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.

Advertisements

Some Thoughts on Football Analysis and the Emotional Content of the Game

For those who have not yet seen it, The Blizzard have very kindly posted a video of the Q&A session they hosted at Club Wembley in March of 2012.

I listened to it lying down, headphones on, at 3am, but there was a moment that made me sit bolt upright and let out an excessively loud ‘what?!’

It was the way in which Dave Farrar asked the question, “To what extent had Jonathan Wilson’s book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ spawned a monster?” The way he implied that analysis these days is completely tactical is something I do not recognise at all.

The discussion starts at 26.30 in the video and lasts about 9 minutes. The general points that tactics are not the only thing that should be seen in football, and that other aspects are required to make them work are ones I agree with. But I was preoccupied with how Farrar asked that question and what Philippe Auclair said in agreeing with him.

Perhaps when limited to the press room, or the internet, Farrar is right. However for the majority of fans[1] most of our interaction with football, for better or for worse, occurs via television, where the analysis, at least in Britain, remains largely incident-based: goals, major chances and contentious refereeing decisions (at least one of which must be thoughtlessly labeled ‘the moment that changed the game’). As barely needs repeating, focusing on at most three minutes of action to analyse and explain the remaining 87 is an extremely ineffective way of doing things.

Incident-based analysis will always place the focus on individuals, and as a consequence the build up to games is mostly limited to who the key men are (normally the most famous players) with at best a brief explanation of why; that is to say how they fit into the system of their own team in order to damage the system of the opponent. Football analysis in Britain will probably never stray far from these individuals[2], so this aspect of the game does not need defending at this point in time. The tactical side of football continues to be underplayed, but whether we focus on incidents, individuals or systems, we must not forget the aspect that Philippe Auclair said should come before any of them: the emotional content of the game.

It is rather easy to forget when watching a sport as fluid as football that it is entirely mechanical, whether it is being viewed with incidents, individuals or systems in mind. The latter was very neatly expressed by Jonathan Wilson in ‘Inverting the Pyramid’. Football, for Valeriy Lobanovskyi, was

“A system of twenty-two elements – two sub-systems of eleven elements – moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two subsystems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, it would win.”[3]

One riposte to this way of thinking is to point out that sometimes the better team does not win, but then you have to start asking yourself what ‘the better team’ is. And we owe to the scientists of Kiev a good definition: “A team that makes errors in no more than 15 to 18% of its acts is unbeatable.” In other words, if you defend and attack more efficiently that the other team then you were by definition the better team, even if they have 80% of the ball.

On an individual level, the game is just as mechanical. Whether you are watching an amateur player shank a free kick into the stands, or Marco van Basten score a volley from an absurd angle, you are witnessing nothing more or less than the laws of physics in action. Barry Hulshoff, in an interview with David Winner, explains how defending can, and should, be done mathematically[4].

A very basic version of this mechanised football is what people who don’t believe in football[5] see when they see a man kicking a ball to another man who kicks the ball past another man into a net. They’re right; this is all that football is. We can see the finer details of these mechanical processes because we watch a lot more football, read a lot more about it and talk about it incessantly. But the real difference between us and them is that we have a connection to the emotional content of the game.

A failure to explain or even highlight systems and their importance is a major, often infuriating, drawback to watching football on television. But just as neglected in the age of bluster, hype and sheer volume, is the emotional aspect of football. Next time you watch a game that you don’t have a particular interest in, listen to how much of the time the commentators spend talking to each other as one might expect of two men in a pub, or repeating clearly pre-prepared lines that, even at their most apt, are not as effective as letting the game itself influence what they say (and at their worst are about as offensive as it gets, as those who have listened to Peter Drury will know). Neither idle conversation nor reheated gruel that was cooked up in a hotel room the previous evening benefits the viewer as much as silence.

Rob Smyth and the great Barry Davies discussed in Issue Two of the Blizzard how commentators should watch, but not talk over, the first replay of an incident so that they can analyse it and better explain what they have learned over the second replay. You can extrapolate that idea to commentary generally. If a colour commentator talks all the time (and they do talk ALL. THE. TIME) then they cannot be watching the game and analysing the systems enough to explain them. By the same token if a lead commentator talks all the time (and they do talk ALL. THE. TIME) then they cannot immerse themselves in the game’s emotional progression, or even something as basic as how the game they are watching makes them feel.

The best commentators all let the game they were watching take charge of their emotions, from Herbert Zimmerman who “just described what he saw, and then – grippingly – what he felt”[6], to Thierry Roland, who peddled a fine line of appropriate expletives at highly charged moments, to Davies himself, who “rarely got overexcited, so when he did you knew it was the real thing”[7]

Without a good explanation of the systems at play we will not have a complete understanding of football as a process, of why team A were able to beat team B. But without a link to the game’s emotional content we simply will not care at all. When it comes to correcting the appalling state of televised football in Britain both deficiencies must be fixed urgently.

As if by the hand of fate, the question that followed the tactics one in that Blizzard Q&A session was about wealthy owners, and to what extent we care about our teams when they, in all senses, no longer belong to us. This is a very important question for me because, as I hope I have shown, football without emotion is nothing but a mechanical process, and a fairly dull one at that. A year ago when my team, PSG, were bought by QSI I voiced my concerns about what that would mean for the development of the club. What I had not anticipated was that my emotional connection, my caring, would be washed away by this torrent of money. How this happened will be the subject of my next essay.

Bobeto


[1] By fans I mean everyone who watches football, wherever they are and however they do so. I urge you to read Brian Phillips’ piece on the bogus concept of ‘The Real Fan’ in Issue Five of The Blizzard.

[2] See any number of articles and chapters about British football’s obsession with Roy Race characters, especially Scott Murray’s piece in Issue Zero of The Blizzard.

[3] Inverting the Pyramid p236 (Wilson)

[4] Brilliant Orange p67 (Winner)

[5] As I like to call them. My own missive on football-as-religion in which I explain this will appear later.

[6] Tor! p126 (Lichtenberger)