Note from Black Matt:  this is the first guest article I’ve ever put up since taking over the Brazil World Cup Blog a few years ago.  I’m thrilled that the author is our very own Zetona, who has become our resident expert on the Brazilian domestic game.  (His overall knowledge of world football, of course, is equally extensive.) 

True story: a few weeks ago, when Zetona sent me his first draft, I opened it up intending to just glance at it briefly, then return to it when I had more time.  Fifteen minutes later, I had read the whole thing twice, having been hooked from the opening sentence.  I’m sure you will all enjoy reading Zetona’s thoughts as much as I did. 

So without further ado…take it away, Zetona! 


What’s Next for Number 9? A Look at the Promising Strikers of the Brazilian League

by Zetona

Bad news, everyone! Fred just suffered a terrible injury in training! I’ve attached a picture, but it’s pretty gruesome. You might want to scroll past it.

Fred in training

In all seriousness, I think we can all agree that a tall, proud oak planted in the opponent’s box would have been every bit as effective as Fred or Jô at the World Cup, and especially in Jo’s case, a decently-sized tree might have actually won some goddamn headers.

Not that this is really fair to either of them. Particularly in Fred’s absence in late 2013, Luiz Felipe Scolari increasingly emphasized Neymar as the team’s principal creator and goal-scorer. Neymar began playing in a more central role, dropped deep to create plays, and still scored 11 goals between the end of the Confederations Cup in 2013 and his untimely exit from the 2014 World Cup at the knee of Juan Camilo Zúñiga. This had the unfortunate side effect of throwing the rest of the front line out of whack. Hulk and Fred combined for just one goal at the World Cup, but they are of course better players than that. Fred was once again the top scorer in the Brasileirão in 2014, while Hulk has scored 20 goals or more in three of his last four seasons at club level. Hulk’s struggles at major tournaments—between the 2012 Olympics, the 2013 Confederations Cup, and the 2014 World Cup, he scored only one goal—will remain a subject for another time. Suffice for now to say that the tactical setup at the World Cup didn’t play to his strengths, or to Fred’s. During the World Cup, Fluminense coach Abel Braga even criticized Scolari for not using Fred properly.[1] A striker whose game is based around converting balls played towards him into goals is going to struggle when the team is not set up to play balls towards him, and with that in mind it’s no surprise the rise of Neymar had a role in stifling Fred.

The selection of Jô is another matter. As bad as Fred was during the World Cup, Jô was even worse, and since the World Cup, he’s entered a destructive spiral in the vein of Adriano. In retrospect, I think we all would rather have seen Scolari not let Diego Costa slip through Brazil’s fingers, or give the then-untested Roberto Firmino a shot. But in fairness to Jo, he made an instant impact when Scolari first called him up, as a last-minute substitute for the injured Leandro Damião before the Confederations Cup. He scored in his first two games and added a brace against Australia and a goal against Portugal in the following months. You can’t really blame Scolari, who didn’t have much time to experiment, for sticking with the two strikers who scored multiple goals right off the bat.

But the past is the past. Neither Fred nor Jô will ever wear the yellow shirt again. It’s time to look ahead to the next generation of Brazilian forwards. There’s a lot of exciting young strikers playing for Brazilian clubs right now. Which brings me to an important rule to remember:

Just because a player was top scorer in Brazil does not mean they’re any good.

Let’s take a look at the winners of the Premio Arthur Friedenreich, given since 2008 to the player who scored the most goals across all competitions while playing for a Brazilian club, and see what happened to them:

Keirrison: Scored 41 goals in 2008. Made an ill-advised move to Barcelona in 2009. Per Wikipedia, he’s only scored 41 goals in the six years since—and 24 of those came in the first half of 2009, before the move to Barcelona.

Diego Tardelli: 39 goals in ‘09. Finally broke into the national team this year, under Dunga. I have my doubts. We’ll talk about him later.

Jonas: 42 goals in 2010. Since then, his best is 19.

Leandro Damião: 38 in 2011. Declining ever since. We’ll talk about him later.

Two people I’m not listing: Hernane, who won last year and doesn’t appear to have declined yet, but unfortunately has moved to Al-Nassr; and Neymar, who won in 2010 and 2012. In short, winning the award is nice, but it means little if the player can’t back it up, such as by repeating the feat.

When we look specifically at the Brazilian league, the Brasileirão, a similar pattern emerges. Last year, the top scorer was Ederson. After a precipitous decline in form to start the year, he’s been loaned to Al-Wasl. That year’s most intriguing forward was probably Walter. Tubby, but talented, he impressed a lot of people at Goiás and earned a move to Fluminense—but after a solid start there, he’s fallen off a cliff and begun gaining back a lot of the weight he lost at the start of the year.

The most consistent league goal scorer of recent years? Fred. He was one goal off the top of the charts in 2011, led the league in 2012 and finished as top scorer in 2014. Let’s not forget that before his injury he was in terrific form for Brazil in the early part of 2013.

So now that we’ve established that just because a forward was impressive in Brazil for one season it doesn’t mean he’ll amount to anything, let’s look at some of the most impressive forwards in Brazil over this past season!

There’s no criteria in particular at play here. I’m just going to profile some players who have caught my eye and play as forwards in Brazil. I’m also going to look at some established strikers who have played for Brazil in the past and may do so again in the future.

Diego Tardelli

By this point, you know Diego Tardelli. He was the first player Dunga picked to wear the #9 shirt after the World Cup. Perhaps Hulk would have gotten the nod had he not been injured shortly after the first call-up, but that’s a question for another day. Hulk’s subsequent exclusion suggests that, if he was in Dunga’s plans at first, he quickly fell out of them. Regardless, Tardelli started the four games in which he was in the squad, scoring two goals against Argentina and notching an assist against Japan. In many ways, he’s been the polar opposite of Fred and Jo—small, constantly moving, helping out in defense, and dropping very deep to pick up the ball. His inclusion signals a refreshing shift in tactics—in the absence of a world-class, goal-getting, so-good-it-would-be-a-shame-to-have-him-defend striker like Ronaldo or Romário, Dunga’s decided to embrace something like a false 9, admittedly in more of a 4-2-2-2 formation than the 4-3-3 in which Messi shone. Tardelli’s mobility and work rate have been exceptional, a real breath of fresh air after the immobile Fred and Jo; he brings a lot of pace and energy to the sharp end of the pitch while also chipping in when the game gets contested in midfield.

I don’t like him.

This isn’t about his work-rate, which is very impressive. It’s about this.

Diego Tardelli is simply not a consistent goal scorer. This sort of miss is a feature of his game. He only scored 10 goals for Atlético-MG in the Brasileirão this season, which was still twice as many as anybody else on the team. Only once in his career has he scored more than 12 league goals in a season, during his Friedenreich-winning campaign in 2009. He’s simply not a great goal-getter, and it’s not going to get any better, because he’s already 29 and is rumored to be heading to China, hardly the most competitive league.

That said, I’m fine with him for the moment, because he represents a change in philosophy to more mobile forwards who can also help out in defense, set up chances for teammates (Tardelli didn’t register a single assist this term, but I’m not holding that against him because he was at the heart of a lot of what Atlético did in attack), and be a threat both as a goal poacher (Tardelli scored a big set-piece goal to seal the Copa do Brasil against Cruzeiro) and as a runner behind the defense. But in the long term, players like Roberto Firmino and Anderson Talisca, who are far younger than Tardelli and undeniably more talented, should be able to play the same sort of role in the team while representing a significant increase in ability. If Tardelli is a regular starter much beyond the Copa América next summer, there will be problems.

Erik

God, I love this kid. He has been, without a doubt, the best surprise in Brazil this year, and he’s starting to get some serious attention, having recently been voted the revelation of the Brazilian league. He scored 12 league goals for Goiás in 2014, an impressive tally considering he’s just 20. Of the players on this list, he’s easily the one who, to me, looks closest to deserving a place in the Seleção right now.

What makes him so exciting? In one word: movement. Erik is constantly in motion, flitting all across the front line to stretch the defense or dropping deep to pick up the ball. He always looks to make himself open for the pass when Goiás have the ball, and when defending, he tracks back eagerly, if not always effectively.

Not to mention the fact that Erik is fast. Crazy fast. At full tilt, he can beat just about anybody in a footrace, even when running with the ball. As a result, despite nominally being a striker, he’s very comfortable drifting into very wide positions to receive long balls in behind the opposing full-backs. Take his first goal against Chapecoense on the final matchday: with the opposing left-back high up the field and looking in the opposite direction, Erik darts into the space behind him and runs unopposed all the way into the box before taking on the center-back. His second goal on the day, at the end of that video, also serves as a good example of the sort of movement and link-up play he offers.

If he has a downside, it’s like all the other young players on this list: he’s still rough around the edges. His passes, while often very quick and sharp, are occasionally under-hit, and while he can place his shots very well, he sometimes appears to get the ball into the net more through luck or determination than actual finishing ability. In maybe his best performance of the season, a hat-trick against Atlético-PR, he demonstrated his best qualities—searing pace, intelligent movement to get on the end of through-balls, impressive dribbling—and yet all three of his goals that day were very lucky to reach the back of the net.

Still, 12 goals from 68 shots (if WhoScored and my math is correct) is very solid—better than Hulk or Diego Tardelli have managed this season, for example—and it’s extremely promising for his first season as a professional, one in which he got better and better as it went along.

Gabriel Barbosa (AKA Gabigol)

Gabigol is the latest product of Santos’ apparent nonstop pipeline of talent. Enormously hyped as he rose through the Santos youth ranks, he made his debut for the senior side in 2013 and scored his first goal before he turned 17. The obvious comparison is to Neymar, Santos’ last rising star (whose last game for Santos before moving to Barcelona was also Gabigol’s first), but it’s not an accurate one. Neymar has always been about fabulous all-around talent. He’s a phenomenal dribbler blessed with enormous speed, and combines this with terrific ball control, impressive vision, and incredibly intelligent movement to become a player who can do almost anything, who can score, and create goals for teammates, and turn the tide of the game on a breakaway, or from a free-kick, or surrounded by five opponents. I think the closest analogue to Neymar in recent times, in terms of all-round talent and sheer pleasure to watch, is Ronaldinho in his dominant prime.

Gabigol, at his best, looks like the next coming of Romário. He combines intelligent movement with sharp finishing, particularly with his left foot. He’s very good at dropping deep or moving wide to create space for others, and he’s excellent at making himself free in the box. His awareness of the field is good, and he notched 5 assists in the Brasileirão largely by laying the ball off to teammates in better positions. He can dig out a good cross, though, and in this video you can see him create one goal with a deep cross before scoring two of his own. He’s got some pace and is a serviceable dribbler, but he’s no Neymar, who scores so many goals in large part because he’s so good at creating chances for himself. It’s a testament to Gabigol’s ability as a striker that in 2014, his first full season as a professional, scored 21 goals. Neymar only scored 14 back in 2009—albeit being some six months younger.

The problem is, it really should be far more. Only five of those goals have come since the start of September, a troubling dry spell. What’s interesting about this dip in form is that it’s not due to poor finishing necessarily; Gabigol is simply not getting the chance to shoot. Per WhoScored, he only averaged 1.6 shots per game in the league this season, a staggeringly low figure for a striker, lower than Erik, Damião, Goulart, Tardelli, Marcelo Moreno, etc. In my estimation, part of the problem is that Santos, in an effort to get Leandro Damião scoring, has built itself more as a crossing team, with good wide players in Robinho and Geuvânio and a pair attacking full-backs in Cicinho and Eugenio Mena. Gabigol is a great mover, but he’s obviously not as good in the air as Damião, nor is he a good fit for hold-up play. The system doesn’t really work for him, especially since this is not the classic Santos side Neymar enjoyed in 2009 and 2010: Ganso has moved on, Robinho has stayed but gotten older, and the coach inexplicably keeps playing Thiago Ribeiro ahead of the far more dynamic Geuvânio. It doesn’t help that Santos gave up on the season after they secured a mid-table finish, and won just two of their last 11 games.

This season has revealed Gabriel’s tremendous promise, but also shown that he has some deficiencies as a player. He cannot carry a team the way Neymar can, although that’ll be much less of a problem once he reaches international level and has Neymar carrying the team for him. He’ll be a good fit in Dunga’s false-nine-ish system once he comes good. Still, he is far from the finished product. There’s still a rawness to his game; he’s a very poor shooter from distance, for example. But based on interviews I’ve seen, he has a good head on his shoulders. I expect him to put his current dip behind him and work hard to become a more complete player over the coming years. But he’s not ready for the national team yet.

Alexandre Pato

Pato’s had something of a resurgence for Sao Paulo this year. Combining well with Kaká, Ganso, and Alan Kardec, he notched nine goals and three assists in the first part of the season before his hamstring, which had looked to be mended, gave out again. He hasn’t played much since October, although he is back.

Still, in the first part of the season, there were calls for him to return to the Seleção. For a while, I was one of the ones in that camp. But after watching him more, it became clear that something remains off about him. There’s a softness to his play, an inconsistency to his touch. He seems to lack presence on the field. When he beats an opponent, one gets the impression that it’s less because Pato’s overpowered or outpaced him than because he got lucky with the physics of it all. And this extends to his finishing, his dribbling, his first touch; one doesn’t get a sense of confidence or assurance with him these days. Even when he scores goals, he looks off. Take a look at this one against Botafogo. Yes, he scores, but he should; he has basically a tap-in. But instead of first-timing it into the net, he takes an awful touch with his left foot, presumably attempting to control the ball but inadvertently sending it towards the keeper. This time, he’s lucky that he can react quickly enough to still prod it home, but this was not an isolated occurrence, and in most cases he didn’t salvage a goal out of it.

Maybe Pato will regain the form, fitness, and confidence that once saw him run through the entire Barcelona defense and score. And we would do well to remember that he’s been a fairly reliable bet to score every time he’s played for Brazil over the past two years or so. But until we see signs that that Pato is truly back, Dunga should look elsewhere.

Leandro Damião

As mentioned before, he made a huge splash back in 2011. Here was a guy who had never played professional football before age 19, and at age 22 he was the top goal-scorer in all of Brazil. I recall Black Matt writing a very excited article about him at the time, but he never panned out. While he shone in the 2012 Olympics, with six goals, he only managed three goals for the senior Brazil side. After that 2011 season, he never reached the same levels for club. He moved to Santos this year and managed to be outshone by Gabigol, who only turned 18 in August.

Watching him at Santos has been interesting. Damião is, of the players profiled here, most obviously in the old Fred/Jô mold Dunga is abandoning. He’s remarkably strong, good in the air, can hold off defenders, and he is capable of using all those talents to dig out chances in the box. I recall one game where he was able to chase down a difficult ball from Robinho with a defender clawing at him and hit the bar with a terrific bicycle kick. Sadly, he doesn’t fulfill the rest of the target-man role very well; his hold-up play has been poor, and he struggles to bring his teammates in the game by not being able to accurately knock balls down to them. This meant less service back to him, and combined with his own poor form he only managed six league goals this season. Two of those came right at the end of the season, so there might be hope of improvement in the future. His imminent loan move to Cruzeiro seems like it’ll be a good deal for all involved: Santos get an underperforming, pricey player off their books; Damião moves to the best team in the country, where he can feed on excellent service from the likes of Everton Ribeiro and Mayke; and Cruzeiro gets a player who, on paper, is a better all-round forward than Marcelo Moreno, Júlio Baptista, or Dagoberto: strong, good in the air and—potentially, if Damião’s recent form is more of a protracted slump than an indicator of his all-round ability as a player—a big upgrade in terms of finishing and creating chances for himself.

Ricardo Goulart

Playing for Cruzeiro, Goulart scored 15 league goals this season, and while that sounds impressive, you know who else played for Cruzeiro and scored 15 league goals this season? Marcelo freaking Moreno. So take it with a grain of salt. Goulart is playing for the best team in the country, and while he undoubtedly plays an important tactical role in the side—as an attacking midfielder/second striker who ghosts into the box undetected to score—he’s also benefiting from the best playmaking in Brazil thanks to Éverton Ribeiro, Willian, Mayke, Lucas Silva, Nilton, etc. behind him.

Goulart’s in the Paulinho or Frank Lampard mold—a midfielder who has good instincts about when to come forward and pounce on loose balls in the box—though his default position is exceptionally high up the pitch. Unlike those two, however, he doesn’t do much other than finish, and occasionally start, moves. Paulinho, at his best, was also a competent box-to-box player who could provide muscle in defensive situations and then push the team forward. He wasn’t much of a creator, but his ability to start deep and then appear again in the box was huge in Corinthians’ system. Lampard, of course, was a very good all-round midfielder in addition to his goal-scoring. Goulart doesn’t have that level of dynamism or flexibility—when he’s not scoring, based on what I’ve seen, he doesn’t do much at all on the pitch. His only significant creative ability comes through his movement, and he doesn’t help out enormously in defense. I was in attendance at the Brazil-Ecuador game in September when Goulart and his club teammate Éverton Ribeiro came on in the second half. Everything Éverton Ribeiro touched turned to gold. He was constantly in motion, weaving fantastical dribbles and clever passes across the pitch. Goulart didn’t do anything of note.

And, for all his goals, I don’t think Goulart’s good enough of a raw goal-scorer to make up for this deficit. His ability to finish difficult chances doesn’t impress me. In the Copa do Brasil final, for example he got in behind the Atlético-MG defense for one of Cruzeiro’s few chances of the game, only to drag the ball way wide of the post. At this point, we can choose from players who are superior in every aspect of the game. Roberto Firmino, for instance, is a better goal-scorer, a better dribbler, a better and more creative passer, is more energetic, helps out more in defense, is also just 23, etc.

Still, I shouldn’t be too hard on him. 15 goals is a solid haul considering he only played 26 games due to injury, and his conversion rate was better than one goal every five shots, which is quite impressive. Given that he’s so young, it’s possible that this career-best goal-scoring tally will be the first of many as he continues to improve. But as a player, and as a goal-scorer, he has yet to really impress me.

As it turns out, none of this may end up being relevant at all. Shortly before this article was set to go up, Goulart signed with Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande. This is likely to scuttle his chances of returning to the Seleção setup in the near future, since unlike Diego Tardelli he hasn’t firmly established himself in Dunga’s setup. Unlike Tardelli, it’s highly unlikely his move is contingent on the CBF’s assurance that he’ll retain a spot in the national team, as Tardelli’s is. This may be the last time you hear anything about Ricardo Goulart and the Brazil national team in the same breath.

Some Players I Couldn’t Watch

For obvious reasons, it was impossible to follow every promising young striker in the Brasileirão. Here’s a few of the most intriguing players I didn’t see enough of to form a full judgment.

Ademilson

With Pato, Alan Kardec, Luis Fabiano, Kaká, Ganso, Michel Bastos, and Osvaldo all ahead of him in the pecking order at Sao Paulo, Ademilson got almost no playing time in the league this season, and that’s a damn shame. He’s been pretty good when he’s played under Alexandre Gallo with the U-23 national side. He has that sharpness, that quickness, that Pato lacks, though he still has a tendency to make the wrong pass or dribble himself into trouble. But he’s an explosive dribbler, a tidy finisher, and a surprisingly great crosser. He just needs a team that will let him play.

Carlos Carvalho

Broke through for Atlético-MG with a brace in the derby against local rivals Cruzeiro in September. (There’s also Diego Tardelli and Ricardo Goulart goals in that video, if you want to see a bit more of them.) Carlos finished the season with five goals and a fair amount of buzz around him. I watched him a couple of times, and each time he struck me as a very, very raw player. Against Santos he should have done better with several decent balls in the box, sending them high and wide or not getting enough power on his shots. He was also fairly anonymous in the Copa do Brasil final against Cruzeiro. Still, at age 19, he’s got plenty of time to grow.

Douglas Coutinho

Had an explosive start to the season with Atlético-PR, scoring five goals in three games in July and earning a place in the U-23 national team. But his last goal was on August 10, and since then he’s gone very, very quiet. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to watch him during his purple patch.

Leandro

He scored on his Brazil debut in 2013, and was a big part of Palmeiras’ promotion campaign that year, but he barely got a look in once they’d returned to the top flight.

Dodô

Another promise from Atlético-MG, Dodô emerged in the final few weeks of the season, scoring some nice goals. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to see him.

Luciano

He’s established himself as a super-sub for Corinthians, and scored all of his six league goals (including a hat-trick against Goiás) after coming off the bench. Despite featuring regularly for Corinthians, however, I realize I know very little about him. I don’t think I ever got around to watching him, in part because I try and avoid watching Mano Menezes-coached sides unless I’m planning to laugh at them. So I can’t really speak about Luciano, other than that he’s a goal-scoring midfielder, vaguely in the vein of Ricardo Goulart.

Henrique

He remained in the hunt for Brasileirão top scorer until the very end, and his 16 goals helped Palmeiras avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth. Of my extremely brief time watching him, he seems to be a standard penalty-box poacher, but I didn’t watch enough to make that judgment. He’s only 25, so if he improves on those numbers he’ll start to generate some buzz.

Lucas Coelho

Another player who scored a couple nice goals in 2014, he didn’t get much time at Gremio thanks to Hernán Barcos being ahead of him in the pecking order.

Thalles

A regular in the U-23 national setup, Thalles spent 2014 playing for Vasco in the Campeonato Brasileiro Série B, which meant I never saw him play. Keep an eye on him next year, though, because he’s scored several goals for the U-23s and he’s sure to play a big role next season as Vasco have been promoted back to the top flight.

Malcom

Another player who emerged near the end of the season, Malcom scored two goals in the final months of the season for Corinthians. This doesn’t seem that much, but then again he doesn’t turn 18 until February. Rumor has it Chelsea and Barcelona have already made inquiries. Unfortunately, he’s another one I’ve never watched. This highlight video serves as an introduction to the player as much for me as for you. Looks like he’s pretty quick, but more than that I can’t say.

In Conclusion

The news is mixed. There’s a lot of exciting young forwards in Brazil right now, and I think there’s a good chance we’ll see some of these players, particularly Erik and Gabigol, in a yellow jersey sooner rather than later. At the same time, there’s nobody in Brazil right now who is really standing out as an undeniable world-class prospect in the manner of a Neymar or Ronaldo (though 44 goals in 47 games—Ronaldo’s mark for Cruzeiro at age 17 back in 1993/94—is setting the bar pretty damn high; there’s a reason they called him “O Fenômeno”.) Of the young players I’ve profiled, it’s certainly Gabigol who’s earned the most attention in that regard, but he couldn’t quite sustain his excellence over the whole of 2014. Erik, meanwhile, has flown under the radar up to this point in his career.

There’s a reason this article is mostly about players under the age of 21, however. The generation before them was a failed one. Since Ronaldo last seriously played for the national team in 2006, there hasn’t been a truly excellent striker to replace him. Adriano could have been the man, but his inner demons got the better of him. Luís Fabiano shone brightly, but he was never world-class. The likes of Hulk, Alexandre Pato and Leandro Damião have yet to return to the heights they hit earlier in their careers. That’s why we entered the 2014 World Cup with Fred and Jô, easily the weakest striker-and-his-backup pair Brazil has ever had at a World Cup. The older players I’ve featured in this article have not impressed me.

That, I think, is a big part in the current change in philosophy and Dunga’s embrace of something like a false 9 up front. Brazil simply does not have any true number 9s worthy of the shirt right now. A worthy successor may soon emerge, but even then they are likely to embody the traits of a false 9 as well—quick, an intelligent mover, able to drop deep and dribble and create chances and chip in defensively. Maybe it’ll be Erik or Gabigol filling those boots, or maybe a Roberto Firmino or Anderson Talisca will establish a claim and become a very different kind of number 9. At such a crossroads of footballing philosophy, and with so much dependent on the upward trajectories of a host of talented-but-unproven young players, it’s impossible to predict, with any certainty, what it’ll mean to wear the famous yellow jersey with a green 9 on the back.

 

 

[1] I remember seeing this during the World Cup, but for the life of me I cannot find the source right now.