Globalisation has made stars for South American football but with the greater emphasis on ‘bigger, stronger, faster’ the continent should look at Villarreal in order to retain it’s individual identity.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal face Villarreal on Wednesday evening for a place in the Champions League quarter final and the Frenchman’s opposite number is among a rarity; a South American managing in Europe. It may seem surprising given the number of South American players in the elite competition; Brazilian representatives account for the greatest number of players of any sole nationality.
When Chilean Manuel Pellegrini joined Villarreal, the South American game was going through the start of a transition as more and more talents proceeded to leave the continent for the riches, and ultimately greater quality of football in Europe.
Villarreal’s strategy in the short-term was to take advantage of this trend but in the long-term, seek to bring in players from the youth set-up. And by hiring Pellegrini as coach, Villarreal sought the Chilean as the man to find the perfect mix. “The manager was a winner in South America and he arrived with the mentality to achieve here what he achieved there,” said Marcos Senna. “He never thought: ‘Oh, this is a small club’. His line of thought always was: ‘I am going to make this team big’.”
When Pellegrini joined the club had a number of good players in Sorin, Senna and Riquelme but the challenge was how to mix this aesthetically pleasing side to one that could also cope with the power and pace of other European sides. Indeed this is the same conundrum that has befallen South American coaches.
While the continent produces such players as Sergio Aguero and Robinho whose national identity is obvious on the pitch, striking the balance between their flair and guile with European dynamism has not been as easiest to implement. Recent South American World Cup qualifying games have played out not to dissimilar to much of those in Europe while domestic games at times can be compared to those between middle-lower Premier League sides.
To many this represents a cultural change and therefore you may forgive one Brazilian great for describing such games as the ‘synonym of slowness’. The denying of space by constant pressuring, used by Holland to great effect in 1974 especially to that of the playmaker so widely deployed by many South American nations, has seen in a shift in thinking to counter act this type of strategy. “The strategy is to get the ball forward quickly and win a set piece,” says Tostão. “The problem is not just the lack of individual talent. It’s also the lack of understanding of what it is to play good football”.
Players are bulkier, quicker, taller and faster to try and match the size and physicality condition of Europeans. “Nowadays,” said Tostão, “the coaches, right from the junior levels, choose the taller players, even if they are not the most skillful. Romário was the last of the great small strikers. If he were to arrive today at the youth side of one of the big clubs, the coach would put him in midfield or he would not be considered for a professional career.”
It would have been unthinkable to those in Brazil that Anderson would become a defensive midfielder while Rafael has overtaken his Fabio in United’s plans because of his more energetic attitude in contrast to his more technical sound brother. Perhaps Marcos Senna best represents the change in direction. In 2002, at 26 years of age, he left for Villarreal having only played one consistent season of football however had he been around in more recent times, he may have got a greater opportunity and maybe even a Brazilian cap.
Pellegrini’s side contains South American players with both a mixture of skill and bite. “Always putting priority on treating the ball well, we’ve also added more mobility,” he says. “It’s a mixture of South American and European football.”
Marcos Senna is partnered by similarly mobile and technically sound Eguren who had a spell in the Norwegian league before moving to Villarreal. On the flanks they can choose from wiry Argentine Ibagaza or Mati Fernandez and in defence are Gonzalo and Godin. They have also got a fantastic Spanish base from their goalkeeper, two marauding full backs, wingers Cani and Carzola not to mention other Europeans in Rossi and Pires. “We have physical players, but we have players who are only about technique and harmony with their body and the ball,” said Pellegrini. Maybe only upfront are they possibly lacking with recent observations showing a physical presence up front is the best way forward.
Against Arsenal they showed great movement and incisive passing and the way the two clubs played, showed physically strong isn’t everything. Indeed Arrigo Sacchi, the former Italian coach wrote Italian sides spend as much or even more time in the gym than the English but their top three clubs all fell at the same hurdle.
The greater concentration should be focused on intensity and being able to alter ones tempo which is the real reason for English clubs’ dominance. And at the same time look to harness more of the individual identity and talent that made South American clubs so successful.