Blogger Jordan at 4:07 PM
I'm giving no credit to scolari -- this strategy has been used for decades in Brazil, it's just the way they play, I don't think they could do it any other way!

It's just that recently a few managers have realised that Brazillian success has more behind it than just having great players. They've got a great system.

As for managers' recruiting policies, I think it depends on the manager. For instance, I'm certain Mourinho has selected very carefully certain players that fit with his system, and deploys them accordingly. Same goes for Wenger, he's bought players that fit his idea of a perfect system.

I know Brian Clough had a very indocrinated system that he insisted on his teams playing, and only bought players that fitted in.

Other managers have more constraints, they're not as dogmatic about their ideas and their style. Someone like Kevin Keegan for instance just seems to sign players he thinks are pretty good -- with no idea of how to make them part of a whole.

Most Brazillian managers probably don't even realise they're playing to this system, or buying for this system, because it's so ingrained in their psyche and experience. Playing four up front is not necessarily cavalier and stupid, it can be very, very clever.
# Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 8:50 PM
Hello. Forst time I'm posting, so want to make sure I start by congratulating on a wonderful and thought provoking blog as well as post.
Compliment made, I must however disagree a bit with you. I would argue that it has been Brazil´s ability to evolve into a more defensive minded team under the likes of coaches like Parreira (90 - Champions), Zagallo (98 runners up) and Scolari (02 -Champions) that has gained trophies instead of the beautiful yet innefective teams of the 80's. The first to introduce the concept of a European style "real" midfield was Parreira in 94. Despite fierce criticism from local media, his midfield consisted of: two holding midfielders: Mauro Silva tightly tucked between the defenders, and Dunga (defensive midfielder if ecer there was one). In addition his 3rd and 4th midfielders were also players that dropped back to defend, Mazinho (instead of crowd favourite Rai who had offered no defensive support) and Zinho. Such was the defensive tendency of this Brazil team that it made it to the final on scorelines of 1-0 (USA), 3-2 (Holland), 1-0 (Sweden), and 0-0 (penalty win over Italy).
The 98 team was a copy of the 90 team in terms of formation and positioning, with only the players changing. That WC Dunga played the role of DM in front of the back four, C. Sampaio the second holding midfielder, and Leonardo (a converted full back) the 3rd midfielder with defensive covering posibilities.
The 2002 team was perhaps the most radically defensive of all. Do not forget that Scolari was the first, ans probably last, Brazilian coach to play a side with 5 defenders. Alongside Roberto Carlos and Cafu at the fullback position, Brazil won the cup with 3 centre backs: Roque Junior, Edmilson, and Lucio. Aditionally the side played with two defensive midfielders: Gilberto, and Kleberson.
Summing up, I would say that Brazil has evolved alot from the free attacking, "no real midfield" of the 80´s, to a modern, European style(defend first attack later) team. Don´t be fooled by the recent display at the Confederations Cup, where Brazil did indeed play with only one real defensive midfielder. Parreiar has been succesful winning one WC with 3 holding midfielders, and he will not be foolish to try to change a formula that has won him the grandest prize in all football. Expect Brazil to play the Cup with Emerson (or Gilberto). Renato, and Ze Roberto in the middle.
# Posted by Blogger moldypeach at 9:01 PM
with all due respect, i more or less disagree with everything you said. mainly, the very idea of comparing mourinho (cold, bar two wingers and sometimes lamps, is extremely rigid, super serious, lots and lots of rules, limiting players ability to express themselves so as to make for defensive soundness) with brazil (warm and soulful, players with freedom, hence show their talent, liberated) is ridiculous. its like capatilsm and communism. liverpool were more defensive in europe than the prem because they lacked the basic talent to create against better teams, so had to defend, which was more of a strength.
forget me, go to brazil. ask them what they played in 94. 4-4-2. boring for brazil, romario was the only great player. at the last world cup, they had 3 centrebacks. kleberson ran first and played football second, so they had 3 genius' plus full backs equals 5 attackers. argentina could have been much nicer, but unfortunately the manager thought they were dutch.
porto were even more mechanicised than chelsea currently are. surely the brazil teams that have taken football to its heights are the opposite of mechanics. they are free spirits, no?
it could well be that you are right about the number type systems, but surely it is not what you do but the way that you do it. and to draw parallels between archetypal brazil and chelsea/porto/liverpool is crazy. they are miles from the style of brazil, unfortunately.

ps. arsenal fail, because, symbolised by vieira, they think champ league is for madrid,milan etc. so they choke. and freddie makes no sense. he cant dribble well, his passing is merely average, he just lacks the talent of the other guys. hopefully hleb can flourish on the right side, and arsenal could be beautiful, and winners.
# Posted by Blogger Jordan at 9:45 PM
I agree that (classic) Brazil's free-spirited-ness and lack of a definable formula is the very thing that defines them; however I don't think that means there isn't a formula behind the way they play.

I think coaches like Wenger and Mourinho* have worked on trying to bring the underlying formula to teams of players that perhaps don't have the same free-spirited-ness of the brazillians.

moldypeach: what you say about the last world cup is absolutely spot on. As soon as I started looking at the 2002 world cup i realised my pattern was fading. Maybe there's something interesting in that.

The talk about 94 from Anon before is interesting too. There was a distinctly more defensive edge to the brazillians then.

It's obviously much more complicated than I've made out, but then everything always is. The less 'brazillian' brazil teams were definitely less fun to watch than the sides from the seventies and eighties, and recently, only the Brazil side in the confed cup really blew me away. In 2002, they played some lovely football, but they didn't play the kind of poetic, fluid genius-ball of the early eighties -- despite having the players to do so.

Maybe Brazil are being turned into a more European side, while European sides are trying to emulate Brazil?


* I only say those two because they are two I know the best. I'm sure in France, Spain, even Italy and Germany, there are analagous coaches.
# Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 10:26 PM
Its not the system that makes the brazil the best team its the individual players. They have excellent players in every position and some of the very best of their generation, ronaldo, ronaldinho, kaka etc And in the past they've had some brilliant players romario, zico, socrates, alemao. They're the best because they produce the best.
# Posted by Anonymous Kachien at 10:42 PM
Agree with Jord's analysis. Moldypeach's assessment is wanting. . .no way you can class Kleberson, Edmilson and Lucio as purely "defensive". . .if I remember correctly, Kleberson was involved in the run-up to both Brazil goals in the WC final. Haven't you ever seen Lucio's crazy runs with the ball or do you remember Edmilson's stunner against Costa Rica? The key advantage that Brazil have is that all players on the pitch are comfortable on the ball and can press offensively when necessary something few back 4's can do. Viva Brazil.
# Posted by Blogger Jordan at 9:46 AM

That's the commonly accepted view, yes, but i believe it to be more subtle than that. I don't think any team can be successful without having a tried and tested, well thought out system. Plenty of teams full of great players fail, brazil succeed because they approach the game in a way that no other side in the world approach it.

Until now anyway.

While it's true that chelsea, arsenal, porto, etc, may not be as fluid and expressive as Brazil, it's certainly the case that they're adopting a very similar tactical style. To think that brazillian sides (particularly the great ones) didn't have a system and just played as they wanted to is naive, and denegrates the manager and the players; it's always been evident to me that brazil have a tactical plan -- even when they've five up front!
# Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 9:55 AM
Brazil couldn't win the world cup in the eighties, in fact they had to wait until '94 to win again and they had Dunga as captain. Don't know bout you but i wouldn't have paid to watch that side
# Posted by Blogger Dave Landry at 5:58 PM
Interesting discussion. If you accept that all Brazilian teams share a common, attack-minded style, (personally, I don't, I think Anon's more on the mark) then I think you'd have to say the only EPL side that employs such tactics is Arsenal. It's certainly common enough to see Cole, Toure, or Lauren probing the opposition's back line. Set pieces aside, when was the last time you saw a Chelsea defender cross the halfway line? Gallas was more likely to swing in a cross under Ranieri than Mourinho. And certainly Liverpool relied on heroic defending, not stylish attacking, in their Champions League run to get past Juventus and Chelsea. ManU, with O'Shea's penchant to get forward are the only other Prem side to come close to being as adventurous as Brazil.
# Posted by Blogger Jordan at 7:39 PM
It's not necessarily about relentless attacking, my whole point (given away by the title of the post) is about counter attacking football.

Whether it's playing with six attackers on the pitch or playing with six midfielders, it's about having a number of players ready to break and the manner in which the ball is won from the opposition.

The holding, ball-winning midfielder and an abundance of wide players -- Robben, Duff, Ljungberg, Pires, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Socrates, Giggs, Beckham ... Not comparing talents or abilities, but the way they operated in the team.

There's no doubt in my mind that the secret of the recent successes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man Utd and even Porto, has been the ability to work on the counter -- as brazil do, and have always done, but are rarely given credit for doing so.
# Posted by Anonymous Boom at the Kop at 2:59 PM
Wow - you are one arrogant bloke. How many minutes of the Brazilian football team 1950-1980 have you actually seen in your entire life?

Brazil produces amazing players partly because the majority of those players come from some of the poorest areas in the world, and achieving success in football is one of the only ways to escape a life of poverty and misery.

That's a pretty strong incentive. You've often been spot on, Jord, but you have to know your limitations, and one of htose is that you are simply not qualified to opine on a 50 or more years of a team's history on the basis of a couple of matches which you happen to have watched.

The rest of the world catching up to one team? The only time that's ever happened was in the 80s, and the team was Liverpool Football Club, not Brazil.
# Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 10:50 PM
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