It’s been well over a month since Brazil won its first Olympic gold medal. Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to write about the tournament until now, when fans of the Seleção have already moved on to more pressing matters.
There were a lot of positives to take from Rogerio Micale’s side, including but not limited to:
- The ascension of Marquinhos
- The playmaking of Neymar
- Gabriel Jesus, Gabigol, and Luan all taking turns to carry the scoring load
- Douglas Santos making everyone, including myself, eat crow
- The defensive solidity of the Walace/Renato Augusto pairing
Most pleasing to me was that Rogerio Micale, after stating his desire to play positive, proactive football, was able to accomplish his goal (mostly) thanks to his willingness to tinker with his formation and line-up. To be sure, most of the changes he made were obvious. But given the notorious stubbornness that has plagued so many managers to date, he should still be given credit for making them.
In the final analysis, the 2016 Brazil Olympic Squad was a bit of a mixed bag. Superb defensively…until they came up against a strong German team. Occasionally breathtaking in the attack…but too often in fits and spurts, and it’s hard to imagine them winning gold without Neymar, who opened the scoring in each of the knockout rounds.
Still, with their backs against the wall, Brazil responded as well as anyone could hope. And once they found their groove, they consistently displayed three key behaviors, or traits, that the senior team could absolutely learn from.
To be clear, when I say the “senior team”, I’m not referring directly to Tite’s edition. It’s too early to judge what Tite’s team is truly like, either positively or negatively. So when I say “the senior team”, I’m actually referring to just about every Brazil side of recent memory. The fact of the matter is that Brazil, regardless of who wears the shirt or which grumpy figure patrols the sidelines, has consistently shown the same weaknesses over and over, most of which we’ve discussed at length:
- Slow pace of play
- Nonexistent movement off the ball
- Incoherent use of space and shape
- Impatience and/or nervousness when playing the ball out of the back
Micale’s side weren’t perfect in any of these areas…but they did show real promise in each of them. It remains to be seen whether Tite can build upon that promise, but the fact Brazil has a generation coming through the ranks that is used to playing a more attacking style – and that has already tasted success with that style – is exciting.
So without further ado, here are three behaviors the Olympic team displayed that the senior team should emulate:
Pass and Move
It’s one of the simplest, most fundamental techniques in football, and equally critical regardless of whether you are playing an ultra-attacking style or worshiping at the Cryuffian altar of tiki-taka.
But Brazil has too often looked like a team that never learned it.
Too many players seem to believe that once the ball is no longer at your feet, all responsibility for retaining it has been lifted. It’s one of the reasons Brazil frequently looks staid and plodding.
Rogerio Micale’s side had many of the same problems early on, but two changes got the ball rolling. First was changing the positions of Neymar and Renato Augusto. When Micale shifted Neymar into a withdrawn role against Denmark, most people – including myself – focused either on how that change affected Neymar, or how it enabled Gabriel Jesus to slide out wide. But equally important was that it solidified Renato Augusto’s own move to a deeper position.
Renato Augusto is not a player whom I’ve traditionally held in the highest regard, and I still don’t think he’s the best option available. But one thing he does not lack for is basic footballing intelligence. He understands where to position himself. He understands how to use his body to shield the ball. He usually has a plan for what he wants to do with the ball before he even receives it – an absolute necessity in today’s fast-paced game. And he understands that offering yourself up to receive a pass is just as important as being able to play it. I have a GIF to illustrate this, but I’m going to hold onto it for now because it has equal bearing on another point later in the article.
The second change was the introduction of Walace.
This might come as something of a surprise. After all, Walace’s primary function is be a destroyer, and his passing skills are fairly rudimentary. But from the opening 45 minutes against Denmark, there was something Walace did that Thiago Maia hadn’t been doing.
You see, Walace has one outstanding skill. He always moves into positions in space, offering himself up as a passing target. He works constantly to give his teammates passing options. So even though his own passing was unremarkable, his work off the ball enabled Brazil to play with more pace and more patience.
To put it another way, it’s his understanding of the pass-and-move game that made him so valuable to Brazil’s build-up. He didn’t need to produce a stunning pass to advance the ball; he just needed to pass, move, and receive; pass, move, and receive.
The following pictures give an example of how a simple pass-and-move enabled Brazil to advance the ball quickly from box to box. The solid yellow lines indicate passing, dotted blue lines indicate movement off the ball, and white dashed lines are for dribbling.
Now Walace found himself well inside Denmark’s half, with plenty of space around him and almost no pressure. He could have continued his run, which would have been a perfectly reasonable option. What he did instead was probably better.
It might seem non-threatening, but Denmark is in trouble here because now the entire defense has to shift over while also keeping track of whoever enters into their zone.
Now the ball is INSIDE the Danish box, at the feet of a dangerous player who is marked by only a single defender, with runners on both sides.
Walace’s simple pass-and-move maneuver wasn’t the only thing at work here, of course: his switch of play, and the off-ball movement of Gabriel Jesus and Luan, were also critical. But it was that one little act of passing to Douglas Santos, then immediately moving forward to receive the return, that stimulated the entire attack.
Building from the Back
This is a graph of all of Brazil’s long-balls against Chile in the 2014 World Cup.
This is an extreme example – after all, it was one of the most meek and submissive Brazilian performances of my lifetime, at least from the second half on – but it’s also not entirely unusual. Brazil too often show a startling lack of patience, or the complete inability to advance the ball from back to front without having to take the aerial route.
Partly because of the movement discussed above, and partly because of the technically sound pairing of Marquinhos and Rodrigo Caio, Brazil did a much better job of building from the back during the Olympics.
I wasn’t able to procure GIFs of the best examples of this, but here’s a decent one against Germany:
- Every player was calm on the ball, even when being pressed
- Zeca, Renato Augusto, Marquinhos, Rodrigo Caio, and Douglas Santos all played one-touch passes (more on this in a moment)
- Renato Augusto’s intelligent (and hard-working) movement off the ball
Brazil wasn’t always able to turn these build-ups into meaningful attacks, of course. But the patience and trust Micale’s team showed in advancing the ball through contested areas was a good step forward.
One-touch passing…especially by the attackers
For the past month or so, I’ve been working on an article I’m calling Anatomy of an Attack. To prepare, I went back and watched every goal Brazil has scored at a World Cup since 1958 that I could find good video on.
One thing that stood out to me was how little time on the ball Brazil’s best players needed in order to make an impact. When you think of legends like Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivelino, Zico, or Romario, you often think of them as great dribblers. And while each of them certainly were great dribblers, it was incredible to me how often they didn’t dribble at all. The reason? Because they didn’t need to. They were all fantastic passers, and they knew that the perfect pass can split a defense better than the perfect dribble. Even more impressive was how often that perfect pass came after no more than 1 or 2 touches.
This was Pele’s genius in 1970. Forget his 4 goals or tournament-best 5 assists. Time after time, it was his one-touch passing that carved open the opposing team. Never before or since has Brazil had a player who so effortlessly combined both the extravagant and the simple. And at the end of the day, it was that same genius that defined the ’58, ’70 and ’82 teams. For as much as those teams exemplified flair and style, it was their complete mastery of the fundamentals that set them apart from their competitors.
One of those fundamentals is one-touch passing. Since Brazil has boasted very few one-touch passers of late, breaking down stout defenses has become increasingly difficult…and it’s created an over-reliance on individual brilliance and set pieces.
But some of Brazil’s best Olympic moments came off one-touch passes. Again, we shouldn’t get carried away and pretend the team were paragons of one-touch passing. But in Neymar, Luan, and Gabigol, Micale had three intelligent attackers who were able and willing to share the ball the moment they touched it rather than dribble unnecessarily.
Take Luan’s lovely first-time chip to set up Gabriel Jesus:
The single greatest instance of one-touch passing, though, came from Gabigol:
Let’s zero in on the key moment here:
I loved this moment when I saw it in real time, and the joy it brings me has not diminished. Just about nobody talked about it after the match; Gabigol certainly didn’t receive much credit, with more attention being paid to the fact that Gabriel Jesus had finally broken his duck.
That’s unfortunate, because it was this one instant that made the entire attack possible. Nobody would have blamed Gabigol if he had held onto the ball or tried to dribble into the center. The fact that he
- A) Had the presence of mind to recognize the space in front of Luan
- B) Had the selflessness to give the ball back immediately upon receiving it
is, to put it in a word, everything. There was nothing especially sexy about the pass. It brought him no glory. Technically, it wasn’t a particularly demanding pass. But it opened up the entire defense. It gave Luan the time and space to pick out a target and deliver a cross. It was the key that opened the chest. The ballista bolt that broke the siege. And it probably wouldn’t have been possible if Gabigol had waited even a second longer.
The great Brazil teams forced defenses to react to them rather than the reverse. One-touch passing – the epitome of selflessness – is one of the best ways to do that.
So there you have it. Rogerio Micale’s side not only won the gold, but laid out a template – humble as it is – that Tite’s side would do well to copy.
Let’s see if they do.
 Relying on counters and half-counters to get the ball into the opposing half is even more common.
 Meaning the video covered both the build-up and the shot.
 Still the weirdest phrase in football.