Brazil – a 4-2-3-1 or a midfield diamond? Neither.

November 14, 2009

A later, more detailed piece on Brazil is here

The outstanding football article of this year was written by Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian, on Brazil’s formation in the Confederations Cup. Trying to expand on Mr Wilson’s excellent prose would be suicidal, but since the piece came without diagrams – sacrilege – here is a brief summary with visual aids.

In short, European and South American football journalists interpreted the system differently. Europeans saw it as a 4-2-3-1, similar to the style, say, Liverpool play. South Americans believed it was diamond in midfield, with a forward (Robinho) dropping to the left, much as Thierry Henry did in his Arsenal days.

So, here is exactly the same formation in both diagrams, with black lines to signify the different interpretations. The European 4-2-3-1 on the left, the South American 4-4-2 diamond on the right. Which notation is correct? They’re probably as right and wrong as each other in their separate ways, but the important thing is to understand the role of each player, which is hopefully articulated through the arrows depicting movement.

So whilst most spent today’s game disappointed at the fact theEngland team featured just two first-choice players (the reason I’ve ignored England’s tactics), the Brazilian formation provided some entertainment.

Pleasingly, the formation was the same as in the Confederations Cup. There were slight differences in personnel – Elano, who p

rovided the exquisite pass for the goal, would not have played had it been for the energetic Ramires being injured. The scorer, Nilmar, featured because Robinho excused himself, and Lyon’s Michel Bastos, nominally a left-sided midfielder, has come in at left-back and should make the position his own in the next few months.

I have two points to make in addition to Mr Wilson’s:

Both Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo come deep to pick up the ball from the centre-backs (a), and yet both are also given the license to go forward when necessary. Of course, never do the same at the same time. They are able to dovetail in a way, for example, the Lampard-Gerrard combination never could for England when they played 4-4-2. The advantage of having two holding midfield players who can also pass the ball and attack is huge, and I can’t help wondering, and hoping, that Capello will have seen this and considered that playing both Gareth Barry and a fit Owen Hargreaves would be appropriate next summer. (In my book, those two with Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Wayne Rooney ahead of them would be perfect, but that’s a debate for another day.)

Nilmar’s position today (b) – occupied by Robinho in the summer – is extremely difficult to pick up, especially for a defence like England’s that are used to playing against flat, boxey formations. (1) Brazil’s goal (2) the penalty incident and (3) the closest Brazil came to scoring again (when Brown blocked Nilmar’s header), were because of diagonal balls played in behind the defence towards Nilmar’s run from the left, and in that respect, Nilmar is effectively worrying both the right-back and right-sided centre-back in equal measure.

It’s been said that this Brazil side isn’t as attacking, open or exciting than in previous years, but the formation they play compared to 2002 features one fewer centre-back, and one extra attacking(ish) midfield player. The negativity is probably more down to the fact that these players are not household names and the clubs represented in Brazil’s line-up today include relative minnows Sevilla, Villarreal, Panathinaikos and Galatasaray. Nevertheless, this is an excellent Brazil side, and the likes of Bastos, Ramires and Maicon are superb footballers entirely as able as their equivalents from 2002.

The argument that Brazil’s style of play is not free-flowing is negated by the fact that their formation cannot be described adequately with mere numbers. It will be interesting how the Sunday papers depict their shape – the only thing we can be sure of is that none of them will get it right.

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