Brazil’s decision to bring left-back Alex Sandro in for front man Hulk ahead of Tuesday’s semi-final against Korea Republic at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 will have had a few people scratching their heads in bemusement. Here they were, the tournament’s highest scorers, switching a forward for a defender.
Yet the Brazilians had done the very same thing in their final group game against New Zealand, a switch that gave them balance down the left, just as it did against the South Koreans in Manchester, where a 3-0 win for A Seleção took them to their first Olympic final in 24 years.
The only thing was, Alex Sandro did not occupy his accustomed left-sided position in defence on Tuesday but a wide slot on the left of midfield, the idea being for him to link up with first-choice left-back Marcelo and provide cover for the Real Madrid man on his frequent forays forward.
“The switch worked pretty well, didn’t it?” a delighted Alex Sandro told FIFA.com after his side’s emphatic victory at Old Trafford. “I think the fact that I’m also a full-back by nature and that Marcelo sometimes plays as a midfielder means that when one goes forward the other stays back. Mano made that pretty clear to us.”
While the Porto player was delighted to earn a starting place, Marcelo was also happy to have him around and take on a slightly different role: “I’m very happy playing with Alex Sandro,” he told FIFA.com. “Sometimes you have to fight for your place at full-back, but with two of us on the pitch I feel very free. It lets me do more things.”
The tactical change also had an impact on other aspects of Brazil’s play. Rather than being stationed in a left-sided role, Neymar was given more of a roaming brief, while the lack of wide men up front gave holding midfielders such as Romulo more space to push forward. The Vasco da Gama player proved the point by popping up on the right to open the scoring against the South Koreans.
The key to the success of Brazil’s versatile approach is not just the talent of the players but their tactical appreciation too, as Alex Sandro pointed out: “Our work down the left only paid off because Neymar also helped a lot by defending down that side.”
For his part, Marcelo highlighted the space that the heavily marked Santos star opens up for the two wide men: “Defenders are drawn to Neymar and that gives us all the room we need to push up from midfield.”
In the two matches that Menezes’ men have operated with this system they have scored three goals, just as they have done in all five of their games at London 2012. Interestingly, however, they have kept their only two clean sheets of the tournament in both those outings, an impressive stat for a formation they have only just started to experiment with.