Sitting down for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com, the Brazil coach offered his thoughts on his team’s performances at London 2012 and the progress made by Asian sides of late, among them their semi-final opponents.
FIFA.com: Are you happy with what A Seleção have achieved at the Games so far?
Mano Menezes: We’ve put together an excellent side for this competition, but not without a few problems obviously, because we still don’t have a specific Olympics project in place. Even so, and although we’ve only had a few games, we’ve managed to produce some good football in a short space of time, thanks to the quality of the players. There are always tough games to be played in a tournament and you need to be aware of that. There are days when you’re not on top form and your opponents play well, but we’ve found a balance between attack and defence, we’re creating a lot of chances and scoring an average of three goals a game. That all makes me happy.
A big reason for that balance is the tactical awareness of two pairs of players who like to drop wide: Neymar and Marcelo on one flank and Hulk and Rafael on the other. Is that the way you see it?
Yes. Brazilian full-backs have always been attack-minded, which means we have to set up our midfields in a different way to the big teams in world football. We need more protection so that we can release the full-backs and make the most of the quality they have. We also need to teach them to take turns in going forward so that when our opponents get the ball back they don’t have too much space to exploit. That’s always been the hardest part, though the players we’ve got here are very tactically aware. The two players on the flank have combined well together. Hulk is used to playing that way in Europe. He’s got the strength to drop back and, when he’s on the ball, to get forward. When it comes to the balance of the team, those players are definitely the key.
Have any of the teams at the Games surprised you?
To be honest, they haven’t. We got it pretty much spot on when we assessed our rivals. Obviously with three players over the age of 23 coming into each squad, we only got a feel of how strong they really were in our final warm-up games and the first few matches of the competition proper. There haven’t been any surprises, though. The teams who worked harder and prepared better have made it to the latter stages.
A lot of people are surprised to see Asian sides like Japan and Brazil’s next rivals, Korea Republic, in the semi-finals. Is Asian football getting stronger and, if so, why?
Their football has come on. They like to dictate the game now, which you didn’t see until pretty recently. In the past they’d just focus on keeping their shape and look to hit you hard and fast on the counter. But not these days. They have the ability to keep the ball now, to work hard, switch play from one flank to the other and hit long balls too. They’ve got a broader grasp of the game and they’ve also been producing players who are with some big European clubs now. That definitely raises their stature and gives them the confidence they need to battle against the world’s big teams on an equal footing.
How does that affect a team like Brazil? What’s the difference between the way you’re approaching tomorrow’s game and the way A Seleção would have done a few years ago?
Brazilian teams have always liked to play possession football without always wanting to defend. We’ve always had this huge belief in our individual ability to go out and win games, but that’s not enough anymore, firstly because you need to defend. If you don’t, no-one’s going to give the ball back to you. Everyone’s got the ability to hang onto the ball now, so you have to try and force them to make mistakes and defend in the opposition’s half. That’s a change we’ve been making with the national side since we took over, because it’s one of the key areas we need to change in terms of behaviour. Secondly, you have to understand that even with talented players, there’s no space these days for them to take hold of the ball and settle the game on their own. That’s very difficult to do, even for the greatest players. It all means that you need to have a clearly defined gameplan and for each player to know what their role is in that gameplan. We’re going through some major changes and I think we’ve already made a big improvement.