This is the second article in a series I’m calling “The Great Brazilian Autopsy.” In each article, we are going to dissect the corpse that is the Brazilian Men’s National Team, less to determine cause of death and more to determine what can be done to revive the body.
Usually, the first step to reviving somebody is to get their heart pumping again so that oxygen can be supplied to the brain. In Brazil’s case, the first step is to procure an actual brain – an organ the national team has mistakenly thought it could live without.
“[Brazil] have given the central midfielder, the man who controls most of the team’s possession the specific function of destroying, when it should be to set up the play.” – Zizinho
Zizinho, perhaps the first of Brazil’s great attacking midfielders, said this in his autobiography back in 1985.
Read that again – specifically, the numbers 1, 9, 8, and 5.
Zizinho died in 2002, just a few months before the World Cup. In a way, he was lucky to go out when he did. As maligned as they were, the double-pivots of the late 80s and 90s were bastions of creativity compared to what came after. As criticized as someone like Dunga so persistently was (completely unfairly, in my opinion), he was the embodiment of jogo bonito when set up against the men who replaced him. What Zizinho would have thought had he seen the likes of Felipe Melo, Lucas Leiva, Paulinho, Elias, and so many others don the yellow shirt in major tournaments, I can’t imagine. Likely he would have had an aneurysm rupture right on the spot.
You see, when Zizinho wrote those words, he wasn’t describing the present so much as looking into the grim and distant future. A future that has now become our present.
He was describing the death of the deep-lying playmaker.
Brazil didn’t invent the deep-lying playmaker role, but they have a rich history of using it. The greatest deep-lying playmaker, in fact, was probably – what is a deep-lying playmaker? I suppose deep-lying playmakers need some description nowadays, since in Brazil they have become rare and shy of the Big Destroyers, as they call them. They are (or were) often a little people, without obvious athleticism. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them control the tempo of the game, spread the play to the flanks quickly and accurately, open up defenses with a well-timed pass through the middle or over the top, and constantly offer themselves up to receive the ball and form passing triangles. Now you know enough to go on with.
As I was saying, the greatest deep-lying playmaker in Brazil’s history was probably Gerson. Frequently described as “the brains” of the 1970 World Cup-winning side, Gerson was absolutely adept at slicing apart opposing midfields with skimmed passes to the feet of Pele or Tostao. Even more important was his ability to ping diagonal balls into space for Jairzinho to run onto.
Another great Gerson pass was this beauty to Pele.
He was the beating heart of that beautiful team. Pele was undoubtedly the “star” and Jairzinho the spark-plug, but to me, Gerson was the most indispensable member of that team in terms of the way they played.
Another great deep-lying playmaker was none other than – you guessed it – Dunga.
For all his reputation as being a physical, uncompromising defender; for all that he represented (in the media’s eyes, anyway) a more rugged, less beautiful, more “European” Brazil, Dunga was a simply outstanding deep-lying playmaker. His high-point, in fact, was the 1994 World Cup, when it was his responsibility to get the ball up the field to Romario and Bebeto. He excelled most of all at clipped diagonal passes to the wings for the full-backs to run on to, but was almost as good sending piercing, probing passes up through the center-circle to Romario, whenever his teammate/roommate dropped deep.
Dunga’s greatest performance may well have been the final of the World Cup itself. Many people remember the game as being dour and uninspiring, but if you think that applies to Dunga, well, you simply didn’t pay attention. Time and time again, he would not only win the ball back for Brazil, but spray incredibly accurate, incisive passes up to the forwards. On that day, it was in the final third that Brazil failed to shine. The middle-third belonged to Dunga. Without wanting to engage in hyperbole, there is nothing the likes of Paul Scholes, Sergio Busquets, or Xabi Alonso did that Dunga couldn’t have done.
Since Dunga, Brazil really hasn’t had a bonafide deep-lying playmaker. With the double-pivot becoming almost compulsory in the national team, almost every one of Brazil’s successive managers has preferred to rely on either two destroyers, or at best, a destroyer and a runner.
So the question is, why has Brazil abandoned a tradition that once served them so well?
The roots of this change can be seen at least as early as 1970, when Brazil decided to pair their deep-lying maestro Gerson with a young, rugged, prototype destroyer in Clodoaldo. It was unquestionably a wise move, as Brazil’s performances, which had hitherto been inconsistent, improved dramatically. With Clodoaldo in charge of shielding the back four, breaking up play, and winning the ball, Gerson could focus on conducting the overall show.
But the shift didn’t really happen until after the 1982 World Cup. Brazil had taken a star-studded midfield, seducing the world with their swift interchanges and combinations, only to be dumped unceremoniously out in the quarter-finals after conceding three goals to Italy.
I’ve often felt that there seems to be an unspoken tradition in Brazilian fandom: it’s better to avoid a loss than it is to seek out a win. Certainly the Seleção has a history of retrenchment, a kind of “circling the wagons” effect whenever the team experiences a painful setback. Such was the case here, when Brazil’s legion of bureaucrats, armchair playmakers, and talking heads surveyed the footballing scene and decided that where once lay a garden world, now stretched only desolation. In other words, to avoid another agonizing defeat, Brazil would have to stop playing like Brazil. No longer could the Seleção afford to rely on superior technique. Collective ingenuity and improvisation would have to be curtailed in favor of military efficiency and brute force.
Tactically, there were two factors at work here. The first was summed up very nicely by Tim Vickery, in his article “The Rise of the Technocrats” for The Blizzard.
“According to…one of the country’s leading physical preparation specialists, the ground covered by the players doubled between the mid-70s and the mid-90s…Physical evolution meant less space on the field and more contact.
This led to two conclusions. Firstly, Brazil’s players had to be able to match the Europeans in physical terms. Secondly, there was little point in grooming players to work the midfield patterns of old. There was not enough space for such relics and the numbers appeared to prove that the greater the number of passes in a move, the lower the chances of it ending in a goal.”
Sadly, these conclusions were based on a faulty premise. In 1974, Brazil was handled rather easily by Rinus Michel’s great Dutch side. In that tournament, Holland introduced the art of pressing to the wider world. Suddenly, Brazil found itself with much less time and space than it had ever experienced. The explanation they came up with was that Holland was simply more athletic than Brazil.
Whether in fact Holland was the more athletic team is a moot point – because as we now know, pressing is part of a system. True, being in good shape is critical to pressing, but even more important is that the entire team presses together, in a concerted, organized way. Holland’s key organ wasn’t the players’ legs, or their hearts, or their lungs: it was their brains. It was their understanding that football is a collective art, and thus requires a collective discipline.
Brazil compounded their error by assuming this sudden restriction of space made passing less important rather than the reverse. But subsequent generations have proved that when space is denied you, the solution is to create new spaces through passing and movement.
The second factor was Brazil’s historic use on attacking full-backs, as discussed here. To provide a quick synopsis, Brazil once had two great traditions: skilled midfielders and attacking full-backs. Faced with a Sophie’s Choice scenario, they decided only one tradition could be saved: the attacking full-back.
To accommodate attacking full-backs, Brazil has relied more and more on “destroyers” – players whose job is to cover the spaces the full-backs leave behind. Unfortunately, this has led to almost the complete destruction of all that once made Brazilian football so beautiful…and successful.
In recent years, this new philosophy has caused Brazil to see less and less of the ball. Even more damning has been Brazil’s inability to create with the ball. The number of passes through the midfield have decreased. The number of balls played over the top for the forwards to chase or attempt to control has increased. The ultimate result is that the onus to create has increasingly fallen on the shoulders of one or two stars – almost always a forward or winger – leading to the entire team relying on isolated moments of brilliance rather than sustained pressure.
Or, as Tim Vickery likes to say, Brazil beat opponents on moments instead of beating them on flow.
To provide a visual example, take a look at these charts:
These are from Brazil and Germany’s respective quarterfinal matches in the 2014 World Cup. As you can see, Germany delivered far more passes into the attacking third than Brazil. The result means far more penetration.
The only player Brazil fielded who bore even a passing resemblance to a deep-lying playmaker was Fernandinho. Fernandinho actually did quite well given the fact that his most important job was to foul James Rodriguez, delivering more forward passes (and with greater accuracy) than either Bastian Schweinsteiger or Toni Kroos did for Germany. But most of Fernandinho’s forward passes tended to either be very short or were diagonal balls out to the wings – not a lot of genuine penetration there.
And so we come to the meat of the issue: what, exactly, is a deep-lying playmaker supposed to do…and what has Brazil been missing without one?
Here’s my list. (If you have items you want to add to it, just let me know.)
|What a good deep-lying playmaker does||What Brazil have done instead|
|Advance the ball into dangerous areas by delivering accurate, penetrating passes up to the forwards||Primarily relied on full-backs to advance the ball, or on long-balls over the top from the central defenders|
|Create scoring opportunities from deep positions by identifying and quickly capitalizing on any mistakes or space left open by the defense, and by spotting and rewarding runs off the ball, which they are better positioned to see than anyone else||Relied primarily on counter-attacks, half-counters, and set-pieces to create scoring opportunities|
|Set the tempo of play, preferably at a high pace that the opposition can’t keep up with. This is done mainly through quick, one-touch passes and off-ball movement repeated time and time again, ad nauseum||Passed the ball around at a slow crawl|
|Commit to keeping the ball moving forward as much as possible so that attacks stall and die in the defensive half of the pitch as little as possible||Fielded defensive midfielders who are far more comfortable simply passing backward to the center-backs, or sideways to the full-backs|
|Retain possession by being comfortable with the ball at their feet whenever a pass is impossible||Fielded technically-lacking destroyers who, the more touches they have, the more liable they are to give the ball away|
|Establish a positive culture – whether that culture is based on attacking, collective interplay, pure possession, etc.||Established a nervous, cynical culture based on excessive fouling and out-muscling (or even out-running) the opposition|
The conclusion: it’s clear that Brazil desperately need to return the days of fielding at least one deep-lying playmaker.
But who are the candidates?
There’s really two ways Brazil can go about this, and it’s based as much on basic philosophy – what the manager encourages the players to do and be – as on squad selection.
The first approach is to continue playing a double-pivot. But instead of fielding two destroyers, field a deep-lying playmaker alongside a more standard holding midfielder.
For example, something like this:
That could definitely work, and would be infinitely preferable to the two-destroyer or destroyer/runner combos we’ve seen over the past two decades.
But one thing I’ve come to dislike over the years is reliance on specialization. In other words, I don’t like when players, especially midfielders, are designated to fill one specific role. Like, for example, the designated holding midfielder, or even a designated attacking midfielder. (The former is usually too limited; the latter too easily marked out of the game.)
Instead, I prefer seeing as many two-way players on the pitch as possible. In other words, there’s no reason why the deepest-lying midfielder can’t be both a capable playmaker and a committed defender. Dunga proved you could do both; so did Zito before him. More recently, players like Sergio Busquets have proven to be equally adept at both phases of the game, although their contributions to these respective phases may come in varying degrees.
Here’s how the legendary manager Arrigo Sacchi puts it:
“The magic that transforms a group into a team is the play. A system of play that has to include everyone in both the attacking and the defensive phase… many teams have soloists, and these break the harmony. We [AC Milan] didn’t have soloists, Ajax didn’t have soloists. We had people who played with the team, for the team, all over the pitch, for the whole game.”
Note that while Sacchi uses the term “soloists”, the term “specialists” applies equally well.
The question, then, is: do Brazil have anyone who can provide an equal contribution to both the attacking and the defensive phase? Is there any midfielder out there who can fulfill both the playmaking function and the defensive function from a deep position?
I think there might be…and his name is Casemiro.
Casemiro – The most interesting young Brazilian in the world today
Whoa, whoa, whoa! (Is what you’re probably saying.) Most interesting in the world today? What about Valdivia, or Andreas Parreira, or Luan, or Gabigol? What about Gabriel Jesus?
Well, yes. They are certainly all exciting players to watch. But Casemiro, to me, is more interesting.
It took me a long time to warm up to Casemiro. I first started paying attention to him at the 2011 U23 World Cup. He didn’t impress me all that much – he looked like a decent box-to-box mid but nothing more.
I started to become a little more interested during his time at Porto, but even there he was little more than “someone to keep an eye on.”
When he made a permanent switch back to Real Madrid, I was anxious to see what kind of player he’d become. By the end of the season, it was clear that we had a potentially world-class defensive midfielder on our hands. The shift he put in against Barcelona, for one, was a masterclass. He completely shut down both Messi and Neymar whenever either ventured into his zone.
At the same time, I was disappointed, because he looked like the next in a long line of Brazilian midfielders who had been transformed into great defenders…but little else. At Real Madrid, his passing always looked pedestrian and unimaginative. He was still worthy of inclusion into the national team, of course, but there seemed little chance of him becoming anything more than the next Gilberto Silva, or a better version of Luis Gustavo.
Then I watched him play at the Copa America.
Before we go further, let’s get some disclaimers out of the way. Yes, he only played in 2 matches. It was a small sample size. And one of the matches was against Haiti. I get it.
But despite all that, Casemiro looked liberated playing for Brazil. In his two matches, he displayed a range of passing I didn’t expect. He displayed an accuracy of passing I didn’t expect. Most exciting of all was the speed at which he passed – he was by far the best one-touch passer on the team.
Even if we throw the Haiti match out, the Ecuador match was still a serious contest against a challenging opponent. (Ecuador, remember, currently top the table in World Cup qualifying.) But it was a challenge Casemiro more than rose to.
Here’s a few samples of his passing in that match. As you watch them, remember some of the attributes of a good deep-lying playmaker: advancing the ball into dangerous areas, getting the ball to the forwards, setting the tempo, commitment to keeping the ball moving forward, etc.
What we see here: Quick, accurate pass forward to launch the attack from a deep position.
What we see here: quick, accurate one-touch pass up to the forwards. (After initially winning the defensive header)
What we see here: quick, accurate pass forward to launch the attack.
What we see here: one-touch pass up to the forwards to launch the attack.
What we see here: quick, one-touch pass up to the forwards.
Here’s another that I couldn’t make a GIF of:
What we see here: It’s hard to tell in the picture, but it was a quick, accurate pass up to the forward to launch the attack.
In short, what Casemiro was doing was frequently, consistently, accurately, and consistently making plays from a deep position.
Now, please understand: I am not claiming that Casemiro is a world-class passer yet, or that he’ll ever be anything close to as good as Gerson, or Dunga, or Toninho Cerezo. But he doesn’t have to be that good.
He just has to be good.
If his performance in the Copa America is a true indication of his ability, and not just a fluke, then good is exactly what I think he is. Some of his passes may seem rather basic, but they are the kind of passes good deep-lying playmakers make over and over and over again…the kind WE HAVE NOT SEEN IN YEARS. I cannot stress this last point strongly enough. The second and fourth examples are especially rare. Most of our central midfielders do not make those passes…EVER. Either they don’t spot them, or they don’t have the confidence to execute them. Instead, with Gustavo, with Lucas Leiva, with Gilberto Silva, with Ramires, with Paulinho, with just about every other midfielder you can name, you’d see a back-pass instead of a forward pass.
And that’s what makes me so excited about Casemiro. Again, it’s a small sample side. But if he can consistently replicate that level of passing in World Cup qualifying (assuming Tite calls him up), then we will have what we have not had for a long, long time: a genuine deep-lying playmaker who also doubles as an outstanding holding midfielder.
In other words, we’ll have a real two-way player.
Just before I posted this article, Brazil played a 0-0 draw with South Africa. For most of that match, Brazil went long stretches without any meaningful possession. The tempo of the match was extremely slow, the ball often went nowhere, the forwards had to endure long periods without the ball, and scoring opportunities were never created from deep positions.
The game screamed for a deep-lying midfielder.
Perhaps Rogerio Micale thought Renato Augusto could fill that role, but he didn’t…nor has he ever been able to. (Casemiro’s passing, for example, was far more impressive than anything Renato Augusto has ever done for Brazil.) Again, I stress the fact that Brazil need to pack their midfield full of passers, not just one. But it all starts from that deep position with a player who has the vision, skill, and mindset to establish a high tempo and keep the ball moving forward.
Once they have that, then perhaps Brazilian football can finally move forward, too.
 Note about the term jogo bonito. It means “Beautiful game” in Portuguese. However, most English-language speakers have tendency to say joga bonito, which translates to “play beautifully.” It’s an easy mistake to make, but joga bonito is really just a famous marketing slogan Nike once used in commercials. But when used in a historical context (i.e. describing the 1970 or 1982 teams), jogo bonito is actually the original, and correct, term. Of course, I’m hardly one to talk about this given the fact I once said “ciao” instead of “tchau”. (In my defense, it was really goddamn late and I was really goddamn tired and Microsoft Word’s spellcheck tool took advantage of me. Let’s move on.)
 You can see proof of this if you watch the Brazil v. England game. Gerson was injured and replaced by Paulo Cezar Lima. “Caju”, as he was affectionately known, was a wonderful player, and in truth, he was one of Brazil’s best performers on the day. But he operated higher up the pitch, primarily on the left. In Gerson’s absence, Brazil had a much more difficult time building from the back, and often struggled for long periods to create anything of note (though the heat was probably a factor as well.)
 There’s no rule that says Brazil can only field one. After all, Germany have routinely played Schweinsteiger and Kroos together, and Spain has often used a combination of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets.