Thoughts on Scolari: Part I
If I’m being honest, I didn’t really want Scolari.
In my heart of hearts, I knew Pep Guardiola was a pipe dream and would never have happened. Even if the CBF had actually offered him the job, I don’t really buy the reports out of Lance! that he would have taken it. Guardiola said that he wanted to take a year off, and I think he means it. Then too, I don’t see him taking on a role as different – and as difficult – as the Brazil national team. Besides the pressure (surely the international equivalent to the pressure of managing Barcelona) and the language barrier, Guardiola would want time to mold a side into his own image…and time is one thing he would not have.
So, knowing that, I’ll be honest: I wanted Ney Franco. There are a lot of things to like about him. He is familiar and by all accounts has a good rapport with many of the younger players. His U20 side that won the World Cup (and to a lesser extent, the South American championships) is still probably the most attractive Brazil squad I’ve seen since the 2005 Copa America. It wasn’t because they were dominant in possession. That definitely wasn’t the case against Spain, nor was it even the case against Portugal. In fact, Ney Franco’s side would often come out of the gate looking to counter, then increasingly boss the midfield as the game wore on and the other team tired. (A hallmark, by the way, of Dunga.) No, his side was attractive because of their wonderful, wonderful movement. Anyone who reads this blog knows by now how much I harp on two things – width and movement. Both were neglected under Mano – for the love of Tele Santana, were they neglected – but Ney Franco’s side excelled at both. In football, what you do off the ball is just as important as what you do on the ball. You can have the best playmaker in the world, but he won’t do you a damn bit of good unless his teammates are moving. A huge part of what makes Barcelona, well…Barcelona, is that their movement is exemplary. The 1982 side also had gorgeous off-ball movement; I can close my eyes and picture Zico moving diagonal off Ederto receive the ball, then slicing another diagonal ball to the onrushing Falcao, who would then cross perfectly onto the head of Serginho for a goal against Argentina. Damn! Beautiful stuff. Before a team can ever display good passing, first it has to display good movement.
Anyway, Ney Franco teaches movement well – his midfield consisted of Oscar shuttling back and forth, Fernando advancing, Coutinho moving out to the left flank, Henrique dropping back and Danilo moving up the right wing, all of them constantly playing off each other. It made them both successful on the counter attack and effective in possession.
I also really appreciated Ney Franco’s flexibility as a manager. During his tenure he coached everyone from Neymar, Lucas, Coutinho, Oscar, Dudu, etc. and you never really got the sense he had a completely rigid system. The most common formation seemed to be a basic 4-4-2, but at other times you’d see him play a 4-3-3 or even a 3-5-2 (he did this increasingly in the later stages of the U20 World Cup) and each one was successful in different ways. I also loved how he would use substitutions to change his tactical setup, by switching his 4-4-2 if it looked narrow into a much wider 4-3-3, using Dudu and Negueba off the bench to create width and inject pace, all to great effect.
But alas, his promotion was not to be. The junior side is not the senior side, and you could raise legitimate questions as to whether Ney Franco would be able to replicate his results at the highest level. It will be very interesting to see how Sao Paulo do, though it’s unfortunate for him that he’s losing Lucas so early on. I’ve said for a while that it’s the 2018 World Cup I expect Brazil to have the best chance of winning…and by that point, Ney Franco might be just the man to take them there.
The Return of Scolari
But 2018 is a long time away, and 2014 is drawing ever nearer. And now we have Scolari. There is no doubt in my mind – none – that his selection was bit of a foregone conclusion. He’s an incredibly, incredibly safe choice. Reputation? Check. He’s respected the world over – and maybe a bit lampooned – for being a blue-collar, guts-before-glory type of manager who will get his players to work hard. CV? Check. He’s had amazing success at every level except at Chelsea. Most managers would kill to have his resume:
- Copa do Brasil, Copa Libertadores, and a league championship with Gremio
- Copa do Brasil (twice), Copa Libertadores with Palmeiras
- World Cup with Brazil
- Euro final with Portugal, World Cup semi-finals with Portugal
And don’t forget the Gulf Cup of Nations with Kuwait. Never forget that.
He’s already proven he can play Mitt Romney by taking a 2002 athletic enterprise from the brink of disaster to stunning success. (Sorry, little regional joke, I live in Salt Lake City.) So if anyone can rescue Brazil’s hopes, it’s him. He won’t be beholden to any player, so even the likes of Neymar will have to work hard to guarantee a spot. He won’t bow to the press either, as he proved by refusing Romario back when everyone was pleading for the future politician’s inclusion. And he’s shown the ability to figure out what’s working, like he did when he benched Juninho Paulista for Kleberson. In no universe, ever, was Kleberson a better player than Juninho, but in context of that team, and that tournament, Kleberson worked. And Scolari was smart enough to recognize it.
And yet…and yet…
I’m not necessarily against Scolari’s appointment by any means, but I have two major issues with it. The first is tactics. At no point has Scolari ever been mistaken for a master tactician, nor is he a great philosopher of the game a la Arrigo Sacchi. His recent Palmeiras team seemed inept, with no clear framework on how to play. His tenure at Chelsea was not much better. My memory of that time was that he initially tried to change Chelsea by bringing in Deco to control the midfield and provide some badly needed technical ability, while he used Boswinga to inject pace and width to an already-aging side. At first it seemed to work, but England is not Brazil and managers adapt more quickly over there. Once other teams started figuring out what was going on, it became an easy thing to zero in on both players and deny them space. If Scolari had a response to this, I don’t remember what it was, and consequently Chelsea started going downhill.
Like Mano, my memory is that Scolari’s teams also seem to have trouble scoring against ultra-defensive opposition. Obviously, playing against a parked bus would trouble anyone, but Scolari rarely seems to have a plan B, or to make tactical changes to try and alter the tone of the match. This was especially a big problem when he managed Portugal in 2006. I’d guess it was also a problem in the 2004 final against Greece, the example par non-excellence of a park-the-bus side, but I never saw that match so I can’t say for sure.
The point is, I can’t remember a single instance, either for Brazil, Portugal, Chelsea, or Palmeiras, where I watched Scolari thought, “He just nailed the tactics.” No sudden change of formation, no brilliant substitution, no clear objective in the attack. This last was a problem with Mano as well. You never saw a Mano-side target a specific area of the pitch or a specific defender – or at least, I never saw it. I can’t recall Scolari being any different.
My second issue with Scolari is more of a general concern. I don’t know what kind of style Scolari will try and implement with this team…and I have no clue what formation he’ll use. Because throughout his career he’s tried many different things.
At the 2002 World Cup, Scolari used an effective-but-stretched 5-2-3/3-4-3 hybrid. There were three central defenders: Lucio, Edmilson, and Roque Junior; two central midfielders in Gilberto Silva and Juninho/Kleberson, and a spear up top with Ronaldo at the head, and Rivaldo and Ronaldinho switching flanks behind him. I’ve never been certain as to why Scolari used this formation. It’s possible that he chose a spare man at the back (Edmilson, in this case, who was really more of a DM than a CB) simply for extra cover to allow Cafu and Roberto Carlos to bomb forward. On the other hand, Roque Junior, Lucio and Edmilson were all erratic at this point in their careers, so Scolari may simply not have felt comfortable relying on only two of them.
He used a 4-5-1 at Portugal (more on this in a moment) for the 2006 World Cup, and a 4-1-4-1 at Chelsea, so you can’t say there’s a typical formation to associate with him. It would be very interesting to see him experiment with another three-centerback formation – one could imagine some interesting possibilities, especially with David Luiz. You also wonder if there’s any chance he’ll at least experiment with the 4-2-4, though I doubt it. Whatever formation he chooses, I expect him to use a target man. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a classic center forward, because he experimented with Luis Figo in that role for Portugal, but I’d be very surprised if he didn’t position someone as a lone striker. At a guess? I’d bet he tries either Fabiano or Fred at least once. Less likely, but by no means impossible, would see him try out Hulk in that role.
Now, as to style…
Scolari has a reputation as being very pragmatic, with teams relying more on physicality than flair. I think this is a bit overstated, but let’s look at his recent history:
Brazil – 2002
Was Brazil 2002 as fluid and attractive as ’58, ’70, or ’82? No. But I think this team was – or at least, tried to be – more attractive than a lot of people give them credit for. Going back and watching some of their games, as I have the past couple nights, showed one really frustrating thing: how often their best moves were stopped by the cynicism of their opponents. Fouls, dives, shirt-tugs, the likes of Turkey, England and Costa Rica tried them all. 2002 was also an extremely physical tournament, and I think there’s a noticeable pattern of Brazil responding with more physicality in turn as the tournament wore on. Scolari also seems to have noticed it, because starting with the quarterfinal against England, he removed Juninho Paulista (the one creative link in the midfield) for Kleberson.
What’s certain is that they were definitely an attacking team – but their approach was not based on passing triangles, methodical build-ups or dominating the center of the pitch. They made heavy use of the wings, like you’d expect; not just the wingbacks but also through Ronaldinho. And they were a fast team. Almost every move they made was fast. Their approach was predicated on constantly dribbling or sending vertical balls forward, with the deeper-lying players then rushing forward to overlap. One-twos were not short, but long. Advancing the ball was less a matter of intricate short passes, but of taking advantage of the speed of Roberto Carlos, the trickery of Cafu, and the dribbling of Ronaldinho, Juninho and Ronaldo. When the central players did advance the ball, it was more often from dribbling than passing. The pass would come after the ball went beyond the halfway line, usually up to Ronaldo to hold up play or diagonally to the wingbacks. The Brazilian version of a blitzkrieg? Maybe so.
Because their play was so fast, many of their moves would break down and would have to be started over again. But that was simply the nature of what they were attempting: high difficulty, high-reward. Definitely attacking, but maybe not quite as fluid as in years past. If Scolari uses this style again, one would have to think that both Hulk and Lucas should have a place in his plans.
Defensively, Brazil ’02 actually looked a bit suspect, but where Scolari’s influence can be found is in almost every player’s willingness to commit to the tackle, to pounce on loose balls, and to check an opponent’s run, physically if necessary. Even lightweights like Ronaldinho and Juninho can be seen getting in on the act.
Portugal – 2006
Now, this is where it gets interesting.
Portugal around this time was not like Brazil of four years earlier. This side was built around maintaining possession. They kept possession against most of their opponents; even in their loss against Germany in the third-place match. Scolari’s 4-5-1 is further proof of this; there’s no better formation, mathematically speaking, to control the midfield. Portugal’s problem, as mentioned above, was not in keeping the ball but scoring it. You don’t even have to watch the matches; just look at the scores. Portugal netted only 7 goals in the whole tournament, far less than any of the other semi-finalists, and less even than Brazil, which scored three more in two less matches.
Chelsea – ’08-09
One of the things I believe Scolari tried to do was implement a more technical, possession-based style than the club had previously enjoyed, which again belies his pragmatic reputation. Scolari’s heavy reliance on Deco, and his efforts to procure Robinho, are evidence of that. The problem again was that his team had trouble scoring, and anyway too many players were not really capable of playing more technically. He was fighting a losing battle.
The point is that I don’t think we can definitely say what Scolari will try to do with this team. He’s used different formations and emphasized different forms of attack throughout his career. His execution can definitely be debated, but I don’t think it’s fair to assign him a single philosophy. It may be in the end that Scolari will do what he feels like he has to do. Brazil didn’t have any world class central midfielders during his prior tenure, so he built a side that used speed and width. Chelsea, on the other hand, had an up and down history of the long ball, so Scolari may have felt that an improvement in technique was needed. Consequently he tried to steer the team more in that direction, albeit unsuccessfully.
The only thing we can be sure of is that Scolari will do the following:
1. Not let any one player be above the team
2. Not let the media or anyone else dictate what he will do
3. Instill hard work and toughness throughout the side…or at least, attempt to
In the end, Scolari is not going to be a great tactician; his strength is in his personality. That may actually be the single most important trait when it comes to molding a team in a short time for the specific purposes of winning a tournament. If the best thing Scolari can bring to the table is preparation, well…we’ve seen before that his approach can take you far. I definitely wouldn’t choose Scolari to start a long term project…but to get a team ready for a World Cup? He may indeed be the best answer.
This ends Part I – what Scolari has done and what I think he will do. Part II will be what Scolari should do – basically, what lessons to learn from Mano, which aspects of the team need to be fixed, and which should be retained. After that I’ll do another Selecão Classics article from ’02, and I also want to analyze a Portuguese match from ’06. I suspect the latter may end up being more instructive.
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