Death of the Brazilian Winger

It's all 4-2-2-2 and defensive midfielders these days, even in the previously flamboyant surroundings of Brazil's Serie A.  IBWM's Brazil correspondent Jack Lang laments the death of the Brazilian wide man.

There’s one type of player that a newcomer to Brazilian domestic football might be rather surprised to find lacking.

For a country whose game has been so defined by trickery, technique and the jogada individual, the Brasileirão is remarkably short on one of football’s most exciting figures; the winger.

This really stood out during a fifteen minute period of a recent match in Série A (the Brazilian one) between Atlético-GO and Flamengo. I have long since been aware of (and frustrated by) the lack of genuine wide men in the game here, but watching events at the Serra Dourada brought everything into focus. The home side were losing an attritional encounter by one goal, and had looked utterly bereft of attacking threat throughout, despite fielding two strikers and Elias, a classic No.10.

With 75 minutes on the clock, Atlético coach Roberto Fernandes threw on veteran Anaílson to play on the left side. Hugging the touchline, Anaílson completely changed the shape of the game; receiving the ball in space on countless occasions, doubling up with his left-back, getting to the byline and delivering dangerous crosses. That the substitution didn’t lead to an equalising goal was pure luck on Flamengo’s part; they simply didn’t have an answer to an attacking player prepared to hold his position on the left.

It was hard not to imagine the puzzlement of Atlético’s fans; “why don’t we always play like that?!” For this correspondent, it was a short-lived but nonetheless definitive vindication of some long held concerns over the tactical system prominent in the Campeonato Brasileiro; the 4-2-2-2. In this set-up, the defensive and attacking roles of the midfield are cleaved apart; two volantes provide cover for the back four, while two meias have the remit of creating chances and supporting the front men. The two meias remain, more often than not, fairly central, leaving their full-backs to exploit the wide areas and provide crosses. Grêmio, for example, usually line-up in the following shape;

There are two fundamental problems with such a system. The first occurs when two teams employing 4-2-2-2 meet. Since the volantes, meias, (and strikers for that matter) form two pretty straight lines down the centre, one team’s defensive midfielders simply mark the other team’s attacking midfielders, and vice versa. The result is that the meias frequently receive the ball under heavy pressure, with their backs to goal, making forward progress extremely difficult;

Eight midfielders, all marked, all central.

The second is that it asks too much of the full-backs. With such a cluster of players in the centre, the full-back is required to cover the length of the pitch; to be an outlet in attack as well as alert in defence. This may not be a problem if your full-backs are, say, Cafu and Roberto Carlos (indeed, the formation may well be a contributor to Brazil’s great canon of full-backs), but more often than not, a player will be far more comfortable with one of these duties than the other. Flamengo’s Léo Moura, for example, is an excellent athlete and provides a threat in attack, but is rather suspect defensively.

In my view, the preponderance of this formation has led to the decline of the Brazilian winger, rather than vice versa. Brazil produces an abundance of quick, skilful players who would be ideally suited to the role, but end up playing at full-back or in midfield due to the current tactical hegemony (see recently; Daniel Alves, Gilberto, André Santos). It speaks volumes that when such players leave Brazil, they are often successfully employed on the wing. Michel Bastos, for example, arrived in Europe as a full-back who couldn’t defend, before becoming far more effective as a winger at Lyon. (That he reverted to a full-back role at the World Cup, and was criticised for his defensive shortcomings, shows that the seleção is not immune to my criticisms here.)

Interestingly, however, despite the 4-2-2-2’s contribution to the death of Brazilian wingers, it could also hold the key to their resurrection. As Anaíson’s cameo showed, the employment of wingers (or even just one in an asymmetrical formation) can be devastating against a team expecting the usual trench warfare in the centre of the park.

There have, I should note, been recent precedents; Corinthians’ run to the Copa do Brasil last season was lit up by Jorge Henrique’s performances wide on the left. Mano Menezes (the Corinthians, and possibly next Brazil, coach), indeed, continues to employ a 4-3-3, but its efficiency this season has been reduced significantly due to the fitness troubles of Henrique and Dentinho. The wide roles have been occupied instead by Danilo and Matías Defederico, both of whom prefer to tuck in centrally behind the lone striker. Again, the lesson is clear; true wingers make all the difference.

You can read more from Jack at Snap, Kaká and Pop!