Brazil Stun Argentina: Fresh Lessons Learned

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I have been, traditionally, a Brazil fan. I don’t remember since when, but I still did occasionally like Argentina. Although that was more due to a certain Diego Maradona. But ever since the departure of that colourful Argentinian my loyalties became pretty much concrete – with the Selecao.

Until this tournament.

Don’t get me wrong. I would still continue to admire and support the Brazilians. There is far too much joy in their game to push you from supporting them. Even their spectacular flop last summer did little to budge me on to another team. (Yes, in international football it is okay to switch loyalties, at times) But in this tournament, the Argentinians showed the kind of free flowing football that would make anyone drool. But it wasn’t so much for the pretty-ness of the Albiceleste as much as it was for the dourness of the Brazilians, that made me start liking the Argies.

After their horrible performance in the last world cup, I was happy with Dunga’s appointment as head coach, because I thought he would bring the one quality that was terribly lacking in the Brazilians – discipline. Despite his relative inexperience I saw him in the Roy Keane mould. An ex-captain who was inspirational on the field. One who led by example. True, the Brazilian game is usually built on the unbridled enthusiasm and self satisfaction that it gives the players. A chaos. But the successful sides always had a method to the chaos; a small element of discipline that characterized their play. This is what I expected from Dunga.

For the first few months I felt vindicated, in my own imaginary self that is. He was true to what I expected. To him the system was more important than just the individual stars. They did well, dispatching Argentina 2-0 in a friendly. The Copa America was meant to be a place where new young talent were given a run out ahead of the FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. But the team, shorn of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Adriano and Ronaldo stuttered their way to the final in dour fashion. Whenever they needed a goal, Robinho helped them out.

In contrast, Argentina played like the perfect football team. Discipline and artistry in football is a heavenly marriage, something I’d have loved Brazil to possess. Argentina played like the Arsenal team that knew how to finish, how not to complicate matters in front of goal.

In the run-up to the final, while comparing the playing styles of the arch-rivals, Andrew Downie wrote on Soccernet that about best sums up the difference between the two teams, then and now:

That’s the way it has always been. Brazil were the ball players, Argentina the ball winners. Brazil played for the fun of it. Argentina played to win, any way they could. As the old cliché goes, it was happy, dancing samba against weary, melancholic tango.
Today, however, after almost three weeks of what can justifiably be considered the most entertaining international football tournament in recent memory, the tables have been turned.
Argentina are the ones playing the fast-paced, silky soccer that has the crowd on their feet; Brazil are dour, defensive and at times even cynical. When the two old rivals line up in Maracaibo on Sunday in the final of the Copa America, the smart money will be on the men in blue and white. Even the Brazilians know it.

But what really happened in the final that brought about this reversal in fortunes.

Dunga reminded us more like Mourinho – not in haughtiness – but the way he saw Brazil’s performance in the tournament. Especially after the win against Uruguay. Dunga said something to the effect of “If we cannot suffer we cannot become champions”. That rang true in the final. Brazil had sterner tests throughout the tournament. They lost early, something that brings team weaknesses well out in the open. In their first game against Chile, their 3-0 scoreline flattered them. Their defence was stretched in most games. Argentina on the other hand were allowed to play their game. So overpowering they were in all their games that teams had no chance to stretch their defence, which was always going to be their achilles heel. Never for once, were they really tested on that front – not even by Mexico. And that can sometimes prove very important experience in the crunch games.

In the final, Brazil were the tactically smarter team. They throttled Riquelme for space, cutting off service to Messi and Tevez. They had their moments that were few and far between. Alex and Juan were immense in defence. And Brazil’s physical approach proved too much for the Argentinians. The Argentinian defence, for once, was found stretched and their lack of pace was brutally exploited by Dani Alves, the marauding Sevilla full-back who finally came into his own in Brazil’s colours. Once again it reminds you of Arsenal getting thwarted on several occasions by the likes of Bolton and Blackburn.

Brazil’s win was one that was engineered in the dressing room. For once, they played a tactical game, that wasn’t too dour – and wasn’t pretty either – but it got the result Dunga wanted. However, it brought into light another important lesson – on how Argentina can be beaten on the big occasion. In fact, not just Argentina. It’s more of how such teams that don’t have Plan B can be thwarted.

Yes, it can sometimes mean that the team playing prettier football ends up on the losing side. But tactical naivety these days don’t really have too much of a place.

P.S: I’d love for Brazil to bring in a bit of flair though, but the final to me, was an interesting case for perspectives on tactics and pretty football. Of course, Manchester United won the title comfortably playing good football, didn’t they. 🙂

Red Ranter writes at the Man Utd blog.

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