What is wrong with Brazil’s national team?

Brazil is traditionally a powerhouse of football. However, as of late, the proud nation has faltered on the biggest stage, and has looked off the pace even within their continental competition. Long-time coach Tite decided to walk away from the national team following the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Yet, following the appointment of Fernando Diniz as interim coach, Brazil’s form has fallen off a cliff.

Brazilian fans do not take kindly to mediocrity and a lot of blame for Brazil’s recent poor form has naturally fallen at the doorstep of Diniz. There is a social response to always lay blame on the coach. However, in the case of Diniz, the plot is more murky, given his eccentric position in relation to traditional coaching practice. 

Who is Fernando Diniz? 

Diniz is a native Brazilian whose tactical style is largely possession-based. With that said, there is a distinctive difference between what can be considered European football, and Diniz’s more flamboyant exciting style of football. There is a reason Diniz has bounced around jobs in Brazil: his different approach to the game, which, whilst bringing entertainment, does not always garner results. The 49-year-old’s style of football has more recently coined the term “relationism”, in an attempt to distinguish it from what can be considered “positionism”.

In essence, there is a desire for players to play in close proximity, to make the field smaller as opposed to bigger whilst in possession, and to always overload and overwhelm the opposition through tight combination play.

Nevertheless, to best understand it in simple terms – positionism refers to where all possible relations on the field and between players, come as a function and result of positions. Relationism is when all possible positions taken up by players are a function and direct results of relations. 

For example, a traditional watcher of Premier League football would likely be confused when watching a Diniz side. His players often refuse to turn away from congested play and or to switch the point of attack to the far side of the field. When watching it almost seems wrong, a complete contradiction of how the game should be played.

That is Diniz. He is different, and he believes in the beauty of interplay and skill. Where a coach such as Pep Guardiola favours structure, whether it be in a 3-2-5 formation, or some other complex combination, Diniz prefers organised chaos.

There is freedom to rotate, to combine across the field, to hold the ball, and play with it in any area of the field. Play is built upon field tilts, attacking down one side, not looking to recycle and switch upon an attack breaking down, but rather to try again and again. A left-winger might end up on the right side to engage in the play, players might all drift to one side to help overload the opposition, and it can make for a bizarre picture. However, it is growing in popularity. 

Diniz recently found success coaching Brazilian side Fluminense, who is the newly crowned Copa Libertadores champions. Fluminense was both a delight and an anomaly to the eyes. They played tight possession football and artfully shaped and created bizarre patterns across the field, always looking simultaneously chaotic and organised.

It was Diniz’s success and innovative tactics at Fluminense which helped hoist the Brazilian into the limelight more frequently, and was a large reason behind his appointment as the Brazilian national team coach. Nevertheless, why is this failing with the Brazilian national team?

Brazil’s current dilemma

Brazil currently sits sixth on the table for World Cup qualification in South America, which is five spots below their typical and expected position. Brazil has not looked strong nor commanding, often looking vulnerable out of possession whilst looking disconnected in attack. Is this Diniz’s fault? Not entirely. There is a clear European influence within the national team, which is affecting the clarity of the coach’s instructions.

For example, players such as Bruno Guimarães, Marquinhos and other European-based elite players, often look to switch the ball and turn away from pressure, whereas Diniz would have them do the opposite. Draw in pressure, play into tight areas and combine, to then break beyond the out-of-shape opposition.

However, in other examples, players such as Neymar or Fluminense midfielder Andre, are more attuned with the concepts of dribbling and passing in tight areas, and playing in a more Diniz-preferable approach. 

Nevertheless, there is a clear divide, as some players have a built-in European-centric approach to the game, which Diniz is struggling to adapt to his preferred style. It is innate and almost a nature-driven factor for some players, the concept of playing positional possession-based play associated with Guardiola and other traditional European coaches. This is the main problem for Brazil. Some players understand whilst others are adapting, and yet for some, there is still a jump between playing styles.

This is the main reason for Brazil’s mismatching appearance on the field. In attack, players have not grasped when and how to combine and rotate. When and why should the left-winger run to the right-hand side to join the attack, and if the right-back joins the attack, who is supposed to cover that gap? This relates to the defense as well. Whilst in defensive transition, the defense and midfield have not yet mastered how to organize themselves according to the position of the attackers. The result? A tactical mess and poor results.

Brazil and Diniz’s future

Understandably Diniz has largely been made a scapegoat for the recent results. Whilst believers in his approach, more traditional football purists will point to the clear tactical limitations this Brazilian side has displayed. However, success cannot be made overnight, especially when the driving factor behind the desired success stems from a tactical paradigm shift as eccentric as Diniz’s style of football. Fluminense plays not so much as a well-oiled machine, but a constantly evolving organism, flexible and malleable to any situation.

This is Diniz’s goal for Brazil. At the same time, given both results and his position as interim coach, this may not come to fruition. Yet, there are some positives. Brazil looked much improved against Argentina from their previous losses against Colombia and Uruguay, and there is clear player buy-in as well.

Brazil must improve, not just to ensure automatic qualification, but for the pride of the nation and out of pure love of the game. Will this improvement come under Diniz or will the unconventional Brazilian once again be relieved of his duties? It will be a tense few months for Brazilian football. 

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