Brazil start the World Cup as the team to beat

June 9, 2010

Brazil's basic formation

If the World Cup television pundits tell you to forget everything you know about Brazil, then forget everything they tell you. This is a wonderful side that plays superb football.

There’s a sense that people have got Brazilian football wrong, that every four years they become convinced the Brazil national team has won five World Cups by playing Globetrotter-esque football with no regard for defence. Did Joga Bonito ever exist? Fans of the 1970 World Cup-winning Brazil side would say yes, but football has advanced an incredible amount in the past forty years, and it’s simply not possible to successfully play that way.

The failure four years ago summed that up. Brazil attempted to fit Kaka, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano into the same XI, and they were dumped out at the quarter-final stage. The main question was what was worse – Brazil’s tactics, or their circus-like training sessions that served as preparation. Dunga needed to change Brazil drastically both on and off the pitch.

ZM effectively previewed this Brazil side in the wake of their friendly against Ireland back in Feburary, with an in-depth look at how they shape up on the pitch. This article will be an adapted version of that – little has changed in the past three months, and the initial piece has sufficient detail to provide a comprehensive guide to Dunga’s side.

For those looking for wider reading about Brazil, two pieces are recommended – firstly, Grant Wahl’s piece for Sports Illustrated, which looks at why the current side isn’t popular back home, whilst Roberticus’ article concentrates upon the reaction to Dunga’s squad announcement.

There has only been one change in personnel from the Brazil side we expected three months ago – Ramires appears to have been replaced on the right of midfield by Elano. Also, in the Ireland game, Adriano (not in the World Cup squad) was played in place of the injured Luis Fabiano – but the rest of the players remain the same, and fill very specific roles.

The side

One of the odd things about the fact the Brazilian team being 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.

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.

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.

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

Robinho, the left-sided forward, 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 Luis Fabiano occupies the opposition’s left-sided centre-back. Therefore, they play too far apart to realistically be labelled a front two, and they rarely combine directly.

The role of Ramires/Elano is also interesting. Their job is to shuttle from a central midfield position when defending, to a right-wing position when in possession. This requires a tremendous amount of energy, and it is rare to see the starting player remain on the pitch for 90 minutes, especially as it is a position where Dunga has two good options.

The use of two holding midfielders, Melo and Gilberto, means that Brazil are able to keep the ball easily, because one of them is always free. This is important, because Brazil’s game is based around possession when they are ahead. Their second goal against Ireland was a wonderful 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/Elano 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 below.

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 3-3-1-3 system, with Robinho and Ramires tucking in, narrowing the opposition, and allowing the Brazil wing-backs considerable space to get forward.

And one final picture:

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.

The positioning of Brazil's players in the defensive phase (left) and the attacking phase (right)

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 they’ll break at speed, rely on the skill of Kaka and Robinho, and win games comfortably without thrashing the opposition, by dominating possession.

It’s not the most exciting Brazilian team in history, but if you love football, then you’ll love Brazil.

Brazil start the World Cup as the team to beat

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