Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Pyramid Power, Part 2

One of the best aspects of Jonathan Wilson's book is that he does not simply rely on glib, widespread assessments of the teams of yesteryear. And this is best exemplified in his remarks on past Brazilian teams.

The introduction of the 4-2-4 by Vicente Feola's Brazil in the 1958 World Cup, and its shift to 4-3-3 for the 1962 instalment, are well-known. But Wilson goes to some lengths to show that the 4-2-4 developed gradually from the old W-M formation...and that it wasn't quite as simple as just the three lines.

Having watched a couple of Brazil's games from that 1958 tournament, I have to agree with him. The general view is that the left-winger, Mario Zagallo, dropped back into a deeper position in the later tournament, constituting a tactical adjustment. He was further back in 1962, but it's clear even in Sweden that he was operating not at all like a traditional winger. He scuttles back and forth along the touchline, now helping out his full-back, and now making an unexpected appearance in the opposition penalty area, memorably so after a sweet inter-passing move in the first half of the semi-final against France. One could, in fact, call Zagallo the first of the modern wide players.

Then there's the question of Bellini, the centre-back who doubles as a half-back at times in 1958. In him, the remnants of the W-M are visible; even in 1966, Bobby Moore sometimes appears to be more a half-back than a central defender, playing off Jack Charlton and providing a vital link to the midfield. The days of a super-strict four-in-line defence were still some way off.

Now to probably the most famous World Cup side of all, the great Brazilian team of 1970. I've now managed to track down and watch all of their games from Mexico, and although their football was often exhilarating, my feelings about the side are somewhat mixed. The defence was, more often than not, a wreck, and the only two teams to really take the game to them were England (who were a little unlucky to lose) and Peru (whose defence was even more porous than Brazil's). So whence their mythical status? As Wilson perceptively comments, the arrival of colour television played a huge part here. And there was another factor:

It was exuberant, it was brilliant...but it marked the end of the age of football's innocence. In club football, in Europe at least, that era had ended much earlier, but in Mexico, the heat and the altitude combined to make pressing or any kind of systematic closing down of opponents impossible. For the last time in major competition, there was space, and Brazil had a team perfectly equipped to make the best use of it.

In fact, I would argue (as I have before, to general shock and dismay) that the Brazil 1970 side would have been overrun by any of the top three teams at the 1974 World Cup, had they been magically transported four years into the future.

But another small feature of the 1970 team which is not so commonly mentioned is that it presaged the demise of the pure winger in Brazilian football. Wilson, in his excellent diagram on page 261, makes this clear.

Garrincha, the hero of 1958 and 1962, may have been incomparably brilliant in his time, but by 1966 his style - sticking resolutely to one wing, and relying mainly on trickery to swerve past his man - came a cropper against a fluent and well-organised Hungarian side. Jairzinho, the 1970 hero, started on the opposite wing in that game, and based his game mainly around pace and strength. He was, in fact, a converted centre-forward, and later in that game he did move into the middle. In 1970, he did so frequently.

The other "winger" of 1970, Rivelino, was a No.10 by inclination, and started two of Brazil's games in Mexico in the centre. By 1974, both Jairzinho and Rivelino were stationed in the middle of the park, and Brazil had begun the era of the attacking full-back. Fast forward to 1982, and there was the first of the 4-2-2-2 formations that Brazil became famous for, although the deeper midfield pair were nowhere near as defensive as the 1994 duo of Dunga and Mauro Silva. Further on, to 2002, and the era of the winger was long forgotten; it was three central defenders, with wing-backs left to patrol the flanks on their own.

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