Brazil has a long and rich tradition of attacking full-back play, perhaps more so than any other outpost of world football. After all, there are few places on the globe where defenders stationed on the flanks are given quite as much freedom to roam and forage in more advanced positions.
Over the decades the country has produced a succession of supremely talented full-backs who have operated more as flying wingers than defenders, from the great Nilton Santos, to Junior, Roberto Carlos and the indefatigable Maicon.
As his career has progressed, Andre Santos has staked an increasingly valid claim to membership of that esteemed lineage. During a two-year sojourn with Corinthians, for example, he struck no fewer than 25 goals in 98 appearances, all of them under Mano Menezes, the man who recently took the national team reins.
Reunited with Menezes
For a full-back, Santos wielded a big influence at O Timão, and was one of the architects of their 2008 Serie B title success and the Sao Paulo State Championship and Copa do Brasil triumphs the following year.
Though he decamped to Turkish outfit Fenerbahce in July last year, Santos was not forgotten by his former coach. Taking over from Dunga in the wake of Brazil’s exit at South Africa 2010, Menezes promptly recalled his former charge, giving him an attack-minded brief that he has been only too happy to fulfil.
“Obviously the first thing a full-back has to do is defend, and I know Mano puts the emphasis on that, especially because we’ve got plenty of experienced players in midfield and up front already,” the 27-year-old told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “But he’s given me the freedom to attack when the ball’s on my side of the pitch, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do: to defend and then make an impact going forward. And I think I’ve been doing it well in my first few games.”
That point has been proved in Menezes’ first few games in charge. In defeating USA, Iran and Ukraine, A Seleção conceded just the one goal while scoring seven, two of them coming from passes laid on by the left-back, a starter in all three games.
It is all a far cry for the role he performed for Menezes’ predecessor at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009, where he spent most of the time rooted alongside two central defenders, rarely venturing out of the rearguard. “The fact is Mano and I talk a lot about the position,” he explains. “I just try to do what he tells me to and I know exactly what he expects of me.”
The No6 shirt represents a useful attacking alternative in the 4-2-3-1 system currently employed by the Brazilians, in which a member of the attacking line of three is stationed just in front of the left-back. It is a set-up that Santos is already well familiar with.
“I feel really at ease because it’s exactly the same system we had at Corinthians, with one player free at all times and who can link up with the full-back. I’m used to it,” explained an appreciative Santos.
Serving his country
After missing out on a place in Dunga’s 23-man squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Santos made a return to the national side a priority of his: “When Mano called me to talk about his first squad list, I was filled with a real sense of expectation. My aim’s always been to play for A Seleção and to stay in the team. It’s important to have an objective and I’ve certainly got mine: to play in the 2014 World Cup in my country.”
So focused is Santos on achieving that ambition that he asked Aykut Kocaman, his coach at Fener, to keep him stationed at left-back rather than deploy him as an out-and-out winger, a position he has occasionally occupied for the Istanbul giants. Given the fact the swashbuckling Brazilian scored 12 goals in 46 last season, several of them coming from deadly long-range efforts, Kocaman could have been forgiven for turning down his player’s request.
“I started out as a full-back and that’s the position I play in for Brazil,” he says. “So the fact that I’m staying there is helping me a lot. I’ve worked hard on my man-marking, and that’s the area in which I’ve made the biggest strides during my year here in Europe.”
No matter how much Santos has worked on his defensive abilities, however, the fact remains he is a potent presence going forward. And there is little question that the instinct to bomb down the flank and lend his weight in attack remains as strong as ever, especially when the man stationed on the other side of the touchline is his mentor Menezes.