Yesterday, Grêmio and Atlético Paranaense played out a 0-0 draw in the Brazilian league.

So? Why does this warrant a whole article, Zetona? 

To answer that, we have to keep in mind the current coaching situation in the Brazilian league.

Good coaching, let alone attack-oriented coaching, has been something of a rarity in Brazil recently, which owes to a whole number of factors: a large number of “big”, historically successful clubs compete for a small number of actual prizes and titles, which means fans often have unrealistic expectations for success; many clubs give fans opportunities to buy memberships and vote on management roles, which gives them a level of influence that, if they’re impatient or overly demanding, can pressure the management into rapid-fire coaching changes; the resultant culture means clubs move for proven quick-fix coaches instead of trying to implement long-term plans to grow and develop their football, which usually just means hiring Joel Santana for the fifth time; and the CBF’s coaching licenses aren’t valid in Europe, which keeps Brazilian coaches out of big-ticket jobs abroad.

A deeper dive into the issue is beyond the scope of this article: suffice it to say that Renato Gaúcho’s twenty-month tenure in charge of Grêmio is the third-longest of any coach in the Brazilian top flight (and Enderson Moreira and Mano Menezes, the top two, have him beat by only about two months). That was enough time for him to turn the Porto Alegre club into arguably the strongest team on the continent, sweeping to last year’s Copa Libertadores title on the back of slick passing play and attacking football. It doesn’t hurt that Grêmio have one of the best squads in South America, boasting World Cup hopefuls Marcelo Grohe, Pedro Geromel, Arthur, and Luan, as well as young talents like Everton and Ramiro and proven veterans like Léo Moura and Bruno Cortez. Arthur and Luan may well represent the future of the Seleção’s midfield, and if anybody is in pole position to take over the national team coaching job whenever Tite departs, it’s Renato.

Which all means that anybody hoping to make a name for themselves as a coach has to go through Renato and his Grêmio side. Enter Fernando Diniz, maybe the most ambitious coach in the entire country. He first drew national attention for his exploits at the head of São Paulo state minnows Audax, where he instilled a fanatical devotion to Barcelona-style tiki-taka passing play. It was a philosophy that led to occasional embarrassments, but it also produced one of football’s great underdog campaigns: Audax reached the final of the 2016 São Paulo state championship, beating national giants Corinthians and São Paulo to do so. After bouncing around between similarly low-tier clubs for much of the next year and a half, Diniz finally got his big break this year, landing his first top-flight job with Atlético Paranaense. Despite his lack of top-flight experience, Diniz seems to have adapted well: earlier in April, Atlético won the Paraná state championship, notched an impressive 3-0 first-leg win against Newell’s Old Boys in the Copa Sudamericana, and beat Chapecoense 5-1 to end the first round of Brazilian league action on top of the table.

All this set the stage for yesterday’s matchup. Rarely has the Brazilian league had two coaches so intent on, and successful in producing, attacking, aesthetically pleasing football—and yesterday, they faced each other for the first time ever. It’s the sort of game that warrants a writeup no matter what the result. Let’s dive in.  

Pre-Game

A note on my methods: I watched the entire game with the benefit of DVR recording, letting me pause and rewind as need be. Unfortunately, Globo’s international broadcast is in something less than HD, so it was usually very difficult to tell apart individual players. My observations are therefore more focused (with exceptions) on overall questions of tactics and team shape than on any particular player’s role or performance. I’ve included some GIFs of key moments in the game, but a more comprehensive highlight reel is here:

This was a home game for Grêmio; both teams came into the match having won their league opener. The lineups:

The different formations reflect the two teams’ different approaches to achieving attacking, slick-passing football. Grêmio’s 4-2-3-1 was very much about pushing the front four (and occasionally Maicon and Arthur behind them) high up the field, the idea being that with the ball they’d always have several passing options in attacking positions, making it very easy to break Atlético’s lines with a single vertical pass. There aren’t a lot of great examples of this in the highlight video, because they found most of their attacking joy through even more direct means, but this is a good one: see how one vertical pass brings them from knocking the ball around the back to the edge of Atlético’s penalty area.

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There are far more examples of how Grêmio’s system bore fruit off the ball, but it’s not time to talk about that yet. First, however, we need to talk a little bit about how Atlético set up. Fernando Diniz makes no secret of his admiration for tiki-taka, and while 3-4-3 is not a very common formation in the Brazilian league, it’s one Barcelona have often employed over the past decade. The strength of it in Diniz’s scheme is that it allows for there to be extra players essentially wherever the team needs them. If the ball’s back with the goalkeeper, the three center-backs (as well as a midfielder or two) can drop back to offer multiple passing outlets. In midfield and attack, those same players can shuttle forward, playing one-twos with teammates to advance the ball or appearing en masse at the edge of the box. The wide players, both in midfield and attack, tend to stay very wide, stretching the pitch and letting teammates run into the resulting space to serve either as a passing option or a target for a cross.

That’s all in theory, of course. In practice, it was something of a mismatch.

The Game

Atlético got their first warning sign almost immediately. From the kickoff, they played the ball back to Santos, their goalkeeper, but Grêmio pressed them relentlessly the whole way. It looked for a moment like they’d get trapped in their own box, but one long pass forward and they were in Grêmio’s half, playing with slick, quick passes but failing to get anywhere too close to the home side’s goal. Still, the first thing it brought to mind was one of the first times I watched a Diniz side, when Audax played São Paulo in 2014. On that day, their devotion to playing the ball out of the back was suicidal; they kept on coughing up the ball in extremely dangerous positions, and while they somehow got away with it for about 50 minutes, two of the goals in their 4-0 loss came from them giving the ball away because they were trying to play it out of the back.

Atlético may have played their way out of that jam this time, but it was an inauspicious start. Within five minutes, they were in trouble again. Santos’ pass to Lucho González (the one who played for Porto and  Marseille!) was fine, but Lucho’s slack ball went straight to a blue shirt (can’t tell who), who played in Luan, who smashed his shot against the bar before Ramiro skied the follow-up from  from the penalty spot and with the goalie out of position. Here’s the tape:

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This just kept happening. Atlético kept trying to play out of the back by having the goalie pass to a teammate at the edge of the penalty box; Grêmio kept flooding the box with their front four or five and robbing the ball in unbelievably good scoring positions. The highlight reel is essentially a nonstop montage of the Tricolor pressing ridiculously high up and just absolutely leaving Atlético at sixes and sevens. Interestingly, they often pressed more the deeper Atlético were: if the visitors got the ball over the halfway line, Grêmio would often sit off and trust that the attack would break down, saving their energy to try and win the ball in more favorable positions.

High pressing wasn’t Grêmio’s only weapon, though—as I touched on earlier, they were extremely capable of transitioning from midfield to attack very quickly. Whenever they were forced to circulate the ball back to their defenders, they left most of their squad high up the pitch, meaning they had options to immediately play the ball forward again. Atlético’s defensive setup also played into their hands, packing players around the ball and the edge of the box in a way that meant that whenever Grêmio passed their way out of pressure (which happened much more often than the reverse) they found themselves with plenty of space on the wings and between the lines. Here’s another example:

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That they didn’t score is down to some really, really wasteful finishing from the boys in blue. Grêmio led WhoScored’s shot counter 22-7, but Santos only had six saves to make, and examples like the above illustrate why. Grêmio sometimes play without a proper number 9, though former Santos FC golden boy and (short-lived) Brazil international André started up front yesterday. It’s not like he’s that good, but he wasn’t the one on the end of any of the team’s best chances (on several occasions he did, almost, get played in behind only for the pass to be slightly out of his reach), and perhaps he might have buried one or two of the twelve shots Luan and Everton missed between them. (Not a single one of Luan’s six hit the target, and he was also cautious rather than incisive with his passing in the final third—a disappointing showing for him.)

For much of the game, but especially the first thirty minutes or so, Atlético really were overmatched. Grêmio pressed them relentlessly, swarming high up the pitch and muscling them off the ball with ease. Wherever the ball was on the pitch, there was a good chance Grêmio could win it and immediately launch a fast break. Even when their attacks broke down, they were often able to win back possession immediately,  before Atlético could play the ball out of the danger zone, and start a new attack right away. Atlético played some very good passing football to wriggle out of many of those situations, but it was also apparent that they didn’t quite have the talent their opponents enjoyed. There were many occasions where a Furacão player missed a simple pass, or flubbed a dribble, that a better player would have completed with ease—and that made it easy for Grêmio to constantly dispossess them. Possession was almost perfectly split 50-50 all game long despite this technical and tactical imbalance, because Atlético looked to hold on to the ball whenever they got it, while Grêmio consistently looked to bring it forward quickly. Two technically accomplished teams built around passing play, very different approaches.

Atlético’s approach did not work very well in attack; the team could get to the final third with ease, but looked short on ideas whenever they tried to work the ball into an actually dangerous position. The difference in the teams’ approaches was really evident here: whereas Grêmio went straight for goal whenever they won the ball, Atlético were more willing to slow down the pace, work the ball around, and probe for an opening, which bought more time for the opposition defense to get back in position. The aforementioned lack of talent occasionally got in their way as well, and it didn’t help that they were up against one of the best defenses in Brazil. Their best chance of the game (which, you’ll note, came from a rather more vertical play than they preferred use for much of the game) ended with this superb last-man tackle from Geromel. Fun fact: Grêmio have conceded just one goal in the last nine games Geromel started.

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That was the last play of the first half, but it didn’t foreshadow any sort of paradigm shift in the second half. Grêmio still started the stronger of the two sides and really, really should have scored in the first 15 minutes of the half. Geromel, of all people, produced the best chance of the half, crossing perfectly for Everton to head wide from the penalty spot. After then, their pressing began to tell and they tired somewhat, which kept them from exploiting Atlético’s play at the back and afforded the visitors more opportunities to get forward—the best of which was this:

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It looked briefly like Atlético might snatch the win from under Grêmio’s nose, but unfortunately the game ended as a contest well before the final whistle. Camacho—a Diniz favorite from that miracle Audax team—got two yellow cards in quick succession with about twenty minutes remaining.  Atlético had occasional bouts of fouling throughout the game, whether from cynicism or frustration at not being able to win the ball back (Arthur in particular got pretty jostled around in the first half, though he always did an impressive job of staying upright and holding onto the ball), and this one cost them. Down to ten men, they packed their box and waited to counter, and a tiring Grêmio couldn’t break them down. At the final whistle, players from both sides flopped on the pitch in exhaustion.

The Takeaways

Somehow, one of the most tactically interesting, open-ended, cleanly contested games (the ball was in play for an impressive 68% of the match clock) the Brasileirão has seen in years ended in a scoreless draw. Both sides displayed some very high quality passing football: there was a big, ugly patch of yellow and brown grass all across the middle of the pitch and it didn’t seem to disrupt either team at all. Tactically, Grêmio’s relentless attempts to win the ball high up the pitch and play it forward—I almost want to call it gegenpressing—contrasted with Atlético’s commitment to building from the back, creating a compelling mismatch. Atlético just didn’t have an answer for Grêmio’s high, aggressive press, and only by a miracle did it not cost them. Grêmio’s bad finishing was the main culprit; had Luan managed to put his fifth-minute chance on frame instead of hitting the woodwork, or had Ramiro kept his follow-up shot down, I think we would have seen the floodgates open. Atlético wobbled for long stretches, particularly in the first half, and going behind might have seen them topple.

That said, Diniz and Atlético are surely the far happier side today. They went to the home of the Libertadores champions, maybe the strongest team in South America, and played the game they wanted to play. Though they were outplayed in either final third, they went toe-to-toe with Grêmio in terms of possession, they had several legitimate chances to steal the three points, and they held on very well after going down a man. They rode their luck, no doubt, but they came away with a valuable point, they’ll learn from their tactical and technical shortcomings on the day, and when they host Grêmio on August 25 I think we’ll see a much more even contest. If there’s a long-term drawback to the game for the Furacão, it’s that Grêmio showed everyone else how to take advantage of their insistence on playing out of the back.

From Grêmio’s perspective, it’s two points lost due to a real off day in front of goal, and Renato will be hoping that doesn’t become a recurring theme this season. He has a wonderfully talented, technically gifted side, but if they can’t break through in games like this—where the opposition’s approach plays to their strengths—what will they do against teams that can play long to bypass a high press? And just as importantly, there’s no way they can press like that in every game—it’s just too exhausting. When they inevitably run out of gas, they’ll start losing ground in the title race to the likes of Corinthians, Palmeiras, and Santos (wishful thinking?).

I don’t know whether I’ll make a series of this “tactical breakdown of a Brazilian league game” thing, but if I do, the next installment seems obvious: one of these two teams against the defending (and defensively stout) champions, Fábio Carille’s Corinthians.

To finish up, here are some of my assorted observations on other tactical and player-specific concerns:

Random Notes

  • With how the midfielders moved up to join the attack, Atlético’s 3-4-3 sometimes looked more like a 3-3-4 or 3-3-1-3 than a 3-4-3, and without the ball they often had four, and sometimes five, players in the back line. You can’t fault Fernando Diniz for being tactically inflexible! After only four months on the job, one has to expect this setup could change substantially over the coming months as Diniz tweaks and optimizes his team.
  • A holdover from the Audax days: Diniz likes having an outfield player take goal kicks, at least when the intent is to boot the ball upfield. I can’t claim to understand his reasoning here: if you trust your goalie enough to play short passes to his defenders under pressure, surely he’s good enough to play a decent long ball?
  • A pretty low foul count: Grêmio 9-15 Atlético-PR.
  • I don’t get why teams are so keen to play short corners. Grêmio took most of their corners short and even with their superiority in most aspects of the game didn’t create any presentable chances from them. The best chance from a corner was Geromel’s cross for Everton, which came from a rebound after an initial corner.
  • The players’ exhaustion at the end of the match is yet another illustration of how the Brazilian football schedule is overcrowded. This was only the second league game of the season for both teams, and yet it was Atlético’s seventh match in the 22 days of April alone, and Grêmio’s sixth.
  • Arthur is not the finished product, but boy oh boy, his ability to wriggle out of tight spaces and opposition pressure is a constant joy to watch.