Analysing Brazil’s fluid system at close quarters

March 3, 2010

Dunga’s Brazil side isn’t popular back home. The use of two holding midfielders, the tendency to play on the counter-attack and the overlooking of the likes of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Pato have all seen him accused of playing in an un-Brazilian way, by ditching the classic Brazilian principles of yesteryear for a more patient, less spectacular way of playing.

All this ignores Brazil’s record since Dunga became manager – Copa America winners, Confederations Cup winners, top of the South American qualifying group – but perhaps Brazil is a country where to win is not enough, you have to win with style.

That’s a line of argument to be investigated by someone more knowledgeable about Brazilian football culture, but tens of thousands of Brazilians turned up at the Emirates to watch Brazil take on Ireland, and I was in the stadium to see the Brazil shape for myself.

This site has previously commented upon the unusual system Brazil play. Indeed, one of the odd things about the fact the Brazilian team is regarded as rigid and inflexible is the fact that no-one quite knows how to categorise this side. As Jonathan Wilson pointed out last year, South Americans tend to see the system as a 4-4-2 diamond (or 4-3-1-2), in Europe the shape was widely described as a 4-2-3-1.

The diagrams on the right show the different interpretations – the players in their ‘actual’ positions, but with lines depicting either formation.  So on the right, you have the diamond midfield, on the left you have the 4-2-3-1.

Some believe that the system is a diamond midfield, as shown in this picture. The back four marked by red, the midfield diamond by blue (Kaka is slightly to the left-of-centre, his usual position denoted by the blue dot), and the forwards marked by pink.

Brazil - 4-4-2 diamond?

It would be difficult to look at that shape and deny that it was a 4-4-2 diamond – perhaps a 4-3-3 if you were considering Kaka in this picture to be playing as a forward. You would certainly not describe it as a 4-2-3-1, because Ramires (the midfielder furthest to the right) is clearly alongside Melo, the midfielder on the halfway line.

And yet, just minutes later in the same game, Brazil had taken this shape, which looks much more like a 4-2-3-1. The defenders again in red, the two holding players in blue, the three attacking players in pink, and the lone forward in green.

Brazil, 4-2-3-1?

The key to understanding the team’s shift is probably the roles of Robinho and Ramires.

Robinho, the left-sided forward, usually takes up a position outside the opposition’s right-back. In this sense, he is effectively playing as an old-fashioned outside-left, whilst the central striker (generally Luis Fabiano who was injured for this game, and replaced by Adriano) occupies the opposition’s left-sided centre-back. Therefore, they play too far apart to realistically be labelled a front two, and they almost never combine.

The role of Ramires is also interesting. He effectively plays the same role he does for Benfica, shuttling from a central midfield position when defending, to a right-wing position when in possession. This requires a tremendous amount of energy, but the fact that he and Maicon (the right-back) possess both stamina and speed, means that those two can effectively cover three positions (right-back, right central midfield and right-wing) by themselves.

And so the team is actually something like the one shown on the right – what would you define that as?

The use of two holding midfielders, Melo and Gilberto, means that Brazil are able to keep possession so easily, because one of them is always free. And Brazil’s game is based almost entirely around possession. Their second goal against Ireland was a wonderful flowing move that featured 21 passes before Robinho put the ball into the net. They like to soak up pressure and do generally play on the counter-attack, and they break at lightning speed – a particular problem for the opposition central midfielders is that they look to close down Gilberto and Melo, which then leaves Ramires and Kaka free. And with Robinho staying wide left and Maicon bombing down the right, Brazil can dominate the centre of midfield with a diamond, without leaving them short on the flanks.

There is a further subtlety to the Brazilian shape though, because when in possesson they sometimes feature a back three, with Michel Bastos (who is really a left-winger at club level) and Maicon acting as wing-backs, as shown in this photo:

Brazil shifting to a three-man defence

Here, Gilberto Silva (normally the right-sided holding player), moves to the right of defence, and becomes a third centre-back alongside Juan and Lucio (the three are marked in red), with the latter becoming a sweeper, with license to move forward. This three-man system with wing-backs is similar to the way Brazil played in 2002. Felipe Melo then becomes the sole holding player, with Bastos and Maicon (marked in pink) able to get forward  and provide width high up the pitch. It then effectively becomes an Ajax-style 3-3-3-1 system, with Robinho and Ramires tucking in, narrowing the oppositions, and allowing allow the Brazil wing-backs considerable space to get forward.

And one final picture:

Brazil with the ball in defence

Robinho (purple) occupies the right-back, whilst Adriano (red) plays on the shoulder of the left-sided centre back. The player inbetween them is the free man. As Ramires (yellow) is in a central position, the right-back Maicon (pink) takes up an extremely advanced and wide role, and to compensate, Gilberto (blue) drops into a position ready to cover the right-back slot, similar to how Javier Zanetti covers for Maicon at Inter.

Brazil will be criticized by many over the next few months – every single pre-game chat on the BBC or ITV involving them will refer to this side as being ‘not a classic’ Brazil side, and the pundits will no doubt yearn for the likes of Ronaldinho. But remember, in 2006 Brazil tried to play a front four of Kaka, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano, and it completely failed. This Brazil side is functional, organised and brilliant in possession.

Don’t be surprised if Brazil quietly fight their way to World Cup victory. They’ll keep the ball, tire the opposition but not look particularly dangerous. Then, late in the game, they’ll break at speed, rely on the skill of Kaka and Robinho, and win games comfortably without thrashing the opposition.

This isn’t the side of Brazil side of 1970, 1982 or even 2002, but if you love football, you’ll love watching Brazil.

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