The Dynamics of a Successful Attack: 2012 Brazil vs 1996
There was a moment in the Brazil vs USA match this past week that perfectly summed up what to me was the most important point from the following match against Mexico. It was early in the second half. I don’t have video of it, but it went a little something like this:
Marcelo passed the ball into space for Neymar. Neymar latched onto the ball, then immediately cut inside, rounding his defender. He raced toward the heart of the US backline. In an instant, the US defenders didn’t know what to do: advance to tackle Neymar, or remain where they were to mark Leandro Damiao and Hulk. Neymar took advantage of that moment of indecision, and slipped a perfect through-ball into the box. Either Hulk or Damiao could have run onto it and been one on one with the keeper. Hulk, especially, would have been favored, as the ball would have fallen onto his favored left foot.
So why don’t you remember this moment? Because neither man moved. They stood there and watched as the ball rolled on through, only to be collected by Tim Howard.
Now, understand this about both Leandro and Hulk. They didn’t just stand there because they were being lazy. Or because they didn’t care. They stood there because they were in the same boat as the US defenders. They didn’t know what to do. Because they didn’t know what Neymar would do.
Now fast-forward to Sunday’s match vs Mexico. There are a lot of reasons why we lost that match. Here are a few:
- Mexico had a superior game plan. From the word go, they were looking to replicate what Bosnia did, playing nine deep, winning the ball deep in their territory, then launching an immediate counter. While Bosnia relentlessly attacked David Luiz, however, Mexico instead looked to swing the ball to the opposite flank, catching the entire Brazil backline off guard and forcing them to shift over. This led to the 2nd reason we lost:
- Danilo is a terrible leftback. Watch the video of Giovanni Dos Santos’ goal-that-was-probably-a-cross. The Porto man’s positioning was the worst possible (both high up near the midfield line, AND near the center of the pitch) but even so, he got back with plenty of time to defend Dos Santos. The really inexcusable thing was what he did next. Instead of
A) Tackling or at least harrying Dos Santos, or
B) Angling his body so as to force Dos Santos to the goal-line, using the line as an effective second defender,
he instead began backpedaling, ceding all sorts of room to Dos Santos, enabling the Tottenham midfielder plenty of time to decide what it was he wanted to do. Ultimately, he decided to cross to Chicharito, probably thinking the tall striker would attempt to head the ball down into goal. But Chicharito instead had moved toward the near-post, drawing Rafael’s attention and letting Dos Santos’ ball to drift into the far-right corner.
The other main reason?
- The official denied both a goal and a penalty to Brazil. Leandro Damiao’s early goal, courtesy of a Hulk chip over the top of the defense, was in my opinion incorrectly ruled offsides. And the Mexican keeper clearly brought down Oscar without getting anywhere close to the ball after the latter’s run in the 2nd half.
But these aren’t really that important in the long run. Because Danilo is not going to be this team’s starting leftback in the long run. And incorrect officiating decisions are just a part of the game. The real reason why this team lost is because they failed to score, and the reason why they failed to score lies mainly in their sheer inexperience.
Hear me out. While it’s true that some of these players would be regular players even if it wasn’t the Olympics next month, like Neymar, Damiao and possibly Oscar, and while a few are overage (Marcelo, Hulk, Thiago Silva) there is not a player in this team who has great experience at the international level. Neymar, Pato and Thiago Silva have one senior international tournament to their name; last year’s Copa America. (Silva was at the World Cup but didn’t play. Pato was at the 2009 Confederations Cup, but also didn’t play.) Oscar and Leandro Damiao don’t have any. Marcelo’s only tournament with Brazil was a junior one, the 2008 Olympics. Hulk has neither senior nor junior experience.
Contrast that with Mexico, whose key players have played in a World Cup, two Gold Cups, a Copa America, and World Cup qualification, which is basically a long-form tournament.
So why does this matter? There are two reasons.
1. The first became visible almost immediately after Dos Santos’ goal. The first 15-20 minutes of the match, I would have bet almost anything that Brazil would score first. The attackers were, for the most part, connecting well, and they already had a disallowed goal to their credit. But after Dos Santos goal, Brazil found themselves down for the first time in a match since…the last time they faced Mexico, almost 8 months previous. So what happened?
They began to panic. Any semblance of fluidity was quick to dissipate. Probably each player was thinking, “We have to score quickly, we have to draw level.” In any sport, when you fall behind, it’s death to panic and lose your patience. In football, it usually means that players begin to play selfishly. Hulk and Neymar were the worst culprits. Every time they received the ball, their first thought was ALWAYS to try and dribble past their opponents, doing everything themselves. But even Marcelo and Oscar were culpable. If you watch the replay, you can see that while Oscar didn’t attempt solo runs, whenever he got the ball, he would always hold onto it a second or two longer than he normally does. These seconds are crucial in a possession-based game, because they spell the difference between the defense shifting to cover space, and already being set. The same was true of Marcelo, who also looked to cut in at just about every opportunity.
The reason this happens is less because of selfishness and more because of fear and ambition. Whenever each player gets the ball, they think, “What if this loss is blamed on me? What if I don’t get the ball back? What if this is my only chance? I have to dosomething.” Or, when a player gets the ball they think, “I know I can draw us level, I know I can score, I know I can make the magical play or pass, because I’ve done it before, for Santos/Porto/Internacional/Real Madrid. I have to do something.”
This type of panic is much less common in an experienced team. Go back and watch the 2002 quarterfinals versus England sometime. After going down an early goal, Brazil didn’t panic. They continued to play patiently (which is not to say slowly) and within themselves. The result was scoring two of the most memorable goals of the tournament. Experienced teams usually don’t panic when they go down a goal (though we could name one memorable exception. I’ll leave it to you to guess which one I mean.)
But inexperienced teams often do. Again, it doesn’t matter what the experience at club level is. The international game is different. I honestly believe there is more pressure, but even more than that, inexperienced players at international level have one huge disadvantage:
The only player they can trust on the pitch is themselves.
And this leads us to the main flaw in Brazil’s attack on Sunday, and one of the chief hurdles they still have to overcome.
There are two types of chemistry. Locker-room chemistry, and in-game chemistry. Both are important, but having one does not mean the other is always present.
I’ll give an example. Some of you know that I’m a big basketball fan. I live in the US, and my hometown team is the Utah Jazz. The 2010-11 season was an unmitigated disaster for my team, the likes of which we haven’t suffered since before I was born. At the start of the season, the team was expected by every pundit to make the playoffs, and picked by many to be a contender.
Instead, we failed to reach the playoffs, and finished below .500 for only the 2nd time since I was born. Our coach of Sir Alex Ferguson-esque longevity resigned, and we traded our star player.
Because the team had no in-game chemistry. It had locker-room chemistry in spades. More than I’ve seen in a long time, actually. It was obvious from interviews and video that the team genuinely got along extremely well. More than is usual, in fact. But that chemistry didn’t translate onto the court, where the individual players played as individuals. Not because they didn’t like each other, or because they wanted to be selfish. But because they didn’t trust each other.
I believe the same was true of Brazil vs Mexico. They displayed little chemistry. I’m actually not that concerned about this, because from everything I can tell, the on-pitch chemistry has actually genuinely improved since the horrible days of the Copa America. On-pitch chemistry can be developed. Locker room chemistry usually can’t. It’s either there or it’s not. As far as I can see, in the locker room the team gets along great, especially the Brazil-based players. But that trust just isn’t there on the pitch yet, for the simple reason that these players are inexperienced at international level and they are still relatively inexperienced at playing with each other. At the very least, they are inexperienced playing with each other when down 1-0 or 2-0.
When players trust each other on the pitch, it’s because of two things:
1) When they pass the ball, they can usually count on getting the ball back, and quickly
2) The players know each other’s tendencies. They know what their teammates like to do, and they know what they can do to complement their teammates.
And that leads us back to that moment against the USA, where Neymar’s through-ball caught both Damiao and Hulk flatfooted. The reason why they didn’t move is because the chemistry between them just isn’t there yet, or at least not consistently. Just as the US defenders didn’t know what Neymar would do, neither did Hulk and Damiao. Would he shoot? Would he try and dribble through the defense? Would he pass over to Danilo, or back to Oscar? In the end, they didn’t know. So they did nothing.
This indecision was out in spades against Mexico, and it’s a contributing factor to the team’s two biggest tactical problems.
You all can probably guess which problems I mean. For a long time now, I’ve been harping about two things: width, and off the ball movement. Chemistry facilitates both these things. Let’s start with the 2nd one, off-the-ball movement.
Mexico played with a very packed, disciplined defense. Brazil’s solution to this was to either try to break through individually, or to play rink-a-dink football on the edge of the box, exchanging incredibly tight, short-range passes in the vain hope that this would break Mexico down.
It didn’t. It rarely does.
What does usually break a disciplined defense down is by stretching them out and moving them out of position. To do this, you have to give defenders more than one thing think about. Defenders have to always be asking themselves the question, “What is Brazil going to do?” If you present a defender with two equally threatening options, and he has to choose one to defend, the chances are that he’ll either choose wrong, OR, you can take advantage of his indecision, just like Neymar did against the United States. Remember, football is often a game of seconds.
But Brazil didn’t give Mexico more than one thing to think about it. It was always one thing. If Neymar got the ball, they knew he would try to cut in and get on his right foot. That’s easy enough to stop, If Hulk got the ball, they knew he would try to cut in and get on his left foot. That’s easy to stop, too, and indeed the reason why Hulk tried to earn a penalty in the 1st half rather than go for a shot on goal was because the defender denied him his left foot when he went on his otherwise-excellent solo run into the box.
Off-ball movement is one of the best ways to get the defense multiple things to think about. When off-ball movement happens, the defenders have to think, Okay, should I pay attention to the dribbler, or to the runner? If I pay attention to the dribbler, is my teammate picking up the runner? Or vice-versa? So immediately the defense has multiple things to think about, giving Brazil both more time and space to operate.
But Brazil attempted very little off-the-ball movement. I believe part of the problem is because Mano Menezes doesn’t demand it. But another part is due to the afore-mentioned panic leading to a lack of chemistry. Panic is what gets each player taking defenses on their own. Lack of chemistry is what causes the other players to just stand around, or wait for the ball to come to them rather than making runs off of it, or moving into diagonal positions to opening up passing angles. They don’t do this because they don’t know what the dribbler is going to do. They don’t know what he wants. And the dribbler, too, doesn’t know what his teammates are going to do or want, so all he can do is just keep dribbling.
Now, we know the team is capable of this kind of off-the-ball movement, this mutual understanding. We saw it against the United States:
Marcelo goal vs USA
But they’re not capable of it consistently, and not when they’re panicking. Because they’re inexperienced. Here, Oscar passes simply to the onrushing Marcelo. Marcelo then lays off to Hulk, who is running diagonal of him. Now, at this moment, the USA doesn’t know what Hulk will do. Will he shoot? Dribble into the box? Pass back to Marcelo? Cross to Damiao on the far-side of the box? They don’t know. So they’re indecisive. Neymar takes advantage of this and displays off-ball-movement, racing past Hulk. It’s the simplest thing for Hulk to lay off to Neymar. (This is off-ball-movement. This is chemistry on the pitch. It’s trusting your teammates by playing simply, not selfishly.)
So Neymar gets the ball into the box. (This is also an excellent demonstration of width, but we’ll come to that.) The play might have ended there, but Marcelo intelligent displayed his own off-ball movement, continuing his run into the box. It’s the simplest thing in the world for Neymar to do this:
The result? A goal.
As our players get more experienced, both in terms of playing with each other and in terms of playing in different scenarios for the national team, I expect both their composure and their chemistry to improve.
Width is the other way to break down a packed defense, and it’s ALWAYS been this team’s Achilles heel in the attack.
In just about any sport played with a ball, there’s a preferred way to score a point, and a less-preferred way. The preferred way might be because it’s a higher percentage way, or a quicker way, or a more aesthetically pleasing way. In basketball, the preferred way (for coaches, anyway) is to score around the basket. That’s because these are high-percentage points. It’s much easier to make a shot closer to the rim than farther away.
In American football, the preferred way (or at least the popular way) is by means of the touch-down pass. It’s aesthetically pleasing and it’s also quick.
In tennis, the preferred way is by means of the cross-court forehand. It’s the highest-percentage shot on the court.
In football, the preferred way is through the center of the pitch, often by means of the through-ball or the solo run. It’s the most direct path to the back of the net.
But in each of these sports, the preferred way is also the expected way. And it’s also the easiest way to defend against. We saw this truism in the Copa America, and again against Mexico. Just about every attack was through the center. Consequently, the defense expects it, and it’s easy enough to defend against. Remember, to break down a packed defense, you have to stretch the defense, and give them more than one thing to think about.
In each of the sports listed above, it’s also a truism that the way to open up the preferred way is by first using the un-preferred way. How do you open up the paint in basketball? By means of the three-point shot. The more of a threat you are beyond the three-point line, the more the defense has to stretch to cover it.
In American football, a popular maxim is that you can open the passing game by first establishing the running game.
In tennis, the best way to open up the court so you can hit crosscourt forehand winners is by first establishing yourself as a threat with the backhand up the line, which is one of the most difficult shots to attempt. But the more often you connect on this shot, the more it pushes to the side, opening up the rest of the court.
And in football? If you want to attack down the center, you first have to threaten down the wings. Using width stretches the defense because it forces them to cover more ground, and it forces them to shift over. The more they get used to doing this, the more they become wary of this, the more likely that you will have the space and the numbers to attack down the center.
The 1996 Brazilian Olympic Team
To illustrate these points – chemistry, off-ball movement, and width – let’s go back in time to the Atlanta Summer Games. Brazil fielded not only one of the strongest Olympic squads of all time, but one of the most attractive and high-scoring. In fact, look at some of the names they boasted:
- Ronaldo (then still known as Ronaldinho in Brazil)
- Bebeto (one of the over-23 players)
- Aldair (another over-23 player)
- Juninho Paulista
- Roberto Carlos
Hell – even in 1996, most senior sides could only dream of having a squad like that. But the reason they were so good was because of the three points I mentioned above.
Let’s look at some of their goals:
Juninho goal vs Denmark (start at 1:52 mark)
This is from a pre-Olympic friendly versus a familiar opponent: Denmark. Here, you see simple, beautiful pass-and-move football. Bebeto passes ahead to Roberto Carlos, who immediately backheels back to Bebeto. Bebeto then lays off for Rivaldo, and continues his run forward (rather than just stand there.) Rivaldo takes a dribble, then passes to his right to Juninho, who almost immediately passes to the right wing to Ze Maria. Again, Juninho doesn’t just stand there, but surges forward into the box, to be rewarded by an excellent reverse through-ball from Ze Maria. By this point, Juninho has three options. He can cut back to Ronaldo, cross to Bebeto (who followed him into the box) or shoot. He chooses the latter option and finishes a beautiful team goal.
In the Olympics themselves, Brazil beat Hungary 3-1. Here’s one of their goals:
Juninho goal vs Hungary (start at 0:46 mark)
Take a look at the spacing in this picture. While there is nothing absolutely threatening going on here, you have several players who merely have to take several steps to open up a good passing angle.
The ball finds its way to Ze Maria, while Flavio Conceicao, Juninho and Bebeto all make forward runs into the box.
Ze Maria passes to Flavio Conceicao,
Who then cuts back to the open Juninho. Juninho shoots and scores.
Brazil eventually made it to the semi-final, where they took on a spirited Nigeria side. Brazil soon went up 3-1, Nigeria’s only goal thanks to a Roberto Carlos own-goal. With about 20 minutes left, Brazil looked to be secure on their way to the finals. Unfortunately, what happened next is one of the great collapses in Brazil’s history. Nigeria scored two in the final 20 minutes to draw level, then finished the Selecão off in extra-time with a golden goal. The only consolation here is that they also would defeat Argentina to win the gold. In my opinion, this was when Brazil’s semi-obsession with the only major tournament they haven’t won really took hold.
Brazil would have to settle for the Bronze after absolutely destroying Portugal in the 3rd place game. Watch this video, and pay attention to the 2nd goal. It’s a special, special team goal that illustrates a lot of what I’m talking about. Chemistry…width…and off-ball-movement.
So it’s possible that an Olympic side can play with the kind of quality we expect from the Selecão. It’s supremely unfair to expect Mano’s team to approximate Zagallo’s. After all, there’s only one player I would take from the current team as worthy to start for the ’96 team, and that’s Thiago Silva. (I do think that Neymar and Oscar would have made the bench.) But the examples of the ’96 team show exactly what our current side still needs to improve on. Again, I think that the off-ball-movement (largely thanks to Oscar) and the chemistry issues have gotten better. Want proof? Go back and watch the match against Romania, or Venezuela, and compare it to now.
Yeah, it’s loads better.
But there’s still a long ways to go. But considering the fact that our side is made up of inexperienced players who are still trying to figure out who they are as players, and still trying to cement places with the national team, the kind of loss we suffered against Mexico really isn’t that surprising.
One final thought. I’ve heard a lot of criticism on Neymar since the Mexico match, including in the Brazilian press. Yeah, the kid made mistakes, but I also thought he was the most dangerous player on the pitch in the 2nd half. He’s only 20 years old. You want to know the list of players his age or younger whom you could base a World-Cup contending side around?
Pele and Ronaldo. And that’s the entire list.
A Pele and a Ronaldo come around once in a generation, if not once in a lifetime. We’re not going to see them again anytime soon. So we can’t expect Neymar to raise the entire level of the team. It’s just not fair to him. He doesn’t have the advantage of learning under Romario, as Ronaldo did, or learning under Ronaldo, as Ronaldinho did. It’s not his fault that the players who should be leading this team right now – Ronaldinho, Kaka, Robinho – are all closing in on being washed up.
Anyway. I’ve got no problem criticizing the kid – heaven knows he still has lots to work on – but the kind of lambasting I’ve seen him get from certain corners is just beyond belief. He’s got 9 goals and 4 assists in 17 matches. He’s 20 years old. You can’t expect only him to step up. Everyone else around him has to step up, too – including his coach. (In Mano’s defense, his comments after the Mexico match, about the players playing too individually, was absolutely spot on. Now let’s see if he can actually do something about it.)
Now, before I take my leave of you, here’s your question of the day:
Say you are building an entirely new Brazil side from scratch. The one rule is that you cannot use any Under 23 players. What does your side look like?
Actually…that team looks REALLY sexy. Still don’t think they win the World Cup, though.
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