Tracking the Brazil Offense
This is going to be the first of two or three “mini-articles” I will try to get up this week. I will be on vacation next week so don’t expect anything from me; in the meantime, life’s been insane of late so I apologize for not providing something a bit more substantial.
19 goals in 14 matches. Those are the scoring stats for Mano Menezes’ team to date. Considering his tenure began with such promise, with an offensive extravaganza against the US (that still, ominously, only yielded two goals) the number is a disappointing one. Mano’s appointment was supposed to herald a glorious return to dynamic, attacking football, but when comparing his first fourteen matches to Dunga’s, the results are…surprising. Dunga’s much-demonized philosophy yielded twenty-eight goals in fourteen matches, and no one would have called his early squads particularly offensive, considering Fabiano wasn’t in the picture yet, and Vagner Love was a mainstay.
On the other hand, Dunga had Kaka and Robinho at their absolute primes, while Mano has mostly had to rely on a 19 year-old Neymar and a 21 year-old Pato. Then too, much of Brazil’s scoring woes can be attributed to ghastly finishing, a flaw that can’t be laid on the manager’s door, but on the players. (Though one might ask why Mano hasn’t taken steps to correct this finishing problem by calling up more reliable finishers.) Still, no matter which way you look at it, Brazil has a scoring problem.
This problem was on display again against Ghana. Technically superior in every way to the Black Stars, Brazil still only managed one goal…and that was against undermanned opposition down to ten men. Not being able to finish is one thing, but it wasn’t a finishing problem in this match – it was a creating problem. Damiao’s goal, his disallowed chip, a cross from Hulk, and headers from Neymar and Pato were the only genuine chances created the entire game that didn’t come off of set pieces. Bewildering, considering the fact that, as said, Ghana were playing down a man.
This got me thinking about the goals Brazil has scored. To that end, I devoted ten minutes to rewatching every goal scored under Mano Menezes. Following is a list of each goal, with a brief description as to how that goal was created.
USA Match (2-0)
Header off cross (Andre Santos to Neymar)
Through-ball (Robinho to Pato)
Iran Match (3-0)
Free-kick (Dani Alves)
Through-ball (Elias to Pato)
Tap-in off cross (Andre Santos to Nilmar)
Ukraine Match (2-0)
One-timer off cross (Robinho to Dani Alves)
Shot off cross (Carlos Eduardo to Pato)
Argentina Match (0-1)
France Match (0-1)
Scotland Match (2-0)
Shot off cross (Andre Santos to Neymar)
Holland Match (0-0)
Romania Match (1-0)
Tap-in off chipped lateral pass (Neymar to Fred)
Venezuela Match (0-0)
Paraguay Match (2-2)
Shot outside box (Jadson)
Through-ball (Ganso to Fred)
Ecuador Match (4-2)
Header off cross (Andre Santos to Pato)
Through-ball (Ganso to Neymar)
Tap-in off cross (Maicon to Neymar)
Paraguay Match (0-0)
No goals…not even a penalty kick
Germany Match (2-3)
Shot outside box (Neymar)
Ghana Match (1-1)
Through-ball (Fernandinho to Leandro Damiao)
So let’s tally up the results. I count the following:
7 goals off crosses
5 goals off through-balls
2 goals off shots outside box
2 goals off penalty kicks
1 goal off free kick
1 goal off rebound
1 goal off passing inside box (Neymar’s pass to Fred in the Romania match)
All of these numbers, except penalty kicks and rebounds, are indicative of different aspects of the Brazilian offense. Let’s start with the goals off crosses. Frankly, I find this number rather vindicating, as I have been preaching (as have many of you) the importance of width in the modern game. That Brazil has scored the most goals off wide play, by stretching the defense by using the flanks, by using overlapping runs followed by crosses, proves the point. The maddening thing here is that Brazil so stubbornly does not often make use of width, or crosses. Only in the Ecuador game, when Maicon started, have I seen Brazil base their attack off attacking down the flanks and not down the center. The answer here is clear: if Brazil has seen the most success off creating width and attacking via crosses, yet have used this tactic the least, then the obvious solution is to include players that provide said width, and base the game plan on around this tactic. Maicon, Hulk, Michel Bastos, step forward.
The five goals off through-balls looks impressive until you remember that the vast majority of Brazil’s build-up play has been centered around creating through-balls, around attacking through the center via dainty, short passes in tight spaces. I’d have to go back and watch every single match again to give you a true percentage of attempted through-balls converted into goals, but I can guarantee you that the number isn’t high. This isn’t to say that attacking down the middle shouldn’t be done, or that through-balls shouldn’t be attempted – quite the contrary – but that the tactic should be applied after the defense has already been stretched out, or on the half-counter. To use an American Football analogy, you open up your passing game by establishing the run. In real football, you open up the center by establishing superiority down the wings.
The two goals off shots outside the box is a hard number to analyze. After the Venezuela match I wrote that Brazil could help open up tight, packed defenses by being a threat from distance, but this threat has yet to be really established. Only Neymar seems comfortable at trying, and he’s only scored once, though in fairness he’s come very close on a number of other occasions.
The one goal off a free kick is also troubling. Our friend Kenny likes to point out that Dunga’s team excelled at scoring off of free kicks, and indeed it’s important to be able to do so, or winning fouls deep in enemy territory almost becomes pointless. Again, the solution here is obvious – call up more players with the capability to score from set pieces. Ronaldinho looked very dangerous against Ghana, and Hulk should provide a good opportunity provided Mano doesn’t drop him. The other obvious candidates here are Hernanes and Michel Bastos. But someone in the starting lineup has to be able to provide it. Neymar’s not proficient enough yet, and Elano isn’t good enough in other areas to deserve a starting role.
A number that is conspicuously absent, given the Brazilian tradition, is goals created off solo runs. Those of us who grew up watching Ronaldo slaughter the likes of Maldini, Canavarro, Nesta, Puyol, Thuram, and others with his explosive runs, or Ronaldinho ghosting through defenses, or Kaka beating his man with sheer pace, should be particularly sensitive to this. Neymar and Lucas are both capable, of course, but Neymar is often too heavily marked, and forced to drop too deep to receive the ball, while Lucas hasn’t had consistent playing time (nor has he really deserved it as yet.) Solo runs should not be, and really cannot be, a tactical consideration – you don’t build your offense around solo runs – but the fact that Brazil has seen absolutely no success in this area, despite the fact that far, far too many of Mano’s players have tried it, shows that the other areas, namely width and improved passing in general, is absolutely key if Brazil is to advance far in the World Cup. Maybe in 3 years, if Neymar and Lucas continue to improve, and if Hulk finally gets playing time (who in my opinion is the only Brazilian currently playing who is capable of a Ronaldo-esque run.)
Ultimately, whatever direction Brazil goes in, something has to change. Mano needs to take a long hard work on what’s working and what’s not. Too much of the team’s possession – when they get it, that is, for retaining the ball is a problem in and of itself – has been wasted on dinking the ball around in tight spaces, trying to create the perfect opening in a brick wall, trying to make the perfect pass, the perfect goal. It’s too often been futile, and inevitably the result is that the team gets impatient and starts launching long balls…which, by the way, have not resulted in a single goal.
In any case, leave your own opinions on how to give more tooth to the Brazilian attack in the comments below. All I know is, I’ve heard too many misguided British commentators talk about how the team needs “more flair.” I’d settle for more ruthlessness, and a clearer direction on how they want to score.
Next up: thoughts on the #10 position.
By the way….
Congrats to Dunga on being named the new manager of Al-Rayyan, a Qatari football club. I’m not familiar with Qatari football (shocking, I know) but hopefully success there leads to bigger and better things for him. I see absolutely no reason why he couldn’t coach in Portugal, or even Italy.
Finally, everybody send warm thoughts to Socrates, one of the greatest midfielders Brazil has ever boasted, who is in the hospital yet again for internal bleeding.
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