Brazil’s full-back crisis, and how England can expose it

With Bukayo Saka pulling out of the England squad to face Brazil, there’s no round two for Saka up against Wendell at Wembley on Saturday. The right winger and left-back were on opposite sides last week when Arsenal overcame Porto to make it through to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

For Wendell, the return to London will bring back bittersweet memories. He missed in the penalty shootout against Arsenal, but, with plenty of help from his teammates, he handled Saka reasonably well — and he must surely be seen as favorite to start against England and win his first international cap at the age of 30.

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That is because the other left-back in new coach Dorival Junior’s first Brazil squad is Ayrton Lucas of Flamengo, last seen in a Brazil shirt a year ago in the defeat to Senegal, when he was utterly unable to get a grip on Ismaïla Sarr. Something similar happened to right-back Yan Couto recently. He has enjoyed a splendid season with Girona, but like Lucas he is much better going forward than defending, and after the Real Madrid game he had to be helped from the pitch in some distress after being taken to the cleaners by Vinícius Júnior.

The other right-back in the squad is the veteran Danilo, a stalwart at a number of giant clubs, but originally a midfielder and a player who now sees himself more as a member of the Juventus back three. It is not a particularly inspiring collection for a country known for the excellence of its full-back tradition. Indeed, as local TV presenter Marcelo Barreto stresses, we appear to be witnessing the death of the great Brazilian full-back.

The rise and fall of this position highlights one of the truths of football as a team game. The neck bone is connected to the ankle bone. Mess with one part of the team and other sectors will feel the consequences.

In the case of Brazil, much of their story has to do with the trauma of losing the 1950 World Cup on home soil to Uruguay. The more sober responses pointed to a lack of defensive cover as the chief defect, and so over the next few years an extra player was dropped into the heart of the defense — still referred to by old timers as “the fourth defender.” When Brazil pioneered the back four in the 1958 World Cup, they did not concede a single goal until the semifinals. The problem had been solved.

They now had defensive cover — and playing a pair of center-backs also had the effect of pushing the full-backs out wider. They found that they had a corridor in which to advance. Against Austria in that tournament, left-back Nilton Santos charged all the way up the field to score a goal — an extremely rare occurrence at the time for a player of his position. With Djalma Santos on the right, Santos established the model for a new kind of versatile Brazilian full-back who also posed an attacking threat. No one will ever forget the last goal of the 1970 World Cup final, captain Carlos Alberto steaming up from right-back to round off a wonderful move with a cracking shot.

Four years later Marinho Chagas caught the eye with his forays from left-back. In 1978, right-back Nelinho scored one of the all-time great curlers against Italy. In 1982, Leandro and Junior were a refined full-back pair. In 1986, Josimar exploded from nowhere to score two absurdly good goals. Then came the pair of Jorginho on the right, with his precision crosses, and Branco with his howitzer left boot on the other flank. And as football went global, everyone was in awe of the combination of Cafu and Roberto Carlos, eventually succeeded respectively by Maicon and Daniel Alves on the right and Marcelo on the left.

The 1994 World Cup win is a key date in this process. It established a model of 4-4-2 which was then almost universally adopted in Brazil. The midfield quartet were split into two who mostly attacked, and two who mostly defended, and they played extremely narrow, leaving the full-backs as the kings of the wings, expected to use lung busting stamina to get up and down the flanks. The defensive midfielders would cover their forward bursts, and one variation, as used in the 2002 World Cup, was to play three center-backs in order to give the full-backs complete freedom to bomb forward.

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Pereira: Brazil have won a tournament more recently then England

Andreas Pereira has refuted claims that Brazil are in a transitional period, raising the fact that Brazil have a won an international tournament more recently than England.

For a while this model was successful. But in the end it almost ran into self-caricature, especially in the division of labor in the midfield zone. The failure of the much-hyped 2006 team was an important sign. Kaka and Ronaldinho were players for the final third rather than genuine midfielders, and converted center-back Gilberto Silva could not pass the ball forward with sufficient speed and precision to bring fluency to the team’s play. It was time for a rethink.

The big subsequent change has been the return of the winger. Brazil has now become a major producer of attackers in wide spaces — more of them than the national team can ever use. Gabriel Martinelli has pulled out of the current squad, but even so there are Vinícius Júnior, Raphinha, Sávio of Girona and a late call up for the relatively unknown Galeno of Porto. There are plenty more knocking on the door — Antony, David Neres, Pepê and Paulinho have also come into recent contention.

The reemergence of the winger has, of course, had a substantial effect on the role of the full-back. His role becomes more complex, his appearances in the attacking third, either going outside or cutting in, are now an element of surprise. Tite, the Brazil coach in the last two World Cups, achieved an enviable defensive solidity by explicitly going for a model of Manchester City full-backs rather than Liverpool ones — in other words, rather than the auxiliary winger style of a Andy Robertson or a Trent Alexander-Arnold, he wanted players who would tuck in and make the extra man in midfield, helping ensure that the team is protected against the opposition’s counter attack.

This, of course, calls for the new full-back to be an all-round footballer able to judge the moment and its necessities — essentially a midfielder able to defend in wide spaces. This takes considerable maturity, and the switch in emphasis has yet to filter through to the youth ranks in Brazil, hence the fact that the younger full-backs in Dorival Junior’s squad are still essentially attacking figures.

And so, at Wembley vs. England and against Spain next week, if Brazil are to play both wingers and attacking full-backs, it seems inevitable that they will have to pack the midfield with lung power in order to balance out the side. In the absence through injury of the solid footballing sense of Casemiro, it seems likely that there will be places in the starting line up for three of André (Fluminense), and the Premier League trio of João Gomes, Douglas Luiz and Bruno Guimarães — with space maybe also found for the recalled Lucas Paquetá

The team’s defensive record in the short-lived reign of previous coach Fernando Diniz was very poor. After six rounds of World Cup qualifiers only the bottom two teams (of 10) conceded more goals. After three consecutive defeats, Brazil will receive a morale boost from a couple of solid displays against England and Spain, and it will be interesting to see what the full-backs can contribute to the cause.