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Brazilian Fullbacks: A Friendly Reminder

johnson and rafa
This all comes back to Liverpool
in the end. Promise.

In the end Lionel Messi did what Lionel Messi does, but for the longest time yesterday's Brazil-Argentina match was a study in the attacking fullback. Of course, the attacking fullback has its roots in Brazil, and one need look no further than Liverpool fans celebrating their acquisition of "Brazilian" right back Glen Johnson at the start of last season to see the lasting mark this South American country has left on the position. As such it was interesting and informative to watch a Brazil side fully returned to their roots under Menezes after Dunga's more reserved outlook.

It's not that they ever really abandoned their heritage, at least not entirely, but yesterday's team shape and use of attacking fullbacks was so clean and pure that at times it could have been written on a chalk board:

Brazil gets possession, and the ball gets sent quickly back to one of the center backs who then look to play it straight up to Lucas or Ramires, the two holding midfielders, or volantes. They look up, but not seeing an obvious outlet they are quick to play the ball back and forth, or even back to the defenders who will then return the ball forwards once again as the four players sit in a square just short of the center circle, at times seeming to do little more than play a game of keep away amongst themselves. However, while they are passing the time the fullbacks are moving up the pitch and the four attacking players--the more advanced midfielders and forwards--are looking to drag defenders out of position in the center.

Of course none of this is rocket science, but it is at the core of what allows Brazil and other naturally "narrow" sides to utilize wing play: time. Most European sides look to buy that time with five man midfields, so Brazil's use of holding midfielders and central defenders as a kind of quartet looking to maintain possession in a slightly deeper area where it is difficult for the opposition to pressure in numbers--that is as long as you are still pushed far enough up the pitch that over-pressuring by the opponent can result in huge holes to exploit--changes the game a little bit in that it allows all four of the more attacking targets to move freely in search of a gap. It doesn't, however, change the basic concept of seeking to maintain possession until your naturally narrow formation can suddenly become wide. Moreover, though it may seem counterintuitive at first, the fullback width--and therefore team width in general--becomes even more effective if those midfield and forward attackers seek to take up consciously narrow positions in the build-up.

After a stretch of possession at the back, Lucas receives the ball with Dani Alves a few feet from offside and in full gallop. That consciously narrow attacking quartet has drawn the opposing defenders to the center of the pitch as they try to prevent space for a killer through ball to develop, and this in turn leaves acres of space on the wings. Lucas arcs a ball through the air and onto Alves' instep with a clear run to the end line and the opposing defense scrambling to get back in coverage. Simple.

That happened a number of times last night--and even more often against the Ukraine--but it works just as well if the defenders scramble to cover the exposed wings as the fullbacks charge. In that case the holding midfielder feeds it to the four attackers in the center of the park, who then attempt to pass it through a stretched middle. The attacking quartet pulls the defense in, and then the fullbacks challenge the offside trap wide and at pace. When the opposition defense makes its choice, the volantes instigate an attack through the other, weaker, point. It's Brazilian football at its most basic, the 4-2-2-2 in its purest form, and with any number of tweaks it's the underlying recipe for effectively providing width from the fullback position in any narrow formation--and for allowing more attackers overall to set up shop in the final third, too.


Who's got two thumbs and hates long balls?

The problem for Brazil last night wasn't the lack of a traditional center forward target man, and it wasn't Lucas and Ramires taking too many indecisive touches as the occasional pre-historic pundit would have you believe, it was that Brazil was too slow to adjust to Argentina's defensive tactics. For most of the night the core of the Argentinean defense remained concerned primarily with preventing the narrow attacking four from having an opportunity to play it through the middle on the ground. Meanwhile, they attempted to stop the ball from getting to the fullbacks in flight by putting a great deal of effort into marking Lucas and Ramires out of the game. It is an odd sight when a pair of defensive midfielders are seeing double timed pressure and constant man marking as though they were a pair of Steven Gerrards in a free role, but the basic idea was sound: if you don't feel comfortable pressuring high up the pitch with enough players to win back possession from that defensive quartet you can instead put a shadow on each of the two volantes that Brazil use to both give their fullbacks time and then initiate attacking moves. Then you conservatively drop everybody else back centrally to prevent a lucky or skillful quick break. It was a highly effective tactic, but in part it was highly effective because Brazil refused to look to the largely uncovered fullbacks early.

Instead of taking the open pass to the free man the center backs insisted on holding possession in an attempt to funnel the ball to Brazil's attacking "base", the tightly covered pair of volantes who would then be tasked with either hitting the charging fullbacks as they flirted with the offside trap or sending a ball through the middle depending on the movement of both their attacking teammates and the opposing defenders. The obvious way around Argentina's defense was literally to go around it, and to go around it early: play it to the fullbacks immediately and let them challenge the vacated wide areas with the ball at their feet. If they were closed down quickly they would look for gaps created by the shifting defenders and attempt to slide a through ball to an attacker. If the defense remained primarily worried about the central quartet they would attack the wings. And if the defense retreated in an organised fashion it would mean that the players tasked with marking the Brazilian volantes would have to collapse back, adding numbers in the center and preventing the side being unduly stretched as the Argentinean fullbacks or wide midfielders moved outwards to challenge their onrushing Brazilian counterparts. In this last case Lucas and Ramires would be stripped of their markers and could then be given the ball, and Brazil could return to business as usual.

For some reason, though, the Brazilian CBs seemed incredibly hesitant to play it wide. Perhaps it was simply that the fullbacks were so intent on moving forward to challenge the offside trap that they weren't offering an outlet, leaving those central defenders to hold possession and hope that the volantes could manage to get open. Perhaps if Jamie Carragher had been playing he would have relished the excuse to hoof it early and often, but at the end of the day the problem for Brazil was simply their unwillingness to exploit the space created when Argentina undertook a conservative defensive gameplan, one specifically aimed at negating the role of Ramires and Lucas.


All this tactical nonsense is relevant to Liverpool's current predicament because it doesn't particularly matter if Menezes has chosen to set up his attacking quartet as 2-2 or 3-1. At its base it is an attacking system set up around volantes and the almost purely attacking fullbacks they feed the ball to, and it almost exactly matches the base skill sets of the personnel that Roy Hodgson inherited upon his arrival at the club. Every time somebody looks to argue a move for Glen Johnson into a midfield role it ignores that he isn't a poor fullback by any stretch of the imagination, he's just a poor fullback for the system Roy Hodgson has inflexibly, inexplicably, forced upon a squad of players built to play a different sort of football entirely. The world's most highly regarded fullbacks are valued most for their attacking abilities, with defensive frailties an acceptable tradeoff, and every other top side there is seems willing to accept that tradeoff for what it brings to the team's attack. If other attacking fullbacks look considerably better than Johnson it is at least in part--in large part--down to them being placed in situations that maximise their strengths and minimise their weaknesses. To put it bluntly, Dani Alves or any other top fullback would look just as shite in Roy Hodgson's flat defensive line as Glen Johnson does while being just as unable to get forward effectively.

Does he come in a right back model?

When Roy Hodgson came out with comments about Johnson's form being poor, many railed against it while conceding that Johnson had in fact looked rather poor (at least when he had been healthy enough to get a game). Hodgson was daft to drag it out in public, the reasoning went, but at its core many felt there was some truth in his statement. However, one should not fall prey to that argument, to the idea that Glen Johnson has looked poor this season, because in the most simple terms he hasn't been placed in a situation where he--or any other modern, attacking, £20-odd million fullback--could possibly look good. And that is the fault of no one but the manager.

In these circumstances, any accusation of Johnson underperforming is entirely, unequivocally, an accusation of Hodgson underperforming in his role as manager. He took up a squad built to play around many of the same concepts, at their most basic levels, that Menezes' Brazil currently uses. Then he asked them to play like England circa 1966. Perhaps that would make him a perfect choice for the England job, but it still makes him a poor choice for the Liverpool job.

If Johnson does end up heading for the door in January it will be a sad day for Liverpool, though a few will surely say, "Yes, but he wasn't very good defensively, was he?" as though his departure is a blessing in disguise--as many did when Insua was shipped out in favour of the supposedly more defensively sound Paul Konchesky--but at the end of the day the only thing they will truly be commenting on is their own understanding of the attacking fullback.

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