Can you guess what country conceded the smallest number of goals per match played in the history of the World Cup? Probably the consistent Italy, right? Maybe the intelligent Germany or the stiff Uruguay? Think again, because the real answer is Brazil. Or at least it was until they conceded 10 goals to Germany and Netherlands in their two last matches in 2014. After that disaster, the record is now actually held by England.
The point is Brazil is universally recognised by technical skills, creativity or individual talent and never related to discipline, hardworking, tactics and, of course, defence systems. And while there is some truth to this image, it doesn’t paint the complete picture.
Brazil was always in the tactical vanguard of football and receives little credit for it. So far, no one was quite capable to copy the Brazilian full-backs, for example. Their strikers have often amazed the world in a wide variety of ways, ranging from lethal Romario to intelligent Tostao, strong Careca, fast Jairzinho or unpredictable Ronaldo. Not to mention the role of the number 10, so deeply built into their game.
Tactics were always in service of individual talent, but this doesn’t mean they were simple. Brazil invented the 4-2-4 to win the World Cup in 1958 and reinvented it in 1970, with a team so overwhelmingly talented it was hard to choose the starters. In 1982, Tele Santana deployed a very flexible midfield with Cerezo, Falcao, Socrates and Zico alongside Leandro and Junior, two very offensive full-backs. This fluid formation ran over every opponent until meeting Italy, and especially Paolo Rossi.
This last example is important because after losing with this super team, the Brazilian approach took a very different path. With the trauma, their football started to value destroyers in the middle of the pitch more than ever. The midfield that lifted the cup in 1994 had Mauro Silva, Dunga, Mazinho, and Zinho – the extreme opposite of Tele’s proposal 12 years before.
The 2000’s arrived and changed everything, as excellently explained by Michael Cox, from Zonal Marking, in a series of articles a few years ago. The rebirth of the passing midfielder was among the most important transformations. This Guardiola-like player was out in the cold, almost discarded from the top level 15 years ago, but resurfaced stronger than ever to completely dominate the way football is played worldwide nowadays. It was a radical revolution – and Brazil completely missed it.
Players like Xavi, Iniesta, Thiago, Pirlo, Modric, Rakitic, Kroos and Schweinsteiger became the most important pieces of a possession-based football. Their ability to read the game and dictate tempo is now a key feature for every major side. While this happened, Brazilian domestic football was still obsessed by the number 10 and, as a consequence continued deploying destroyers in the midfield to shut the opposition threat. While the world completely shifted to all-around midfielders, capable of performing many different tasks, Brazil was still working on the destroyer-creator model. The result is actually really easy to observe: there are Brazilian players in every major team in every major league performing every possible role, apart from this one.
In the last three World Cups, Brazil featured Emerson, Ze Roberto, Gilberto Silva, Felipe Melo, Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho in deeper roles in the midfield. Some of them are good players, but none can dictate the play and control possession.
Flamengo, considered one of the best squads in Brazil nowadays, frequently features Marcio Araujo, a midfielder incapable of completing a pass over five meters long and so uncomfortable on the ball he simply wanders around and doesn’t participate at all when the team has the ball. He has completed over 200 matches for each Flamengo, Palmeiras and Atletico Mineiro, three of the biggest clubs in the country. Many coaches came and went and all fell the urge to explain rapidly that Araujo is important for his “tactical discipline”. It seems too little of a reason in modern football.
Virtually all teams in the league play a 4-2-3-1 with two inside forwards and an old-fashioned number 10, with little variations along the way. All these teams still depend heavily on the advanced playmaker to spray passes and distribute possession. Deeper players have very little role in dictating the tempo.
The last innovation that reached the country, believe it or not, was the long throw-in, crossed directly to the strikers inside the box. When Rory Delap started doing it for Stoke City, it was fun to watch, but when half of the teams in the league use this strategy, it becomes unbearable.
Tite and Renato Augusto: a new path?
After a successful run ahead of Corinthians, Tite refused several offers and took a sabbatical to travel and study. In his return, once more at Corinthians, he dominated domestic football winning the league with 81 points – the highest ever scored in Brazil. His team used a different midfield trio, featuring an anchor-man, a box-to-box, and a deep-lying playmaker. As Brazil didn’t produce this last kind of player, Tite had to find the underrated Renato Augusto, a former number 10 and even inside forward in his early days, to fill the role.
In his newly found position, Renato went on to be one of the three players over 23 years old in the squad that won the unprecedented Olympic gold medal for Brazil. After that, he found his way to the national team in the World Cup qualifiers, now under control of the same Tite.
Brazil was shaky with Dunga in command, but with Tite using the exact same midfield structure he found at Corinthians – Casemiro as the anchor, Paulinho as box-to-box and Renato Augusto as a deep-lying playmaker – they won 9 straight games, scoring impressive 26 goals and conceding only two.
Many people still don’t think Renato Augusto is at the required level to perform regularly for Brazil, especially after his criticized move to China. But having proved the importance of such a role, he sure seems like the best option. There simply aren’t any players with these characteristics in Brazilian football because they were ignored for too long.
With Tite’s success, Brazil has a choice to make: they may resurrect their passing-and-possession style and modernize it or wait for a new revolution in the game and hope to catch on with this one. What is it going to be?