Saturday 21 February 2015

"Mineirazo": When the Tactical Meet the Coaching Mistakes

Many of us are yet to fully comprehend Brazil’s 1-7 semi-final elimination against Germany at last summer’s World Cup they hosted. Alternative explanations are abound, e.g. Zico's on FIFA's website. As I am yet to come across a “satisfactory” one, I will share mine.

As the case for many historic disasters, in entirely different spheres, I argue that the Mineirazo can be put down to a combination of tactical failings and inadequate organisational culture. As football psychology coach Dan Abrahams puts it in his book Soccer Brain, “[w]hilst the odd tactical mistake can happen it is primarily mindset and coaching culture that…spark[] great games, champagne moments… It is mindset and coaching that can, conversely, generate poor performances, nightmare matches…”

The coaching mistake

As I was on the plane destination Mineirão – an omen perhaps? – for Belgium’s first group game, I was startled when watching the on-board pre-World Cup reportages featuring interviews with the Brazilian players. The message of the twenty-something-year olds was univocal and boiled down to this: ‘Mark our words, people of Brazil, we are going to make up for the maracanazo, set history right and bring the World Cup home. We are the chosen generation of players to make this happen.’ This youthful optimism reflected just how eager they were to bring joy to their people. The one to protect the overenthusiastic youngsters from inviting unreasonable pressure onto themselves, however, and to canalize this positivism into a winning mindset, tactical discipline and focus on a common goal was the coach. As for the coach, as Abrahams puts it, “Optimism, yes – ignorance, no!”

It seemed, though, that Scolari took little decisive action to prevent his youthful team’s optimism turn into ignorance. This was manifested in two different ways. First, for a coach to cultivate a winning mindset amongst his players should not be confounded with not having contingency plans for when things don't go that smoothly. Rather than believing they are too good to fall behind, players should have the conviction that even if one or two goals down, they are going to bring this game home and how to make that happen.

In Abrahams’s words: “The champion…doesn’t allow herself to become engulfed in emotion as she competes.” If this is what marks the champion, then Brazil clearly was not one: after conceding a first and second goal against Germany, it was clear from the players’ collective (non-)reaction they had never given it any serious thought what to do in case this situation would arise. With the third goal came the realization that the World Cup for them was over and that they were not going to deliver upon their promise. No longer were they professional football players who would see this game out with minimal damage, they all just wished they were somewhere else and it seemed most of them already were.

Source: lanacion.cl

Imperatively, there had already been a clear warning the Seleção were not in control of their emotions as players broke into tears before taking a penalty kick in the shootout concluding their second-round game against Chile. Following such a clear mental breakdown of players during a game in which Brazil flirted more than once with elimination, one would expect a psychologically seasoned leader such a Scolari to mentally prepare his troops for a scenario different from raising the trophy Bellini-style on July 13th – even if only to raise the chances that the latter actually would happen. And, although the eventual win against Chile may have put sand into their eyes, after Neymar’s injury, reality should have kicked in that World Cup victory would not come as a walk in the park.

Second, it is important to realize that in a short tournament, as opposed to a league, luck and elements such as a refereeing decision, an injury or suspension may have a huge impact. Most favourites appreciate that it therefore has little sense to claim they are going to win the competition, but rather that they stand a good chance of getting far in the tournament. Not the Brazilians. They were sure to win, which reflects neither an accurate understanding of the opposition, nor of the structure of the competition. One can point to the absence of Neymar and Thiago Silva in their semi-final game, but it is exactly such factors – which are far from uncommon – that, over a run of a maximum of seven games, can prove decisive and, again, something for which one ought to have a contingency plan.

The (two main) tactical errors

In all honesty, before the start, I expected Brazil’s poacher Fred would come out as one of the tournament's top scorers. After five games, however, his main “contribution” had been to steal a penalty in the very first game. His nickname “o Cone” (the cone) may perhaps show too little appreciation for his main role of permanently attracting defender attention onto himself, thus creating space for Neymar. Now, with Neymar out due to injury, however, there was no-one for Fred to attract attention away from. Rather, he would have to create the danger himself, something he had shown to be utterly incapable of during the previous games. Still, although Fred’s role had become obsolete following Neymar’s injury, Felipão surprised by yet again having a spot for “o Cone” in his starting line-up.

In addition, fielding only two centre-backs in combination with very attacking wing-backs implied little defensive security, especially against an opponent of the likes of the Nationalmannschaft. The defensive formation was particularly risky considering it was untested and ad hoc, in response to Thiago Silva’s absence. Naturally, the wing-backs could have realized, at least at some point, they had better provide more defensive support to their two central-defensive colleagues who were all too often left drowning.

Is it really fair to blame the coaches then? After all, we all know how these Brazilians are: they see a ball and all they can think about is performing a samba-like jogo bonito. Was such tactical indiscipline really characteristic, though, of Oscar, Willian, David Luiz and Ramires under Mourinho; Dante under Guardiola; Hulk under Villas-Boas; Fernandinho under Pellegrini; Marcelo under Ancelotti; Paulinho under Sherwood; Thiago Silva and Maxwell under Blanc? These are world class players who, when playing for their clubs, hardly resemble the headless Brazilian chicken European romanticists may fantasize about. Oscar, for instance, is considered to have become one of the trequartistas who works hardest for his team you may find in the game – under Mourinho.

Source: dailymail.co.uk

The combination of tactical and coaching errors leading to the Mineirazo is all the more surprising as the CBF had intentionally sought to combine tactical savvy (Parreira) with motivational knowhow (Scolari). Brazil’s most cardinal sin then perhaps was to categorically cling on to domestic coaches. With the game evolving rapidly, it would indeed appear that opening up to other ideas is a necessary requirement to stay competitive in the global arena. A piece of anecdotal evidence may be that an English coach is yet to win a Premier League title. Another, that Sir Alex Ferguson is believed to have made his career sustainable in part by having embraced evolutions in mainland European football by hiring Portuguese Carlos Queiroz as his assistant. Indeed, it is not so much about the coaches' nationality per se, but, in Abrahams’ terms, about their mindset and coaching culture.