From an aesthetic standpoint, the legacy of Brazilian football will be forever defined by words like samba and jogo bonito; by moments like Pele’s sombrero goal in the ’58 World Cup, or Carlos Alberto’s wonderful team goal that served as the final exclamation point to the 1970 tournament. Looking at it more analytically, Brazil’s legacy is all about the innovations they’ve made to football: defensive organization, team formation, individual expression, and collective interplay. But there’s one other innovation Brazil perhaps do not get enough credit for: the attacking full-back.

A Brief History of Brazil’s Attacking Full-backs

Once upon a time, back in the days of the 2-3-5 formation and even later when the W-M rose to ascendancy, almost all attacking play was created by the forward, and most width supplied by the wingers. But in the 1954 World Cup, when Brazil trotted out a back-line featuring full-backs Nilton Santos and Djalma Santos (no relation), international football would never be the same. It would be quite awhile before other countries began to follow Brazil’s lead, but now, 60 years later, almost every great team contains at least one full-back who is expected to get forward and attack.

Some formations and styles rely on attacking full-backs more than others. The 3-5-2, the 4-4-2 diamond, and the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree all rely on full-backs to create width. A Barcelona-style 4-3-3, with their narrow midfield band, also depends heavily on full-backs. Most of the World Cup winning sides of the past two decades used attacking full-backs, Brazil ’94, Brazil ’02, and Spain ’10 in particular.

Since 1954, Brazil has never fielded a World Cup team without attacking full-backs, who are usually the best in the world at what they do. Nilton played in the ’54, ’58 and ’62 tournaments; Djalma Santos made it all the way to ’66.[1] In 1970, Carlos Alberto put in one of the finest ever World Cup performances, capped by his goal against Italy in the dying moments of the final.[2] Nelinho and Marinho put in less auspicious shifts in 1974, although both were fine exponents of attacking football; Nelinho would play better four years later, scoring one of the greatest World Cup goals of all time against Italy in the third-place match.

Tele Santana’s 1982 side featured the ultra-attacking pair of Leandro and Junior. (Left-back Junior may well be the most technically gifted full-back Brazil has ever produced.) Only Roberto Carlos scored more goals for Brazil from that position.[3]

The right-back spot was in major flux four years later. Santana probably would have recalled Leandro, but the Flamengo star opted to stay home. Santana’s second choice was Edson, who started the first two games of the tournament before going down with an injury. Enter the spindly-legged Josimar, a bit player in the history of the Seleção who nevertheless proceeded to score two of the finest goals anyone has ever seen.

There have been three full-back pairings in the history of the Seleção who played together in successive World Cups: Nilton and Djalma Santos in ’54, ’58, and ’62; Roberto Carlos and Cafu in ’98, ’02 and ’06; and Branco and Jorginho in ’90 and ’94. By Brazil’s standards, these last two were more defense-oriented than usual. By anyone else’s standards, the two were absolute bombers. In 1990, manager Sebastião Lazaroni attempted to use a 3-5-2 formation, resulting in Branco and Jorginho functioning as wing-backs. That campaign is remembered fondly by no one, but Branco acquitted himself well in the group stage. In the opening match against Sweden, he slalomed his way through the heart of the Swedish midfield before playing a defense-splitting through-ball to Careca, who rounded the keeper to score. Branco played an important role in Careca’s second goal as well. And in the third match against Scotland, Branco’s early goal-line clearance helped Brazil progress to the second round without dropping a point.

Four year later, Brazil reverted to the four-man back-line they originally pioneered. Jorginho kept his place at right-back, but Branco remained on the bench through the first four matches. His replacement, Leonardo, played fairly well until his horror tackle on Tab Ramos in the Round of 16. Leonardo was promptly banned, and Branco was re-inserted into the first XI.

This was the result:

 

Jorginho, meanwhile, had been quietly having a good tournament of his own. His star peaked in the semifinal against Sweden after a typical overlapping run deep into Swedish territory. His cross settled perfectly onto Romario’s head, who made no mistake and sent Brazil into their World Cup final since 1970. Unfortunately, Jorginho only lasted 21 minutes into the final itself before being subbed off due to injury. His replacement?

Cafu.

A new generation of attacking full-backs was about to replace the old, but Branco made sure that the sendoff was a glorious one, burying the penultimate penalty in the tournament-deciding shootout.

Roberto Carlos came next.

I could write an entire series of articles on the Cafu/Roberto Carlos pairing, but the statistics speak for themselves. One World Cup trophy. One second-place finish. Two Copa America trophies. One Confederations Cup. A staggering two-hundred-and-forty-seven caps between them. 16 goals. Who knows how many assists. And while both were occasionally guilty of poor defensive positioning and lapses in concentration during key moments (perhaps more than is generally remembered), they represent nothing less than the pinnacle of the attacking full-back role.

Since then, both of Brazil’s full-back positions have been in a semi-constant state of flux. Cicinho briefly flirted with the right-back role before retiring in disgust after the 2006 World Cup. Since then, successive coaches in Dunga, Mano Menezes, and Felipe Scolari have tried their hardest to anoint Dani Alves as Cafu’s successor before bowing to the inevitable and accepting Maicon as his superior.[4] Filling the left-back role has been even harder. Gilberto, Andre Santos, Michel Bastos, Adriano, Maxwell, Marcelo and Filipe Luis have all been cast with varying degrees of success, but even the best of them, Marcelo and Filipe Luis, probably won’t earn more than footnotes in the annals of Seleção history.[5]

Despite this, Brazil has never stopped looking for the next generation of attacking full-backs. Even a supposedly “defensive” coach like Dunga usually gives pride of place to full-backs who are more comfortable going forward than they are hanging back. This is the man, after all, who made Michel Bastos his first-choice left-back in 2010.

Yes, Brazilian football and the attacking full-back go hand-in-hand, and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s tradition.

But should that tradition continue?

Tactical Implications of the Attacking Full-back

Width, overlap, and numbers in the attack remain the chief tactical benefits of the attacking full-back.  Width is obvious – there is no more naturally wide player in the modern game than the full-back, who by virtue of his very station must remain primarily in wide positions.

Equally important is the concept of overlap.  One of the reasons Brazil’s attacking full-backs were so effective early on is because teams were not prepared to defend against them.  For example, imagine the 1962 World Cup.  Every defender in the world knew what Garrincha, a right-winger, was capable of doing to them.  Teams prepared for him my man-marking or even double-marking him closely.  What did those same teams think as they watched Djalma Santos storm past them unmarked?

Overlapping full-backs force the defense to split their attention and stretch further apart to cover the wide zones.  It remains one of the most effective methods to break down a defense.

Finally, the sheer fact that full-backs can get forward to join the attack creates a numerical advantage…or at least, lessens a numerical disadvantage.  The ultra-attacking formations of the earlier 20th century are long gone, but echoes of them will remain as long as the Marcelos of the world continue to get forward.

Unfortunately, the very concept of the attacking full-back is a double-edged sword.

One of the most important developments in the global game, in my opinion, has been the rise of the counter-attack. No matter who you are or what style you adhere to, there is simply no more efficient way to score than on a swift break. The reason is obvious: a quick counter solves the problem of breaking down an organized defense by virtue of never having to face it in the first place. Defending the counter is hard because you are often at a numerical disadvantage, stretched out, and backpedaling to boot. Furthermore, the counter is where the fastest athletes and most devastating dribblers shine. It’s why Brazil has always excelled on the break. From Pele to Jairzinho, from Careca to Ronaldo, from Ronaldinho to Kaka, Brazil’s stars have quite simply been faster and more dangerous in open spaces than anyone else in the world.

The counter-attack has become so efficient and so deadly that more teams probably build their games around it nowadays than those who don’t. Even possession-based teams like Spain rely on the counter-attack more than they would care to admit; you could argue that four of their eight goals in the 2010 World Cup were scored on a counter or half-counter, including Iniesta’s goal in the final (which started as a counter, was briefly thwarted, than re-started quickly before Holland’s defense could really recover.)

Attacking full-backs have contributed to this trend in both a positive and a negative fashion. From a positive standpoint – and this is most true for Brazil – having full-backs who are not only comfortable but aggressive at driving the ball forward makes springing a counter-attack even easier. From a negative standpoint – and again, this is most true for Brazil –full-backs who continually look to get forward often leave gaping holes behind them. Nowadays, even the weakest teams can look to take advantage of these open spaces, while the best teams will punish them with extreme prejudice.

For Brazil, this was proven true time and time again during the 2014 World Cup. The consequences were disastrous. Consider:

  1. Marcelo’s own-goal against Croatia in the opening match of the tournament started from a swift Croatian counter-attack into the very space that Dani Alves vacated behind him.
  2. It’s often lost in the hubbub that followed Thiago Silva’s foolish yellow card against Colombia, but the ex-skipper never would have missed the Germany game if he hadn’t picked up a yellow against Mexico three matches earlier. This yellow, however, was not his fault, but Marcelo’s. A Mexican counter into the space behind Marcelo led to Thiago Silva having to make a last ditch block on Chicharito Hernandez.
  3. There were no heroes against Germany in the semi-final, although I think Oscar acquitted himself decently. Similarly, you can’t say that any one player was to blame for the debacle. David Luiz was imbecilic throughout, while his partner Dante was a mental wallflower; Fernandinho was an epic disaster in possession, his cohort Luis Gustavo an equal disaster without it; Maicon was invisible, Hulk inept, Bernard overwhelmed, and Fred was, well…Fred.But the rout started with Marcelo – or rather, it started because of Marcelo’s positioning. An ultra-attacking full-back in the truest sense of the word, it was Marcelo’s poor positioning and instincts that opened the door for a German home-invasion. Michael Cox of Zonal Marking explains it better than I can: http://www.zonalmarking.net/2014/07/09/germany-7-1-brazil-germany-record-a-historic-thrashing/

The worst part of all this was that our full-backs not only failed in defense, but in attack as well. No goals, no assists, precious few scoring opportunities created. At the 2014 World Cup, our attacking full-backs failed utterly and completely to make up for their deficiencies in defense by reliably contributing to the attack. Dunga said it best recently when assessing Marcelo’s future with the national team:

“How many times did Marcelo go on the attack in the World Cup? Twenty times. How many goals did he score or create? None. How many times were our defenders caught out with balls over the top? Three or four.”

But forget defensive lapses and the diminishing returns on offense for a moment. The single biggest problem with Brazil’s continued use of attacking full-backs is the compromises it has forced us to make in the middle of the pitch.

There are many reasons for the decline of the Brazilian central midfielder, too many to talk about here. And it isn’t as if Brazil’s reliance on physical, combative destroyers is a recent development. Even the vaunted 1970 team brought in Clodoaldo for exactly that reason: to bolster the team’s suspect back-line and allow Gerson to paint masterpieces with the ball. But the fact of the matter is that, after the 1986 World Cup, Brazil was confronted with a choice: retain its tradition of fielding multiple creative maestros in the center of the park, or retain its use of attacking full-backs. The two could no longer coexist – Tele Santana’s sides had proven that.

Brazil chose the latter option. Hence, two decades of names like Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Dani Alves and Marcelo flanking double-pivots featuring Mauro Silva and Mazinho, or Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo. To provide protection for the full-backs, and to cover the spaces they so frequently vacate, Brazil has been forced to rely more on muscle, stamina, and athleticism than technique, creativity, and vision.

The problem with all this has less to do with the death of jogo bonito and more to do with the fact that Brazil has been increasingly ceding the center of the pitch to the opposition. Forget things like style and flair; the midfield has become the key zone in modern football due to tactics. The midfield is where the tempo of the game is set. It’s where the majority of attacks are launched from. It’s the area of the pitch that most directly links a team’s back-line to its attackers. And far from being a playground for samba-style improvisation, controlling the midfield remains the most effective defense possible. To put it simply, the other team can’t hurt you if they don’t have the ball.[6]

This was never more demonstrated than in the Round of 16 match against Chile at the World Cup. For most of the match, Brazil was reduced to long ball after long ball, both from the center-backs and from the wings. And it wasn’t as if Brazil couldn’t pass through the center; it was that they were too scared to even try. This was most apparent during the second half, when Brazil nervously coughed up possession seconds after getting it back, mostly through errant, aimless passes over the top. If you ever see a more technically inept, cowardly performance from a Brazil team at the World Cup, look me up – I’ll buy you some Guarana.  As bad as the 7-1 loss to Germany was, this match was almost worse for me. Against Germany, Brazil came out of the gates with shocking naivete and a lack of composure; the result was a match that ended scarcely after it began. Against Chile in the second half, Brazil didn’t even try to play football, but instead basically admitted, “We don’t know what to do with this round thing. Here, take it, please don’t hurt us with it.” In some ways, this was the lowest point I have ever experienced in my 20-plus years as a Brazil fan.[7] This was the day that Brazil, the champions of footballing skill, waved the white flag and surrendered.

This chart, courtesy of the Four Four Two Stats Zone website, tells the whole story.  This show’s Brazil’s use of the long ball against Chile (and frankly, I’m not convinced they got them all).

Brazil long balls vs Chile

If Brazil is to regain their status as the perennial kings of world football, they must learn to see the midfield as their friend again. They must see it as a fertile field to be tilled and not as a war-zone to be mined.   Not as a No Man’s Land fit for trench warfare and mortar fire, but as a base camp. And to do that, they must stop sacrificing creative midfielders in favor of ultra-attacking full-backs.[8]

The Short and Long-Term Future of Brazilian Full-backs

Here is what I would like to see:

  1. I am by no means calling for Brazil’s full-backs to never get forward – far from it. Full-backs will and should remain a useful attacking outlet. What I want to see is an end to full-backs camping out in advanced positions and sacrificing their defensive duties as a result. Instead, full-backs should focus on attacking in two ways: by recognizing when space opens up in front of them so that they can make overlapping runs, and by advancing the ball themselves whenever there is an opportunity for a counter-attack. The emphasis is placed on attacking by exploiting space rather than attacking through advanced positioning.
  2. Prioritizing balance when it comes to selecting full-backs. As described above, every decade has seen an increased emphasis on attack when choosing full-backs, even as every other position has become more conservative. I wrote about this in the aftermath of the World Cup, but Brazil has become too reliant on specialists – players who can do one thing very well, but one thing only. But the Seleção has no need to rely on specialists when, year after year, they produce so many versatile, well-rounded players. Therefore, Brazil should have no problem cultivating full-backs skilled in both phases of the game.
  3. Increased tactical instruction for full-backs. By this I mean full-backs should be given stricter orders, on a match by match basis, about when it’s appropriate to be attacking-minded and when it’s appropriate to be more defensive. Furthermore, the full-backs need to be trained to operate as a unit rather than as individuals. If one full-back moves forward, the other should recognize this and drop back. If one full-back routinely has space in front of him, the other should be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to switch the point of attack. There are signs that Dunga has emphasized this point already. If so, it’s a welcome departure from the anarchy of the Mano/Scolari days.

Unfortunately, here is what I expect to see in the short term:

  1. Despite his reputation as being defensive-minded, Dunga is not at all averse to choosing ultra-attacking full-backs. In fact, his last tenure depended heavily on them. Maicon was perhaps the key man after Kaka in Dunga’s system. And again, Dunga selected Michel Bastos as his left-back four years ago…hardly the move of a coach solely concerned with defense.

Dunga’s real method of selection is more basic: he always gravitates toward players who seized their opportunity to play for the national team. He seems little-inclined to “groom” a player after a slow start, even if that player makes tactical sense. With Dunga, first impressions are everything.[9] And if that means choosing an ultra-attacking player over a more balanced one, so be it.

  1. Brazil’s upcoming crop of full-backs don’t inspire particular confidence in me as far as balance goes. There are a number of talented right-backs to choose from (Danilo, Fabinho, and Mayke among others) and a few left-backs as well (Alex Sandro and Dodo being two of the most intriguing), but all are far more adept at going forward than at defending in this stage of their careers. That doesn’t mean they can’t get improve, and I have high hopes for Alex Sandro and Fabinho especially. But with the exception of Filipe Luis, none of our current full-back candidates are proven defenders at the top level.[10]

Conclusion

The attacking full-back is a tradition embedded in the very DNA of the Brazilian National Team, but also a tradition that has evolved far beyond its roots. Securing the long-term future of the Seleção will depend largely on re-examining this tradition. In a sense, Brazilian full-backs need not reinvent themselves so much as return to the original template set by Nilton and Djalma Santos: become technically skilled players who attack when able, while defending, always.

The result? An end to Brazil’s vulnerability down the flanks (the team’s Achilles heel for three successive World Cups) while simultaneously allowing for the return of an even older tradition: the creative central midfielder.


 

 

[1] This, unfortunately, was a mistake. By 1966, Djalma Santos had faded badly and Carlos Alberto should have been Brazil’s first-choice right-back.

[2] Carlos Alberto’s play against England was especially noteworthy. With Pele, Rivelino and Tostao stymied for most of the match, and with Gerson injured, it fell on Carlos Alberto to provide much of the attacking thrust. It was his stellar pass to Jairzinho that set up Gordon Bank’s miracle save against Pele. More importantly, Carlos Alberto also found the energy to marshal Brazil’s suspect back-line against a fine English side that attacked with real verve throughout the match. It was this two-way ability that makes Carlos Alberto perhaps the finest full-back Brazil has ever produced.

[3] Roberto Carlos scored 11 for the Seleção; Junior and Branco are tied for second with 9.

[4] Where do we rate Maicon on the list of great Brazilian right-backs? Clearly, you can’t put him in the same rank as Carlos Alberto or Cafu. Personally, I would rank the Top Five like this: Cafu, Carlos Alberto, Djalma Santos, Jorginho, Maicon.  Leandro misses out because I prefer full-backs with more balance; Nelinho and Josimar didn’t make the cut simply because they didn’t actually have that many caps.

[5] Passing reference should be made to Fabio Aurelio, who I feel would have been the clear choice to replace Roberto Carlos were it not for the fact that injuries plagued his entire career. Look at his list of injuries: broken leg, ruptured Achilles tendon, torn adductor muscle, ruptured knee, torn hamstring…the man never stood a chance.

[6] A concept that Barcelona and Spain have taken to an unfortunate extreme – but the principle remains sound.

[7] But not in all ways. The Germany game was the most humiliating, the loss against France in ’06 the most aggravating (due to the team’s sheer apathy); but the most pain I have ever felt and probably ever will feel was the ’98 final. Dark times in the Black Matt household.

[8] To be clear, Brazil isn’t exactly loaded with creative central midfielders…but I would argue that the upcoming generation of full-backs isn’t particularly impressive either.

[9] Note that a good first impression doesn’t necessarily mean scoring goals. It means giving 100% effort right from the word go. It’s not a bad philosophy…as long as it’s not taken to the extreme.

[10] My love for Filipe Luis is well known, but it must be said that he’s not quite as solid in defense for Brazil as he is at club level. The main reason for this, I think, is that he always seems hell-bent on proving his attacking bona-fides when playing in the yellow shirt.