The Jolly Green Giant

The permanent half-grin, the vacant air, the plodding gait. No, he does not look like a very good footballer.

The poor first touch, terrible passes and ability to miss even the easiest chances. No, he does not play like a very good footballer.

What is beyond doubt, however, is that Evaeverson Lemos da Silva – Brandão to his friends and football commentators – is the difference between a mediocre team and a very good one. Saint-Etienne minus Brandão are toothless, lacking in invention and incapable of exerting extended pressure on their opponents. Saint-Etienne with Brandão are a goal machine.

The battering ram has turned into a talisman. How?

When Brandão stumbled apologetically on to the Ligue 1 stage with Marseille in January 2009 he was catastrophically bad. His first few training sessions and matches were so poor that it was impossible to say which was his stronger foot. The only thing more surprising than how badly Brandão played when he started was how quickly he became a key part of Marseille’s team. In March, two months into his stint in France, he scored the winner at Caen with a beautifully taken goal. He followed that up with a powerful performance at the Parc des Princes, heavily involved in two of Marseille’s goals in a 3-1 win. The opener was almost entirely the work of the big striker. Taking down a lofted pass, he held off Zoumana Camara and backheeled the ball perfectly into the path of the onrushing Zenden, who scored. Socrates himself could not have done it better. Brandão, scoring goals fairly frequently, finished up with 7 in just half a season. More importantly, his presence created space for Mamadou Niang to exploit. The pair of them kept Marseille in the title chase until a calamitous defeat at home to Lyon with two games to go.

The following season Marseille won the league, and while Lucho Gonzalez received the plaudits for creating their chances and Mamadou Niang for scoring them, neither would have been as productive without the presence of Brandão. He managed only eight goals but developed a habit of scoring in tight matches where no-one else could. Marseille lost only twice with Brandão as a starter, and in both matches (Auxerre at home and Valenciennes away) OM dominated and should have won.

His performances over the year earned him a nomination for the inaugural Ballon d’Eau fraiche of Les Cahiers du football, but that was about as good as it got on the south coast. The expensive arrivals of André-Pierre Gignac and Loïc Rémy meant Brandão was merely an occasional presence, often as substitute, during the first half of the 2010-11 season. Around December he reappeared and performed well as a starter, but that spell was brought to a juddering halt by an accusation of rape in early March of 2011.

Now persona non grata, Marseille loaned him first to Cruzeiro (where he bombed) and then to Gremio (where he did a little better, getting more games and grabbing a few goals). Marseille were desperate to sign another centre forward that winter but their failure to do so meant Brandão once again was back in the team. Not that it was much of a team. Playing comatose football, OM finished the season 10th, barely winning any games from February onwards. Brandão scored OM’s solitary goals in the only two highlights – at Inter in the Champions League last 16 and an improbable Coupe de la Ligue Final win over Lyon – but he was so poor for the rest of 2011-12 that it came as no surprise when he was released at the end of his contract that summer. Two years on from his best season in France, with other players generally taking the plaudits for his good performances even when he was at his best at OM, two months past his 32nd birthday and with the police investigation into the 2011 rape accusation still ongoing[1], it was assumed that Brandão was damaged goods.

When Saint-Etienne, whose squad was light on centre-forwards, signed him a week into the 2012-13 season the whole thing was treated like a bit of a joke. Sainté had received the dud prize at the raffle. Six months later those who laughed, including myself, look more ridiculous than Brandão ever did, ponytail or no ponytail.

The Brandão from 2010 is back. His presence on the pitch transforms his teammates, providing space and options where previously there were none. He can be an out-ball for defenders, and even when a clearance is made aimlessly and Brandão cannot win the aerial contest, his forcefulness in competing for it prevents the opposition from recycling possession as quickly as they would like. The ten seconds here and there his bulk can earn while his teammates reset their defence are invaluable when multiplied over the course of a season. At the other end of the pitch, he can be a facilitator for moving the attack twenty metres forward. Sainté can bypass crowded central midfield areas when they have possession 40 metres out by searching out Brandão directly, and even when they do not use him, his presence invariably concerns the deepest opposition midfielder. This creates space for Sainté’s midfield, so as bizarre as it sounds, a big and clumsy centre-forward is helping his team retain possession in the final third of the pitch. And while Brandão’s technical failings are legendary, he makes up for that by taking up positions to occupy the opposition central defence both outside the box, preventing them from paying sufficient attention to the other threats Sainté pose, and inside the box, where he can get on the end of crosses (although his finishing can leave something to be desired)

Normally teams would combat the presence of a big but slow centre forward by playing a high defensive line, but because Sainté have the pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang high up on the left flank, and because in Renaud Cohade they have a player capable of playing precise passes to expose space behind defences, this is not a viable option.[2]

Aubameyang was initially reticent about playing in a wide role but his excellent performances early in the season with Brandão leading the line, as well as the difficulties he had in the run up to Christmas from a centre-forward position when the Brazilian was injured, have convinced him that tracking the opposition right-back now and then is a small price to pay for a lot more space and many more goals when attacking.[3]

So his presence helps give Sainté’s defence time, helps them get the ball forward from any starting point on the pitch, helps them retain possession high up the pitch and gives their main goal threat the space to do what he does best. Unsurprisingly, the statistics reflect the impression Brandão has made; Saint-Etienne have thus far played 26 matches in the 2012-13 season, winning 12, drawing 8 and losing 6.

12 games with Brandão starting: 10 wins, 2 draws, 0 defeats, scored 25, conceded 4.

6 games with Brandão featuring as a substitute: 1 win, 4 draws, 1 defeat, scored 8, conceded 6.

8 games without Brandão: 1 win, 2 draws, 5 defeats, scored 7, conceded 9.

Try arguing with that.[4]

Brandão’s physical playing style and age means his body creaks more frequently these days, but if he can continue to exert such an influence on Sainté’s Ligue 1 campaign, qualification for the Champions League[5] is not out of the question. And they will do everything to keep him fit for their Coupe de la Ligue final against Rennes. Quite apart from his importance to their game plan, the big Brazilian has played 12 matches in the competition and is yet to lose a match, winning the trophy in 2010 and again in 2012 when he scored the winner in the final.

I really like Brandão. I like what he can tell us, unwittingly, about the game we love. That no matter how limited a player, a smart coach can extract a lot out of them by playing to their strengths. That the Aubameyangs, the Cinderellas of the (foot)ball, would be nothing without the souped-up pumpkins that get them there.

Above all I like Brandão because he brings down one of the last living sauropods of football cliché: that a centre-forward should be judged by the number of goals he scores. Wrong! If it has to come down to numbers, then a centre-forward’s goal tally is almost irrelevant. He or she must be judged instead by the number of goals his team scores when he plays. I like Brandão because he is proof that even in the most selfish position on the pitch, nothing comes before the team.

Bobeto


[1] He was cleared of these accusations in November 2012.

[2] This raises the question of how exactly teams should go about countering Saint-Etienne’s attacking variation. One counter-intuitive idea might be to field three central defenders, something rarely seen in Ligue 1 currently, with a slightly defensive right wing-back. The extra man at the back would mean defensive midfielders would be less worried about Brandão’s presence, enabling them to either press Sainté’s midfield or at the very least occupy more of the terrain they seek to exploit. The combination of a wing-back and a wide-ish central defender covering him might be enough to look after the pace and goal threat of Aubameyang.

[3] Theo Walcott, to name at random an adherent of the “I am a centre-forward, I want to play centre-forward” line, would do well to look at Aubameyang’s stats this season.

[4] OK, so I have not gone through minute by minute to analyse goals scored and conceded with Brandão on the pitch and with him absent. Saint-Etienne have scored goals in matches after he was subbed off (part of the first category) and before he was subbed on (part of the second category), but the sample size is still big enough to be considered valid, and it took me hours trawling through the guardian football stats pages to get what I do have. So bite me. On the subject of sources, the Marseille-related parts of this text would have been much harder to put together without http://www.om-passion.com. Their stats pages are a vast and easy-to-use (provided you speak French) gold mine of information, so a big well done and thank you to them.

[5] And Brandão has a habit of saving his best for the Champions League, as Chelsea, Spartak Moscow and Inter fans would be unhappy to testify.

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