The batsh*t Brasileirao: Dani Alves’ Sao Paulo revival & Jorge Sampaoli’s 2-3-5
On October 3 this year, a few hundred Sao Paulo fans gathered outside their club’s training ground, disregarding social distancing guidelines for a few hours to show their displeasure at what they felt was turning into yet another wasted season.
To some extent their frustration was understandable. Sao Paulo have not won a major trophy for eight years. Even that triumph was a little underwhelming, a Copa Sudamericana, South America’s Europa League equivalent, in 2012. For the last time they won domestic silverware, you would have to go back to 2008 and the last of three consecutive Serie A titles.
The intervening years have been painful. Sao Paulo have made a habit of embarrassing losses to minnows in knockout tournaments and there have been a couple of close shaves with relegation in the national league.
Though they had started relatively competently in Serie A, 2020 looked set to be defined by similar disappointments. In July, they went out of the Sao Paulo state championship to Mirassol – a team that plays in the fourth national tier. And in September, they crashed out of the Copa Libertadores at the group stage.
Fans were mightily upset at a perceived lack of commitment from players, and, herded into a pen on the roadside outside the training ground, directed their anger towards the club’s captain, leader and biggest earner Dani Alves. “Oh, how nice would it be if Dani Alves went back to Bahia,” they sang as the team prepared for the following day’s game with Coritiba.
Directors Rai and Diego Lugano were also targeted, and Fernando Diniz, the manager, was never going to be spared. He is without doubt Serie A’s most tactically progressive coach, but his insistence on passing out from the back had led to the concession of several silly-looking goals and has not convinced supporters.
A month before a charming banner that read, “Diniz, [you] big arsehole, resign,” had been hung outside the empty Morumbi stadium.
But Sao Paulo held firm. Rai and Lugano remain employed. Dani Alves did not go back to Bahia. Diniz did not resign. And you probably know where this is going.
By the middle of last week, Sao Paulo were seven points clear at the top of the most exciting league in the world, and in the middle of next week they take on Gremio in the first leg of their Copa do Brasil semi-final. They beat reigning South American and Brazilian champions Flamengo 5-1 on aggregate to reach that semi and scored a total of 49 goals in 20 games following the protest, going 17 unbeaten in the league.
With the domestic double still very much on, Diniz has recently even been mentioned (tentatively, it must be said) as a potential successor to Tite as Selecao manager.
It has been a mad couple of months for Sao Paulo. But then again, it has been a mad season in the Brasileirao, even by its own exacting standards.
The Brazilian national league season usually runs from mid-April until December, but the 2020 start was of course delayed by the coronavirus. Following the pause for the pandemic, the decision was made to squeeze a 20-team, 38-game campaign into the six months between mid-August and mid-February rather than forego television money.
In a country where there is already too much football to be played owing to the state championships that occupy February, March and early April, the decision has led to a Serie A season on fast-forward, with so many twists and turns in so little time that it is almost impossible to keep up.
Before Sao Paulo’s brilliant run in October and November, the battle at the top had been between Atletico Mineiro and Internacional, two teams managed by a pair of eccentric Argentines, Jorge Sampaoli and Eduardo Coudet.
Coudet arrived at Inter in December 2019 from Buenos Aires club Racing, where he had won the league, bringing his signature scarf and his high-intensity, no-nonsense brand of football.
Inter set the early pace, managing to maintain their fine form to stay neck-and-neck with Atletico despite star striker Paolo Guerrero tearing his knee ligaments in August. But in true, dramatic Brazilian football style, the relationship between Coudet and club president Marcelo Medeiros soured and the manager packed his bags and left for Celta Vigo in November with Inter top of the league.
Inter have since been knocked out of the Copa do Brasil and Copa Libertadores and a run of just one win in five league games has seen them drop off the pace, which should have opened up an opportunity for Sampaoli’s Atletico to take control.
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Argentina’s explosive 2018 World Cup manager Sampaoli moved to Atletico at the beginning of this year after leading Santos to second in 2019, tempted by the promise of a pot of money to splash as he saw fit.
And splash it he has. In have come ex-QPR man and Sampaoli favourite Eduardo Vargas and rumoured Leeds United target Matias Zaracho, added to a squad that already contained some of the most exciting attackers in Brazil.
Atletico, set up in Sampaoli’s preferred 2-3-5 formation, have played some wild attacking football, scoring the most goals in the league. Yet hindered by defending that has been as bad as some of their attacking has good and an outbreak of coronavirus that saw 25 players and Sampaoli infected, they stuttered, falling to recent defeats at the hands of Bahia, Palmeiras and Athletico Paranaense.
Indeed, the virus has had a ravaging effect on the whole league; 341 Serie A players have already been infected, making a mockery of the idea that the tournament is being played in some sort of secure bubble, and outbreaks have been part of the reason for the struggles of traditional Rio de Janeiro giants Vasco da Gama and Botafogo.
After a promising start, Vasco nosedived in September and October, whilst Botafogo are rock bottom and on their fifth manager of the season. Ramon Diaz, ex-Oxford United boss and the fourth of those five, was sacked before he even got to take charge of a game. Diaz had surgery the day after he was appointed, but did not recover as expected, so was swapped for Eduardo Barroca whilst still laid up in bed in Paraguay.
All the while, Botafogo’s Rio neighbours and red-hot pre-season title favourites Flamengo have been engulfed in their own mini-crisis.
Jorge Jesus, the Portuguese coach who led them to a league and Libertadores double last season, left in July and was replaced by Pep Guardiola’s former assistant Domenec Torrent. With the Guardiola links, much was expected of Torrent, but he disappointed, putting out a team that was defensively frail and far less potent in attack than last year’s incarnation.
Torrent was also not helped by the coronavirus – 16 Flamengo players were infected in September – and the team suffered from the sale of Pablo Mari to Arsenal, but that did not save him from the inevitable fate of the unpopular manager in Brazil. On November 9, Torrent was fired and replaced by Fortaleza boss and former goalscoring goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni.
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Ceni had a disastrous start, with Flamengo falling in both the Copa do Brasil and Libertadores, but on Sunday, he finally got his first statement victory, a 4-1 home thumping of Santos. And with that, they have become Sao Paulo’s closest challengers.
Sao Paulo lost 1-0 to local rivals Corinthians two hours after Flamengo had won in the Maracana, so Flamengo now have 45 points to Sao Paulo’s 50, but with a game in hand. Atletico are still there, four points behind Sao Paulo and on the same number of games. And Inter, Gremio and Palmeiras, who have recently come into form under new Portuguese boss Abel Ferreira, are not completely out of it either, all on 41.
There are 10 weeks left, 14 league games to play and plenty more twists and turns to go. The Brasileirao might not be the best league in the world, and it certainly isn’t the most rational, but it is worth keeping up with for the next couple of months because it ain’t half exciting.
By Joshua Law