Luís Cristóvão on how the Sporting and Portugal right-back may answer a wider footballing question - lungs or brain?
Paulo Bento, the Portuguese national coach, recently caused dismay in some quarters when he persisted with João Pereira as his first choice for the right back spot in the Selecção. The Lisbon native’s career has had too many ups and downs for all and sundry to accept his place, particularly with Sílvio and Bosingwa as competition. This is exacerbated when performances for his club, Sporting, are often marred by inconsistency. For all this, I invite you to look at the way João Pereira plays.
Toughness, pace, aggression. Three adjectives that are easily associated with the Leões number 47. All three were already in his DNA when, in 2003, he first appeared at Benfica. Pereira was, in fact, one of few players in the last decade who progressed directly from the youth ranks to first team at Estádio da Luz.
A starter under Camacho and Trapattoni, the arrival of Ronald Koeman saw the youngster relegated to the bench, before being loaned to Gil Vicente. The difficulty that João Pereira had with keeping his competitive focus (and not getting distracted by pointless arguments with referees and opponents) obviously didn’t please the Dutch coach.
In two seasons, Joao Pereira went from national champion to a second division player. Few saw the potential for a return to the top, but strong performances at the service of the Barcelos team earned him a move to Sporting Braga. Braga have in recent years, performed miracles in terms of revitalising players. They have not just fought for top positions in the Portuguese League and Europe. They have done so with players discarded by the “três grandes”.
Pereira was one of those cases. Two and a half seasons with Os Arsenalistas earned him a contract with Sporting. His first months at the Alvalade were not easy. Lack of confidence from fans and an expulsion in the seventh minute of the League Cup semi-final did little to allay doubts about Pereira’s ability to cope with the pressures of a top club. But the fact was that come the end of the next season, he was of the few players to escape, more or less unscathed, from the woeful campaign. This earned him the forgiveness of the fans and the captain's armband.
But why does João Pereira still seem so inconsequential at times during Sporting games? The Leões typical style is to play the ball out from the back, at the feet of one of the central defenders. The next pass almost invariably goes to one of the touchlines. During the first half of last weekend’s trip Pacos de Ferreira, the ball almost always travelled in the direction of Pereira, due to the presence of new signing Insúa on the other flank.
Upon receiving the ball, Pereira generally chooses to run with it, either in a straight line or on a slightly deviating run towards the centre of the pitch. Such a course generally ends when he crashes into the first defensive player, loses the ball or causing some panic before it is retrieved by a teammate. Last weekend, Pereirinha (the attacking midfielder) was often stationed behind João Pereira, in a reversal of roles, or even just standing still looking at the progress of his captain. The same happened with more central players. Rinaudo and Schaars followed the speedy Pereira with their eyes instead of their feet, and as a result Sporting failed to capitalise on his regular thrusts forward. This is part of a wider issue at Sporting: the lack of a ‘brain’ in the centre of the pitch, someone who can carry the ball forward whilst also bringing others into play.
The situation is different with Portugal. When the ball meets Pereira’s right foot, the team’s brain (which is comprised of Raúl Meireles, João Moutinho and Rúben Micael) instantly moves into open spaces, and the trio (plus Cristiano Ronaldo in an advanced position) generally provide more of an outlet for Pereira. The same actions therefore yield quite different results. In essence, when a brain directs the efforts of the lungs, logical and positive results tend to follow.
João Pereira is, in my opinion, a very conventional type of full-back. Generally, players with acceptable technique, pace and a fierce attitude are used as attacking midfielders, particularly during their footballing education. However, upon arrival at the professional level, their technique is not enough to make a difference – this is particularly true at clubs such as Benfica and Sporting – which ultimately results in a move backwards.
A lack of tactical acumen is almost always replaced by the desire to pursue the ball. However, this desire must be adapted to the overall framework of the team. Examples of how this can be done successfully include Fábio Coentrão at Jorge Jesus’ Benfica, or Marcelo at Mourinhos’s Real. In the case of Jorge Jesus, Coentrão was an above-average player, capable of occupying two positions. The team structure was ready and suited to this.
In the case of José Mourinho, the option is to integrate Marcelo in the collective progression of the ball as it travels up the pitch, which is why we see him so often in the penalty area. Marcelo moves up, not as a winger, but as midfielder (Coentrão is being trained to do exactly the same).
The suitability of João Pereira for Sporting’s team will depend on how much Domingos Paciência accepts him as a wing-back. But it is essential that he plays for the team and not vice versa. The lung has to obey the brain, despite the fact that its role in the regular functioning of the body is just as central. This maxim applies equally to the human body, and a football team.
To read more from Luís, follow him on Twitter @CristovaoPOR.