It has now been a year since Brazil won the gold medal in men’s football at the Olympic Games. It was one of Brazil’s most significant footballing accomplishments in years, particularly since Olympic gold was the last mountain the Seleção had yet to scale.

And yet, a year down the line, you can argue that it didn’t change a whole lot—at least, not for the better. Coach Rogério Micale showed that long-term preparation, with regular U-23 friendlies to build a cohesive team, could create a winning team capable of playing stylish football; he was fired six months later. Of the breakout stars from that tournament, only Gabriel Jesus really used it as a springboard to Seleção success; players like Luan, Felipe Anderson, Rodrigo Caio and Gabigol spent the ensuing year either underappreciated at the national team level, stagnating at a club that doesn’t appreciate their potential, or both. Weverton is still a regular selection in senior team squads, for some ungodly reason.

That’s not what I plan to argue here, though. Perhaps the Olympic campaign has yet to serve as the referendum on Brazilian football or the springboard for players’ careers that we hoped it might. Even so, it did a world of good for several of Brazil’s key players, gave fans and players some much-needed confidence about the Seleção’s abilities going forward, and taught some important (and occasionally sobering) lessons about tactics and team setup.

Originally, this was meant to be part two of a large-scale look at the work and legacy of Brazil’s recent coaches. It’s been long enough that that feels kind of quaint now, especially since Rogério Micale, naturally the focus of this second part has been fired. Still, I’m going to keep a similar format to part one—which you can find here—and explore the main things we learned or benefited from thanks to the Olympic campaign. Rather than group the lessons by positives or negatives this time, I’m going to start with what we gained from individual players and widen out into the collective and tactical aspects of the team.

Individuals

The Revitalization of Neymar

Coming into the Olympics, Neymar was simultaneously enjoying one of the most successful spells of his club career and enduring the darkest year of his international career. He won the Champions League in 2015, but weeks later was handed a four-match ban for his angry outbursts at the Copa America. The following season he put together his best-ever goal/assist total for Barcelona, even as he endured an almost year-long goal drought for Brazil. Even as he took the helm during Lionel Messi’s injury absence at Barça, assuming the captaincy for his country only made him petulant and ill-tempered.

Despite all this, Rogério Micale named him the captain of the Olympic team. It seemed like a recipe for disaster, and it sure seemed that way for the first few games. Neymar looked off the pace in the preparatory friendly against Japan and little better in the openers against South Africa and Iraq. Some on here suggested he might not have been fully fit, or hadn’t had enough time to reclaim his sharpness after a summer break.

Regardless of the exact reason, those concerns soon melted away. Neymar was magnificent in the final four games, which speaks less to a change in attitude—his provoking and scuffling with opponents singlehandedly threw the Colombia match into chaos—than a change in his role. As part of the rejiggering for the crunch game against Denmark, Neymar got more license to cut inside and roam all over the pitch, and from then on, he was a force of nature, menacing opponents with superb dribbling, carving out what felt like dozens of chances with an extraordinary range of passes, and running off the ball with seemingly boundless energy, even in extra time in the final.

But that’s old hat. We all know what Neymar can do when allowed to cut inside (or—perish the thought!—play as a true number 10, which he is rarely allowed to do for some reason). More importantly, we’ll be reaping the psychological benefits of his performance for years to come. He declared after the tournament that he was done with being captain for a while, understandably; the added responsibility never suited him, and seemed to take him out of the pressure band where he normally excels. Still, having captained Brazil to a tremendous victory seemed to settle something in him; perhaps he felt it redeemed his prior struggles with the captaincy. Regardless, ever since then he has largely been free—particularly for Brazil and to a lesser extent for Barcelona—of the petulance and irritability of old. And for Brazil, if not for Barcelona, he has returned to his unplayable, free-scoring best.[1]

Let’s also take note of how he seized the knockout rounds by the throat. In all three games—twice through incredible free kicks in clutch situations, once by pressing a ball with no regard for his own safety—he grabbed the early goal that forced the game onto Brazil’s terms. And with Brazil’s last kick of the tournament, he converted perhaps the single most pressure-packed penalty in Seleção history to clinch the gold medal. He’d done something similar against Chile in the World Cup, but doing so to beat the team he hadn’t been able to face in 2014, to win—in Brazil—the one footballing prize that had eluded the Seleção, had to be a moment of immense redemption. It wasn’t a World Cup, but I think it had a similar function. Neymar was no longer just a talented upstart whose padded stats hid a middling record in official competition. He had written something really significant into the Seleção history books, and in doing so made arguably his strongest claim yet that he deserves to be compared to the greats.[2]

The Excellence of Renato Augusto

Renato Augusto came into the Olympics under heavy scrutiny. After his move to Beijing Guoan and a few extremely tepid performances for Brazil under Dunga, many of us howled about his inclusion in the Olympic squad, especially ahead of some younger and more promising midfielders. Things only got worse after tepid displays in the first two games, capped off with that miss in injury time against Iraq.

After that, however, Augusto finally made his case not just for inclusion in the Olympic squad but a starting role with the senior team. He was consistently one of our best players, combining really sharp tackling with reliable forward passing. His skill and intelligence came to the forefront: on many occasions he showed wonderful feet to retain possession in tight spaces, and he always seemed to know where to position himself. There’s surprisingly little video of his Olympic displays on YouTube, but here’s a nice moment from the final, representative of something he did a lot: cleverly using his skill to draw a foul, thus retaining possession and buying the team a reprieve from opposing pressure:

His displays converted many skeptics, or at least made them willing to give him another chance at senior level. I count myself among them. While he has not always been able to offer this sort of quality against tougher opposition at the senior level, he has, under Tite, generally repaid our faith. He’s clearly one of Brazil’s most intelligent players, and has the nous to both help in the possession game and move around to provide defensive cover within Tite’s system.

A Note On The Players Who Disappointed And The Penalty Shootout Against Germany

If I had to pinpoint the players who disappointed the most at the Olympics, I’d spotlight Zeca, who, perhaps because of the instructions of the coach, did very little of note at either end; Felipe Anderson, who did not live up to his enormous talent; and Weverton, who played with fire more than he made difficult saves. Of these three, Weverton’s case is the most interesting, because he’s still being regularly selected for Brazil. I don’t really want to add all that much about him here—we all still remember his heart-in-mouth moments at the Olympics (remember when he hopped backwards and almost carried a German shot over the line in the final?), and we’ve seen his blunders since:

 

I do want to make a quick note about his performance in the title-deciding penalty shootout, in which he made the crucial penalty save that allowed Neymar to win it all. Sadly, there’s no really good video of the shootout on YouTube—it’s either cropped or way too zoomed in, or both, which makes it hard to see what’s going on. If you want to rewatch it, try this option. Anyways, it struck me at the time, and strikes me again upon rewatching, how close Weverton came to saving three of the other four penalties. Only against Julian Brandt did he not dive the right way. He came incredibly close to saving the other three—two of them seemed to be placed just a little too far into the corner for him to reach, and he got something on Serge Gnnabry’s penalty but let it slip under him. Ultimately, it didn’t matter, but I remember wondering at the time whether we’d end up regretting those near saves. It’s certainly a credit to Weverton that he read the shooters so well and dove the right way most of the time, but I can’t help but wonder if a better shot-stopper could have managed even more.

Ah well. Weverton did well enough that our five takers all scoring their penalties with aplomb was enough. I still think that Ederson is more deserving of that goalie spot, though.

Collective/Psychological

We Stood Up to Germany

Two years after the humiliation of the 7-1 defeat to Germany at the World Cup, the Olympic gold medal match served as a replay in miniature. A victory wouldn’t singlehandedly heal the scars of the darkest day in Seleção history—but a second defeat on Brazilian soil might have ripped out the stitches.

In that context, even an effectively under-23 match carried an incredible mix of emotions, a potentially toxic combination of expectation and dread. Watching the game, you never lost the sense that Brazil were playing with fire. The Germans hit the crossbar on three separate occasions in the first half alone. The television commentary remarked on the tension that permeated the crowd in the Maracanã. The players found themselves gesturing forcefully to rouse the fans. It could have ended very badly.

Fortunately, it didn’t—and though we rode our luck, especially in parts of the first half, it’s important to remember that, on balance, Brazil was the better team in the final. We attacked more, we held the ball in opposition territory for longer periods, and we created generally better chances—of the three German woodwork hits, one was a speculative shot from distance and another was the result of Renato Augusto nearly miscuing a clearance. Germany equalized after our shakiest period of the game, yes, but after that goal, we were the only team that ever looked like it was going to win, creating chance after chance.[3]

And in the long run, that the game went to a penalty shootout may prove to be an incredibly important formative experience for this up-and-coming generation of players. Stepping up in front of a home crowd in Brazil’s greatest stadium, with Brazil’s chance to finally claim the one title it has never won now in your hands, knowing that a successful effort only sustains Brazil’s hope while a miss could doom it, and your career…. Renato Augusto, Marquinhos, Rafinha, and Luan all passed that gauntlet, and it’s likely that we’ll see some combination of at least two of these players at each of the next two World Cups. And, as Black Matt said at the time, as he stepped up to take the penalty, Neymar may have been under more pressure in that moment than any other player in Seleção history.

We’ve criticized several of Brazil’s recent coaches for not taking youth to the World Cup, filling the bench with unremarkable utility men ahead of promising youngsters who could carry the experience into starting roles four or eight years down the line. There is nothing like the World Cup, and no experience that can prepare a player for the pressure involved. The intensity and expectation surrounding the Olympic final, though, might help paper over a crack Dunga and Scolari decided to open.

Brazil’s Talent and Depth at Center-Back is Insane

Marquinhos and Rodrigo Caio are really, really, really good center-backs, and without them, Micale’s system simply would not have worked. By being so reliable at the back, they created a platform for the rest of the team to push up, confident that any opposing player who got into the resulting space would stop at their feet. Their distribution was also excellent, with Marquinhos in particular pulling off some excellent 30-plus-yard forward passes. And their technique on either side of the ball—my God! I’m just going to link to a YouTube compilation here—it’s three minutes of brilliance,[4] and it’s higher quality than a GIF could manage.

But Rodrigo Caio deserves a further shoutout. He isn’t the most athletic center-back, but he’s one of the best tacklers I’ve ever seen. He has a remarkable technique for getting his far foot onto the ball, which allows him to more effectively hook it away from the goal. One tackle he made in the second half against Denmark—starting at 3:01 in the video—may be the best I’ve ever seen. They never showed a replay, so here’s your chance to watch it over and over again, to your heart’s content.

As was the case all tournament long, on the rare occasions when one slipped up, the other was invariably there to cover… but based on my count, Caio had to cover for Marquinhos more than the reverse. Just sayin’.

It’s not just Marquinhos and Caio coming up through the youth ranks either. Luan Garcia, the third-choice center-back, showed he was no slouch in his brief cameo against Honduras.

I’m going to close this section with a bit more gushing about Rodrigo Caio, who went on to start his first game for Tite’s Brazil against Colombia in January, and pulled off this gem.

I’m not sure why we’re even bothering with Miranda or Gil.

Tactics and Systems

A Reminder Of The Importance of Movement

The first two games of the Olympics were major disappointments. Brazil created enough chances against both South Africa and Iraq to win easily on any day (remember that both games featured a Brazilian player missing an empty net), but interspersed this with long stretches where they created little and, occasionally, were actually worse than their opponents.  Players like Neymar and Gabriel Jesus struggled mightily, in part because they kept receiving the ball in tricky or unfavorable positions.

Starting in the Denmark game, however, that began to change, and most of the improvements either stemmed from or affected one key area: movement. Neymar began cutting inside more regularly, receiving the ball in better positions and having opportunities to find teammates running into space; Gabriel Jesus, misused in an overly central role in the first two games, had license to drop deeper and onto the wings, getting more involved in the play and scoring his first goal of the tournament.

The biggest improvement, however, owed to two personnel changes in the middle of the park. Walace replaced Thiago Maia, who had started the first two matches but was suspended against Denmark; Maia only played 23 minutes in the knockout rounds. Luan, who had done well after coming on as a sub in the first two games, replaced Felipe Anderson in the starting XI. What’s interesting about both of these changes is that they were arguably both technical downgrades; Maia is certainly a better passer than Walace (and he’d done quite well in the first two games), while Luan made plenty of errors in his touch and isn’t as electrifying a dribbler as Anderson. But, crucially, they moved. Luan’s technique didn’t always match his intention, but in constantly moving back and forth, either serving as the third man in midfield or the fourth man in attack, he gave himself far more opportunities to move the ball than Anderson ever did. Walace, meanwhile, often moved high up the field, whether to press an opponent or make himself available for a pass. Maia, though he played well, regularly stayed closer to the center circle, which impacted his ability to press the opposition or maintain a high tempo.

I don’t want to necessarily blame the players themselves for this lack of movement. After all, I’ve seen Felipe Anderson cover far more ground for Lazio than he ever did during the Olympics; indeed, his relative lack of movement and involvement for Brazil was bizarre. (Renato Augusto speculated that he was unsuited to playing in a three-man midfield triangle.)  Given how Neymar and GJ improved after being given more license to move, I think the credit—or the burden for not seeing it earlier—lies more on Micale’s shoulders.

Micale’s Success, or Tite’s?

As Globo put it, the team owes their change in fortunes to what happened in the two days before the Denmark game. First, Micale took a bold step, holding a heart-to-heart talk with the players in order to frankly discuss the team’s shortcomings and air any dirty laundry that needed airing. While this apparently was very effective, to the point where several players got emotional, most people attribute the biggest change to Tite’s visit the following day. Though he didn’t directly interfere with training, he spent a while conversing with the players and Micale, and Globo suggests that the desire to impress the newly-appointed coach of the senior Seleção provided extra motivation for some players.

The cynical view, of course, is that Tite did the work for Micale, suggesting the changes that revitalized the team, and this has some merit. Renato Augusto, who had been a key member of Tite’s Corinthians side, played far better after his visit, for example. To say that Tite deserves all the credit, though, is reductive. The article suggests that, while Tite’s appearance certainly helped, the main tactical switch was Micale’s brainchild: his “plan B” of playing with four attackers. The need to create the necessary defensive platform might explain why he went for Walace, a more out-and-out defensive midfielder, over Rodrigo Dourado, who some outlets speculated would be the replacement for Thiago Maia.

Of course, this is all speculative. We’ll never know for certain who had the greater impact. I do believe this goes a way towards countermanding the notion that Micale was clueless, though—a narrative that I suspect colored the perception of his subsequent failure to qualify for the U-20 World Cup.

The Effects of a System pt. 1: The Thin Line

Renato Augusto’s performance in the gold-medal match was an odyssey, a dizzying journey between the best and worst of what can be done on a football pitch. For probably the first sixty minutes, Augusto was the best player on the pitch, with an exceptional display on both sides of the ball. His vertical passing up to the forwards was the main supply line for the attack; he pulled off several pieces of very clever play to keep possession in tight spaces; and he always seemed to know exactly where to be to nip the ball from a German foot without ever needing to go to ground.

But boy oh boy, could it have gone differently.

Germany hit the crossbar three times in the first half, and Augusto had a hand in all three. For the first, he tried a sideways pass out of pressure at the halfway line, but nobody was moving to receive it; Germany picked it up and seconds later, Julian Brandt hit the crossbar. For the second, he tried to cut out a German free kick, but came inches away from deflecting it into his own goal. Mere minutes after that, he barely moved as Sven Bender attacked another free kick right next to him, which again ended up hitting the woodwork. And he had a pretty bad miss at the other end, shooting wide when a corner fell to him at the penalty spot.

All this illustrates how Micale’s team walked a thin, thin line between success and disaster. Pushing players up the field meant that when Brazil did lose possession, opponents often got a clear run against the defense, and sometimes just Marquinhos and Rodrigo Caio. It’s a testament to the extraordinary ability of those two that Brazil conceded just one goal in six games, as they mopped up pretty much everything thrown at them. Indeed, the one goal we did concede was the product of Marquinhos making two errors in quick succession: giving the ball away and then failing to close down his mark.

The Effects of a System pt. 2: Indispensable Talent

One thing I’ve noticed about certain much-lauded coaches and playing styles is that they require an extremely high caliber of player to be implemented properly. Pep Guardiola, naturally, is my ur-example: his Bayern Munich side, though it won game after game and utterly dominated most of them, was never quite as good, especially in the Champions League, as his Barcelona. The difference, in my mind, is that at Barça, Pep could count on Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, geniuses on the ball who could wiggle their way out of tight spaces, play the killer ball, or (in Messi’s case) conjure up a brilliant goal by himself. In a system that often forces other teams to compact themselves, that sort of brilliance is the difference maker.

Not every playing system requires players of that level to be successful, of course—Claudio Ranieri won the Premier League with castaways from middling teams like Stoke and Aston Villa—but certain systems simply won’t work without it. Rogério Micale’s Olympic team needed that talent at both ends. It needed players of Neymar’s genius to provide the inspiration up front, and in pushing up the midfielders to support them, it left the defense exposed in a way that required two truly great central defenders—which, luckily, Marquinhos and Caio are.

By contrast, look at the team Micale took to the South American U20 Championship, the one that cost him his job. It was not the best class year, so to speak, but there was still some real talent available thanks to the likes of David Neres. But when the team pushed up, too often they found nobody in the middle (one of Micale’s constant problems, even back to the 2015 U20 World Cup, has been how his teams struggled to supply whoever was playing as a No. 9, but that’s a topic for another day). When attacks broke down—and, with less talent on display, they did more often—they’d be hit on the break. And when hit on the break, the calamitous defense would completely fail to deal with it.

Some coaches, and some coaching philosophies, succeed even with untalented players—at least on the level that their teams function as they should, even if they don’t always overcome the talent gap to their opponents. That does not apply to Micale, but here’s the thing: That shouldn’t have been a problem. In the Brazil setup, he was (almost) always going to have a wealth of talent on his hands. He shouldn’t have been judged on the rare occasion that he didn’t; in those cases, the root of the problem runs far deeper. But he was, and now one of Brazil’s more promising and attack-minded coaches is out of a job, rather than getting a second chance that might have afforded him the opportunity to work with the likes of Vinicius Júnior and Alanzinho.[5]

The role of Brazil’s youth coach has become a poisoned chalice. None of the U-20 coaches of recent years have met with any great success after leaving the post. Ney Franco, the only one to leave the post on his own terms, got fired in May two months into his first coaching job in over a year. Alexandre Gallo has bounced around clubs ever since he was sacked from the Brazil setup; most recently, he lasted less than two months at Vitória. Rogério Micale only just found a new coaching job, with Atlético-MG. Ironically it’s Emerson Ávila—who wasted the talents of players like Rafinha Alcântara and Fred[6] in abominable fashion in 2013—who has found the steadiest employment, as part of Cruzeiro’s youth setup. This, of course, is not wholly the CBF’s fault; it’s a product of the cutthroat nature of management in Brazil, where longterm projects are always sacrificed on the altar of short-term success and insignificant trophies. But particularly in the cases of Gallo and Micale, the CBF squandered the chance to use the youth systems as a way to incubate promising managerial talent, to instill a consistent playing philosophy across multiple generations of young Brazilian talent. Both Gallo and Micale—especially Micale—deserved better than to be cast out as they were.

Conclusion

Micale’s reign is, sadly, over. It’s a particular shame because, despite not working with the senior Brazil squad, his accomplishments match or exceed those of Mano Menezes, Luiz Felipe Scolari, and Dunga. His team played up to its potential, which Mano and Dunga rarely managed, and did so attractively, as Scolari seldom tried. He pushed an atypical, ambitious formation that enjoyed more success than Mano’s or Dunga’s attempts to play without a center forward. He and his players withstood enormous pressure in a tournament situation without crumbling. When his team wasn’t clicking mid-tournament, he adjusted their setup, galvanizing their run to the title. In another world, that would have made him a strong contender to be Brazil’s next senior coach after Tite. In this one, it wasn’t enough to save his job.

At least we now have Tite at the senior level. While he is far more of a pragmatist than Micale, he is vastly better than any coach we’ve had in probably fifteen years, and of course without his help Micale might not have won Olympic gold. Still, what Micale sowed, both with individual players like Neymar and with the collective confidence and accomplishments of a generation of Brazilian players, he will get to reap. Unlike his predecessors, he may be smart enough to make the most of it.

You can find more of Zetona’s work on his Twitter or his website, where he is known to the Internet at large as Dr. #Content.


[1] On this point, Tite deserves plenty of credit too, of course.

[2] After all, he’s already won more for Brazil—and won it of his own design—than Zico ever did.

[3] Although what does it say about Micale’s setup that we only started consistently creating genuine chances—as opposed to controlling the game and getting into good positions without many shots—after Germany scored and we began playing more on the counter?

[4] It drives me nuts when compilations start and end with a minute of footage of the player warming or celebrating. Ditto shitty EDM music and ridiculous editing, both of which this compilation has in spades. But high quality footage makes up for a lot.

[5] Note that his successor, Carlos Amadeu, crashed out of the Toulon Tournament earlier this summer with one win, one loss, one draw, one goal scored and one goal conceded. Perhaps Micale would have done no better, but surely he had earned at least that chance to prove that the South American U20 Championship was a blip.

[6] (The good one.)