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Wither Hulk?

   

Flash back to 2011. Hulk was in the middle of the best year of his career, leading a fabulous Porto team to both the league title as well as the Europa League championship. While the most famous player to come out of that Porto side was Radamel Falcao, the truth is that Hulk was their most important player. (He was also named the Primeira Liga Player of the Year.) Not only was he second to Falcao with 36 goals to his name, he also led the team in assists with 21. Hulk was the both the side’s most imposing physical weapon, as well as its most prolifically creative. Falcao might have excelled at finishing moves, but Hulk could start and finish with equal proficiency.

At that time, Hulk was almost certainly the best Brazilian attacker in the world. Neymar was his only real competition. That’s why so many on this site, me included, screamed at Mano Menezes for so blatantly ignoring him. While a flagging Robinho, an injury-prone Pato, and a what-the-fuck is he doing here Andre were getting consistent call-ups, Hulk was left out in the cold.

Eventually the pressure on Mano started to mount. While he never had and never will have a strong following in Brazil (more on this in a moment), Hulk’s name started popping up more and more in the media. I thought the strongest voice for his inclusion was actually Dunga, who said that Hulk had a chance of becoming Brazil’s next Ronaldo or Adriano. (Bafflingly, Dunga himself was guilty of dropping Hulk in favor of Grafite, whose only contribution to the national team was a lucky back-heel against Ireland.)

Even then, comparing Hulk to Ronaldo was laughable, but the Adriano comparison wasn’t a stretch at all. I started watching Porto a lot in 2010, and take it from me that Hulk looked like the next big thing. Oh, he had his faults. Then, as now, he had an inconsistent first touch. Despite his great assist numbers, he could occasionally be selfish. And he was a known hothead, both on and off the pitch.

Despite that, Hulk was doing this. And doing it consistently.

It all seemed so obvious. Put Neymar on the left wing and Hulk on the right, or even play Hulk as your main striker if no one else was up to snuff. On paper it made perfect sense: two inverted wingers cutting in on either side, allowing the attacking fullbacks space to overlap. Hulk’s work-rate and skill at set pieces (a skill that sadly seems to have diminished) was also a plus. Back in 2011, the only player Mano ever called who seemed likely to score from a free-kick was Elano, as Neymar hadn’t added that facet to his game yet.

After the Copa America debacle, and the equally embarrassing friendly against Germany, Hulk finally got his chance. Starting with the Ghana friendly, Hulk began playing more and more. By the end of the year, he looked like a fixture. The dream was coming true.

And for a time, the dream was coming true. It’s easy to forget now, but Hulk’s first several months with the national team were actually very good. It started in the 2nd half versus Ghana. Hulk came in, and while neither he nor the team scored, his energy and dynamism was obvious and left all of us wanting more.

I don’t recall him playing much versus Costa Rica a few months later, but it was against Mexico where he really began to shine. For around sixty minutes he was a whirlwind of activity. Mano actually started him at center forward, with Lucas on the right, but the two switched places more often than not. Time and time again, Hulk blitzed forward with the ball, blasting shots from distance or squaring for his teammates. Again, he didn’t score, but it was an extremely positive contribution, especially compared to Lucas and Neymar’s relatively meager efforts.

Hulk got his chance to truly star for Brazil at the end of the year. Mano and company went to Africa, sans Neymar and the other domestic players, for two friendlies against Gabon and Egypt. It was the first time that Hulk’s name would have been listed first on the proverbial marquee, and while the competition was piss-poor, it was no worse than the likes of Romania, Costa Rica, or the Argentina D side from months earlier. Again, Hulk didn’t score, but he was the best player on the pitch, capping off two fine performances with a superb assist against Egypt. This one is worth watching again:

And for a time, the dream keptcoming true. While perhaps not as technical and creative as Robinho, Hulk offered a more relentless, physical option. He could either cut inside and shoot, or get to the byline and cross. There may not have been a great deal of variation, but he could do it time and time again and he could do it well.

Mano sent him back to the bench against Bosnia at the start of 2012, but Hulk didn’t let that deter him. He came on late, but created the own-goal that led to victory.

His next performance, against Denmark, is probably his finest to date in the yellow shirt.

He wouldn’t quite reach those heights again in the ensuing slew of friendlies, but he scored against Argentina and played well against the US. Many of us here clamored for Hulk to be included as one of the over-age players for the Olympics. After all, why not? He was in fine form, and his size, speed and strength, not to mention experience meant that he would be a man amongst boys. I truly thought he would dominate the tournament.

And then he didn’t.

I’m still at a loss to properly explain this. It’s true that for some reason, Mano started featuring him more on the left, a position that he’s not really suited for. From the start, you could see a difference. His regular stock of moves had been taken away, and as a result, nothing came natural to him. He was thinking on the pitch instead of acting, and thinking is death in sport. Still, it doesn’t really explain his sudden drop in form. For whatever reason, Hulk’s aggression turned into passivity and he never really contributed.

Mano then made a major tactical mistake. He took Hulk off against South Korea and put left-back Alex Sandro in his place, not as a direct change but as a change in formation. Suddenly Brazil were overloaded on the left flank and barren on the right. While Brazil won 3-0, they had to first survive a nervy match where South Korea dominated huge chunks of possession and greatly exploited space down the right wing.

Mano persisted with the change against Mexico, but realized early in the first half that it wasn’t going to work. On came Hulk, and he immediately made a difference, running energetically at the Mexican defense and unleashing a pile-driver toward the end of the half that the keeper was forced to parry away. In the 2nd, of course, he scored, and should have had an assist at the death when he set up Oscar with a perfect cross, only to see the midfielder head well over.
A horrible performance from the team, but a great one from Hulk. And the dream, it seemed, was still alive.

Hulk had a solid but not spectacular rest of the year for Brazil, scoring three more goals against South Africa, China and Iraq. He played decently as the more vertical option in Mano’s 4-2-4 experiment. By the time Scolari took over, you could legitimately say about Hulk that, while he had failed to set the world on fire, he at least had been a meaningful contributor. Seven goals and three assists in eighteen matches (fourteen starts) isn’t phenomenal, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either.

But since Scolari took over, Hulk has tended to play very poorly.

It’s not like he hasn’t had chances. He just hasn’t made the most of them. The worst aspect of his play has been his sloppiness. He’s misplayed numerous passes, spewed shots everywhere but between the goal posts, and even left the ball behind on one occasion. His decision-making hasn’t been anything to write home about either; he’s looked nervy and uncertain more often than not.

To be fair, Hulk has found other ways to contribute. You can’t overestimate his importance at tracking back to help in defense. Fred rarely does it; Neymar does it inconsistently and when he does he usually fouls. It’s a necessity when you have a fullback in Dani Alves who is more and more prone to defensive lapses. It also has a second benefit in that gives Brazil another player who can start counter-attacks, since neither Gustavo nor Paulinho are consistently helpful in this regard.

That said, as an attacker, Hulk’s primary responsibility is, of course, to attack. While his defensive efforts are laudable, they cannot compensate (at least not totally) for his poor efforts in the opponent’s half of the pitch. I think it’s probably obvious that I am a “fan” of Hulk, and have been for a while, but for me to pretend that his secondary role makes up for his struggles in his primary role would be hypocritical. After all, I’ve been pretty clear about my lukewarm feelings about Paulinho. Paulinho is quickly becoming, and already may be, world class at making secondary runs into the box. He’s fantastic in the air and his finishing is exemplary for a midfielder. But this isn’t even a secondary role. It’s tertiary. His two main roles should be to help maintain possession and facilitate attacks from the midfield, and to defend. Paulinho is decent in both these roles, but a master at neither. And that’s why he wouldn’t make my starting XI. There are other players who can perform either or both of these roles better than Paulinho can.

Which leads us back to Hulk. Hulk’s work rate has been admirable, but his main role is to score goals or set up his teammates. His main role is to terrorize the opponent’s left-back.

Since Hulk has been maddeningly inconsistent in this regard, my Paulinho doctrine should and does apply to him as well. There are currently better options to fill that role than Hulk. But before we discuss what those options are, let’s look at why Hulk is struggling.

First of all, let’s dispense with any idea that Hulk “sucks.” He doesn’t. He’s a very talented player. He has ferocity, technical ability, and athleticism. At Porto, the only thing holding him back from joining the highest tier of attackers was a lack of polish. Not a lack of talent.

Second, comments relating to Hulk’s physique are ridiculous. I’ve seen very few of those here, and those I have seen were probably made ironically, not seriously. But there are many, especially in Brazil, who scoff at Hulk’s wrestler-build and mean it. To think that Hulk’s body should preclude his selection is insane. After all, this is Brazil we’re talking about. You know, the team that made the diminutive, bow-legged Garrincha famous. The team that relied on a squat, balding Gerson in 1970. The team of that chain-smoking scarecrow, the supremely un-athletic Socrates.

To my mind, there are three explanations why Hulk’s national team career can’t seem to take flight. You could take each on one its own, or a combination of them all (as I do.) The first is probably the most important.

Hulk’s problems are (environ) mental

Remember, Hulk played pretty well for most of 2011 and 2012, the Olympics excepted. It wasn’t until 2013 that his struggles for Brazil really started. So what happened in between?

Simple: he moved to Russia.

Hulk transferred in September of 2012. Within a few weeks, the media was rife with reports of unrest in the Zenit locker-room, with several players complaining about Hulk’s wages. A few weeks later there was talk of a fake bomb with Hulk’s picture being left inside the training grounds. Hulk later denied this, but whatever happened, it clearly wasn’t good. Hulk’s form rapidly declined, and by January he was making noise about leaving the club.

Whether it’s due to racism, the language barrier, chemistry with his teammates, meteors from space, or Edward Snowden, Hulk’s game has really suffered in Russia. He only scored eleven times, and three were against one particularly poor opponent. So the uncertainty over his situation, combined with his poor domestic play, undoubtedly had an effect on his psyche. But the Russians aren’t the only ones to blame. Brazil itself is just as culpable.

It’s no secret that Hulk has never been well-liked in Brazil. Whether in the stadiums or on the internet, his name has been constantly jeered from the start. Only in Recife did he seem to be appreciated. But by and large, many Brazilians don’t want Hulk on the team. They don’t like his bullishness. They don’t like the fact he’s supplanted domestic darlings like Lucas, Bernard, or Wellington Nem. (All three, of course, have recently moved abroad.) They don’t know him, either. He has no local following to draw on, as he moved to Japan very early in his career. It must be extremely difficult to try playing for your country when your country doesn’t really want you. As a result, every mistake he makes is magnified. Every misplaced pass is mocked, every heavy touch sneered at, every wayward shot cursed. Hulk has to be feeling like a fish out of water. Unwanted by the fans in Brazil, unwanted by his teammates in Russia…it’s got to be maddening, and I don’t think any of us have really attached enough importance to this fact. Sure, the move to Russia was his fault. It was foolish, but foolishness doesn’t merit the treatment he’s received at the hands of both fans and teammates.

In my own small way, I know what it’s like to try and perform in those kinds of environments. Until my kids were born, I earned my living by being a professional musician. I remember one occasion where I replaced a long-standing member in a certain ensemble. I had the right to challenge him for his spot, so I did and won. In essence, I “stole” his place. Many of the other musicians weren’t happy and gave me the cold shoulder. I felt a lot of pressure, felt like I didn’t belong, and consequently I got tight. My playing suffered. It took a while before I finally settled in and turned things around.

As hard as that was, it’s nothing compared to what Hulk’s undoubtedly going through. You can see it in his play. Hulk used to play with a swagger, an arrogance. That’s gone now. He used to shoot with a sneer, and if he missed, he’d glare and do it again a few minutes later. Now, he cringes when he misses. He looks around and smiles nervously, as if hoping his teammates won’t yell at him. Hoping Scolari won’t yank him. He’s as tight as a drum; it’s evident every time he makes an unforced error. The worst is when the ball falls to him in the box. His touch is almost always heavy, and as a result, he snatches at the ball instead of properly shooting it. It’s true that his game has never been polished, but he was never like this. The best example came in the last friendly against Switzerland. After a good run, his best of the match, Hulk opted to roll the ball over to Neymar instead of shooting or trying to beat his man. The Porto Hulk would have never done that. The Porto Hulk would have flayed the ball within an inch of its life, the words see you in hell poised on his lips.

This is all very theatrical, I know, but the point is that Hulk is a different player. The old Hulk had nerve, singular; the new Hulk has nerves, plural. And the problem is all in his head.

Hulk struggles when playing with Neymar

This is something Hulk should have figured out by now, but the fact remains that there is a fairly large body of evidence that Hulk does not play well with Neymar. His best matches for Brazil have either come when Neymar was not on the pitch, or when Neymar was playing poorly. Observe:

Exhibit A: Brazil vs Ghana

In this match, Hulk started on the bench. Neymar was a mixed bag in the first half, a combination of both improvisational genius and utter wastefulness. In the second half, he was downright poor. His movement dried up, and everything he tried was overly extravagant. (In Neymar’s defense, he was hacked mercilessly in this game by a brutally dirty Ghana side, who should have had three players sent off. It was actually pretty shocking.)

Hulk, on the other hand, was a bundle of activity from the moment he came on, roaming all around the pitch, tracking back, attempting a relentless pass-and-move game supplemented with the odd cross (one of which almost found Damiao for a tap-in.) So Hulk played well just as Neymar began to flag.

Exhibit B: Brazil vs Mexico

Until the Confederations Cup, Neymar’s track record against Mexico was pretty poor. He was rendered fairly impotent on this occasion, while Hulk, meanwhile, caused El Tri all sorts of problems. Also, interesting side note: you remember how in the Confederations Cup against Mexico, Neymar sent in a brilliant chipped pass over the top of the defense to Hulk, only for Hulk to snatch at the ball and send it into the side netting? A similar moment happened back in 2011. Hulk played an utterly brilliant backheel through a packed defense to Neymar, setting him up 1v1 against the goalkeeper. Unfortunately, Neymar could only blaze over the bar. How things change.

Exhibit C: Gabon and Egypt

As I mentioned above, Neymar remained in Brazil for the Selecao’s African safari. Hulk got the main billing. He was excellent in both games, especially against Egypt, which is probably still one of his three best matches in the yellow shirt to date. While he did miss one glorious chance to score, he mixed fantastic acceleration and great inventiveness to superb effect.

Exhibit D: Brazil vs Bosnia

Another slightly mixed-bag from Neymar with Hulk starting on the bench, but when Hulk came on he immediately inspired a flagging Brazilian offense, creating the own-goal that gave Brazil an undeserved victory.

Exhibit E: Brazil vs Denmark

Neymar had not yet joined Brazil as they embarked upon their pre-Olympic friendly tour. Again, Hulk took advantage of the increased spotlight, scoring a sensational first goal and a slightly-selfish-but-still-good second. This would also join the “three best matches” group I mentioned a moment ago.

Exhibit F: Brazil vs Mexico

After being ignominiously demoted to the bench earlier in the tournament, Hulk was the cavalry for Brazil after they found themselves a goal down in the 1st half of the Olympic final. I already talked about this one: Hulk scored one goal, should have assisted another, and was behind most of the team’s best chances.

I think that’s probably enough. There have been occasions where both men played at a solid level (the pre-Olympic friendly vs Argentina, the Iraq, Japan and China friendlies) but all of Hulk’s very best performances have come when Neymar is either absent or out-of-form.

So why should this be? Why does Hulk struggle to play with Neymar?

The first reason, and the least important, is that a certain level of tension always seems to have existed between the two players. I’ve got no proof of this, only my observations, but I think it’s notable that the two bark and glare at each other more than at anyone else. When one makes a mistake, the other scowls. When one calls for the ball and the other doesn’t deliver, both will exchange unmistakably-angry words. If tension does exist (and again, I can’t prove that it does), I suspect it stems mainly from the fact that both are alpha-players unused to playing second fiddle to others.

The more important reason is that Neymar impinges on Hulk’s game. Hulk is a volume player, and by that I mean he needs a high volume of touches and chances to be successful. He’s not Romario, who could go an entire half without seeing the ball before taking out a defender and scoring with two touches. Consequently, when Hulk gets fewer touches, he takes longer to get going and, more importantly, probably feels like he has to make every touch “count.” That would explain why he sometimes goes for the elaborate over the simple, or tightens up and botches dribbles and passes he normally could make in his sleep.

The stats on this are hard to keep, but just for comparison’s sake, here’s the number of touches Hulk got during the Confederations Cup, according to whoscored.com.

Spain – 31 touches
Uruguay – 38 touches
Mexico – 36 touches
Italy – 44 touches

I combed through my notebooks and on the web trying to find data to back up my claim, but unfortunately only found this one brief scrawl from my notes on the Egypt match: “Hulk getting lot of touches…40+?” I wrote that at some undetermined point in the 2nd half. Nevertheless, while I can’t quite prove it with concrete numbers, I feel pretty confident that Hulk indeed gets far fewer touches with Neymar on the pitch than with him off of it. It seems like a pretty safe assumption, especially given this graphic from Zonal Marking. 44% of Brazil’s attacks versus Spain originated down the left (i.e. Neymar’s wing) versus only 23% on the right. This team relies far more on Neymar than it does anyone else, which can leave Hulk rather isolated and underutilized.

I don’t think the Neymar-Hulk combination is the primary reason for Hulk’s issues – again, I think the psychology angle plays a stronger part. But it’s notable that Hulk’s best performances have always come when Neymar is either absent or struggling.

Hulk may simply have peaked

Of course, it’s possible that Hulk has simply passed his peak and is in some kind of early decline. If you look at his career statistics, there’s an unmistakable curve to his play. While he did have some early success in Japan, it was primarily for Second Division teams. His career didn’t really start in earnest until he moved to Porto in 2008. From there, he scored 9 goals his first season, 10 in his second, 36 goals in his third, 21 goals in his fourth, 13 goals in his fifth (Porto and Zenit combined) and 2 goals thus far in his injury-curtailed sixth season. Taken together, that 36 goal season is starting to look a bit like an outlier. But since he backed it up with a 21 goal season the very next year, I’d say that it isn’t an outlier, but rather a very sudden and very short peak.

Except I don’t really believe that. Hulk is still only 27, and when healthy, still in the same shape he always was. A decline that drastic is pretty rare, so again, I think it’s more likely that Hulk’s move to Russia and the confidence issues that have risen as a result are the real culprit here. But it’s something to consider.

So with all that said, what do we do with Hulk? Talented he may be, but we can’t wait for him to find his head again. Struggles with Neymar he may have, but in the final analysis, Neymar is more important than Hulk. So what’s the answer? Does Hulk have a future with the national team?

I say yes. But before we get into what that future is, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Hulk doesn’t deserve to be an automatic starter at this point. His work rate isn’t enough to just hand him the starting spot. There are other players who are more in form and can bring dimensions to the team that Hulk just can’t provide at the moment.

Who are some of those players? The one I’d look at first is Willian. While Willian normally plays more on the left, he, like Michel Bastos, can play on the right when required. Now, Willian isn’t the goal scorer Hulk is. Actually, he’s not much of a scorer at all. If my stats are correct, Willian has never scored more than 10 goals in a single season. Hulk at his worst is a better goal scorer than Willian.

What Willian does offer is creativity and link-up play. He’s a good dribbler, an excellent mover off the ball, and a subtle and silky passer. He has a good first step and is comfortable with both feet all around the pitch. I’d be very intrigued to see what Willian could do for Brazil, as I think he’s a more mature, more developed version of Bernard. He could really add to Brazil’s cohesion in the attack. But he’s not going to score goals.

If you don’t plump for Willian, you could swap Hulk for a more out-and-out right winger like Douglas Costa or Alex Texeira, who I don’t think have the quality to play for Brazil right now. Similarly, I think players like Lucas Moura and Bernard are intriguing, but not quite up to the challenge yet. (Bernard may prove me wrong this weekend.) A more realistic choice could be Jonas, who has carved out a nice career for himself in Valencia. Jonas is a good finisher, and can play multiple positions. He played as a center forward when Mano called him, (I thought he was extremely underwhelming), but as an attacking midfielder for Valencia two years ago, and as a left winger last season. I don’t recall seeing him play much on the right, but I doubt it would be a problem. My biggest issue with Jonas is simply that I’ve never found his game all that impressive. He’s capable of producing some stunning moments, but whenever I watch him, he too often turns completely invisible for long stretches of the game.

Perhaps the most unorthodox but potentially most intriguing option would be to move Oscar out to the right wing, and put Coutinho, Diego or even Kaka in his place as a more traditional-minded #10. Oscar spends quite a bit of time moving out to the right wing as it is, which I’ve written about before, and it would open up space for one of the aforementioned playmakers who otherwise might be left out in the cold. Something I don’t want to see is Hernanes in that position. As much as I love him, he is not a wide player and really struggles there. Mano made the mistake of always forcing him to play on the wings; Scolari shouldn’t do the same.

Whatever option you choose, Hulk’s fate still has to be decided. So the question is, should he remain on the team, or not? I think he should. To me, the perfect role for Hulk at this point is as a super-sub. This isn’t something that just sounds good on paper; he’s proven how adept he is at coming off the bench. Here’s a list of every match where he came on as a sub:

Brazil vs France – Hulk came on with only a few minutes to spare, and in those few minutes briefly energized Brazil’s attack in a way Robinho and Pato utterly failed to do.

Brazil vs Ghana – Hulk came on at half-time, and, as I already wrote, played very well.

Brazil vs Bosnia – Hulk came on in the 2nd half and created the own-goal that gave Brazil the victory.

Brazil vs Mexico – Hulk came on early in the 1st half and quickly asserted himself as the best player on the pitch, scoring a late consolation goal.

Brazil vs South Africa – An extremely poor Brazil team were galvanized when Hulk came on in the second half and smashed home the match-deciding goal.

Brazil vs Russia – After being stymied by Russia’s dogged, disciplined defending, Hulk’s second half arrival immediately started exposing cracks in the Russian defense that Neymar, Oscar, Fred and Kaka couldn’t find. Ultimately, it was a brilliant combination play by Hulk and Marcelo that led to an easy tap-in for Fred and a salvaged draw.

In six substitute appearances, Hulk scored twice, created one own-goal, and contributed to another. Furthermore, in each of those appearances he either directly led to a victory (Bosnia, South Africa), indirectly led to a draw (Russia), or should have led to another (Mexico, if Oscar had scored off his free-header.) In other words, Hulk’s been nothing short of brilliant every single time he’s come off the bench.

The reasons for this are pretty simple to understand. When Hulk comes on fresh in the 70th minute, he can use his speed, aggressiveness and physicality to take advantage of a tired opposition. In addition, Neymar’s own contributions usually start to wane the longer a match goes on, which means that Hulk as a substitute can see more of the ball on a per-minute basis than he does when starting.

So despite his lackluster performances in 2013, Hulk should retain a spot in the team for the next World Cup. If he can find his form again, fantastic. But even if he can’t, Hulk still has enough qualities for a smaller but still vitally important role as an extremely effective super-sub.


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