Brazil have been practising their own pressing game while the Netherlands have taken a leaf out of Dunga’s side and adopted a more pragmatic approach.
There’s not been much talking between the Brazilian team and the country’s press. Dunga thinks they have it in for him and they…well, let’s just say they are only interested in how Brazil does in the World Cup. No other country takes as many reporters to the tournament and before the show-piece had started Dunga said; “about 300 Brazilian journalists are just waiting for the Selecao [team] to lose.” That animosity has now meant behind closed-doors training sessions are not uncommon occurrences. If Dunga had been playing with a metaphorical middle-finger up at his detractors in his playing days, it has become much more literal now.
But behind the scenes and Dunga has been working on answering some of the questions – on the football pitch at least – that journalists have been all to willing to ask of his sides in the past. Does Brazil have an exit strategy (Operation Saída – thanks to Santapelota) to counter the pressing systems likely to be deployed at the World Cup – particularly by the European sides – and how will they carry out their own? Indeed, pressing as a tactic in Brazil and Argentinian domestic football is little existent but as the Dutch displayed in the World Cup in 1974, it proved to be a highly disruptive ploy to the national sides.
Tim Vickery has recently highlighted the impact that the Netherlands’ pressing had on South American teams in West Germany – Argentina decided to undertake a more speed intensive approach in the next World Cup in their country to counter the pressing while Brazil tried, and failed, to implement their own high energy style in the same year. So Brazil, in more recent times, have taken a more organised approach, with much emphasis on extracting individual qualities, performing carefully deliberated set-pieces and breaking devastatingly on the counter as Dunga feels it is more difficult to play an elaborate style as they have in the past. Holland’s habitual last hurdle failings in recent big tournaments has also garnered a similar, more pragmatic approach. “Total Football was a long time ago and so was Samba Football,” said Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk. “Sport changes, and football changes also. Everybody’s getting fitter and better organised, and if you play like former times it’s more difficult to win the World Cup. So I understand the Brazilians. But they can still play football, and we are the same. Good football and attractive football are not always the same thing.”
It is interesting to note just how important the double shield in front of the defence is to both sides. Van Marwijk says his side play a pressing game but evidently there has been very little high intensity pressing from the forwards, rather preferring to drop into a compact block before closing down opponents. Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong have been key in breaking down opposition play just as the much maligned Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo have been for Brazil. The use of the dual shield has been looked at with much disdain by traditionalists with the late Zizinho, star attacking midfielder in the 1950 World Cup particularly scornful but there is no doubting it’s importance in the modern game. Writing in his autobiography in 1985, he said; “the cabeca-de-area [midfielder who sits in front of the centre backs], a man who can control 70% of his team’s possession, has now been given the specific function of destroying, when it should be to set up the play” (quote referenced from Tim Vickery).
If the Selecao midfield is said to have been regressive, the Dutch have been worse, as 48% of their passes have been in their own half – the highest in the tournament. Indeed, you just have to look at the attacking potential of both sides to see just how devastating they can be if they had a Xabi Alonso-type in their midfield.
But it’s been Brazil, rather than Holland, who have dipped into the Dutch’s past and have looked to extract their own pressing game and build measures to counter their opponent’s own. The Brazilian formation is a flexible 4-2-3-1/4-3-1-2 (diamond) in the attacking phase but to press, have implemented a 4-3-2-1 in the defensive phase (as shown by Figure 1). Kaka and Robinho make the two behind Luis Fabiano while Dani Alves, coming in for Elano, drops into the central midfield three. Indeed, as indicated by Melo and Alves’ dual roles, the defensive plan can shift to a more classical 4-2-3-1 to press in much the same way as European sides. Of course, pressing against teams which Brazil are though to hold the initiative over creates other issues.
<Figure1> Brazil’s pressing standards versus Chile. Dunga’s side resembled a 4-3-2-1 against their South American opponents in the 3-0 second round win with Kaka and Robinho able to drift to the left or centre to make a 4-2-3-1 if required. Kaka picking up the ball on the left from the counter was able to get much joy.
Against Portugal, who looked to drop back and counter through the channels, Brazil were required to push up almost to the halfway line and were nearly caught out by Cristiano Ronaldo on a couple of occasions. Juan can testify to this as it was his handball which should have received a straight red as he stopped a lightning-quick break from Portugal but only saw a yellow. His partner, Lucio, had been protected from such moments for his club side Inter Milan as Jose Mourinho felt he, and his Argentine partner, Walter Samuel were to slow to push up. Felipe Melo had a troubled time also as on half-time he was whipped off the pitch after aiming a couple of swipes at mid-air as Portugal’s high energy midfielders continually picked the ball off his feet. Injury ruled him out of the next game and evidently Brazil coped better. Chile, famed for their ultra-high intensity pressing, were made to look ordinary as Ramires, his replacement, looked very comfortable as did Dani Alves on the right of the midfield three. The superior technical base allowed Kaka and Robinho to flourish on the break, the latter being given a greater staring role.
Manager Dunga said: “We are witnessing the result of our work and are happy with it. This team is prepared to undertake any task. “Robinho has played in various positions. He asked me ‘What is my function?’ I told him ‘Do you feel constrained in your place? Tell me where you’d like to play’. He said ‘No, I just want to be on the pitch and contribute’. Quick-thinking and talented players can adapt to any position. We are happy to have players with this mental attitude.” And finally he added: “The quality of our players allows me to be calm. This group has been built up over the last three years.All I have to do is communicate with my players by just looking at them or just saying a few words. It makes my task easier. My players are very mature and they understand quickly what I want and execute it.”