Brazil's Olympic Gold: How André Jardine Commanded Brazil to a Consecutive Men's Football Gold Medal
Updated: Oct 2, 2021
The Olympics, the main attraction of the sporting world, took place in Tokyo from July to August this year. Along with a multitude of inspirational moments and incessant pride of your home country, as athletes battled to represent their nations on the world's biggest stage, there is one very bright star written in Brazil's history: the second consecutive men's football gold medal.
After its first true glory in the Rio 2016 Olympics, high expectations were placed on Brazil in Tokyo. Being the country with the leading number of medals (9) within the men's football category, Brazil has always been a very traditional team in the olympic stage, just as in the footballing world in general. For this year's competition, however, a lot of unfamiliar faces were introduced into the squad, with none of the players from the heroic 2016 campaign remaining in the squad. These new faces were led by André Jardine, the Olympic Team's new coach, who had a tough job on his hands.
Hardships began with the selection of the squad for the Olympic Games. Due to the very compact calendar due to the covid-19 pandemic, games and competitions were pushed closer together. This meant that, for players playing in Europe, for example, and who were called to play in one of the other two major footballing tournaments (the Copa America and the Euros) would have to play all year round, and would have to miss preseason with their clubs, as well as possibly having to miss out on the first games of the season. For this reason, a lot of clubs refused to allow their players to go on international duty to the Olympics, including the likes of Neymar and Marquinhos. As such, Jardine was left scrambling. Required to look around for alternative options, questionable decisions were made, especially regarding the three players above the age of 24 allowed for the competition, for which he chose 30-year-old goalkeeper Santos from Athletico Paranaense, 38-year-old right-back Dani Alves, from São Paulo, and 28 year-old centre back Diego Carlos, from Sevilla.
But perhaps more important than the team itself is the tactics Jardine used to achieve the highest Olympic honour. Jardine used variations of a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 throughout the competition. The four more attacking spots were usually taken up by Richarlison and Matheus Cunha as the strikers and Claudinho and Antony on the left and right wings respectively. The team was able to make constant rotations in attack, Matheus Cunha and Richarlison would alternate between playing in the same line up top and one dropping a bit deeper. Richarlison could also play out wide, which meant he could drop wide onto the left and the original left winger, Claudinho, could drift into space in the middle. This is also the main aspect that dictated the change between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-4-2 when Brazil had the ball. Out wide, Antony would play as more of a dribbler, utilizing his explosive pace, while Claudinho played the role of a wide playmaker, sometimes drifting inside as mentioned. Both were also pivotal defensively; their workrate was one of their most important qualities in aiding to stabilize the Brazilian defense, and both would very often track back to help maintain the team's solid defensive structure. Moving back into the midfield, Jardine deployed a double pivot, with two defensive midfielders who could also support the attack. These spots were usually taken up by Bruno Guimarães and Douglas Luiz, both who can take care of high defensive duties and still carry the ball forward, which adds fluidity to the team. Both are also able to get forward constantly and contribute to the attack, however Douglas Luiz is more of a "classic 6" than Bruno, meaning he would usually participate more defensively, as can be seen by his heatmap during the tournament, which shows him more positionally defensive. As for the defence, Jardine's preferred line-up was set as follows: Santos (Athletico Paranaense) in goal, Nino (Fluminense) and Diego Carlos (Sevilla) at the back and Dani Alves (São Paulo) and Guilherme Arana (Atlético Mineiro) as the wingbacks. Both wingbacks played important roles in their own right: Dani Alves excels at progressing the ball, and was given liberty to both drift inside and play wider on the wing looking for crosses. This meant Brazil could overload different areas of the pitch as necessary. As for Arana, his attacking workrate was imperative. His heatmap would often look a lot more active on the attacking half, especially because Brazil would often maintain possession for long periods of time, meaning the whole team would quite commonly maintain themselves in the opposition half, thus causing Arana's playing area to be just above the halfway line through the left. This is exemplified by his many key passes and crosses, including in the final. He was also a lot more active on the flank, meaning he would not get into the center as much, much different to Dani Alves. This is especially important considering that Claudinho would also play on the left, and would often drift inside due to his role, meaning Arana would often stay wide to provide a definitive width to the team, while Alves would play with Antony, often positioned wider than Claudinho. Ara with many key passes and crosses - including in the final. Moving on to the centre backs, Jardine deployed a modern system, where both centre backs are good on the ball. Diego Carlos would often utilize long balls to help get out of pressure and connect the defense and attack quickly, while Nino would often distribute the ball to his proximities, although he could also play it long. Both also got similar defensive numbers throughout the tournament. Generally, against weaker opposition, the plan was to maintain possession and maintain pressure on the opposition through use of a more fluid attacking line as explained. In the final against Spain this was not the case, but will get more into that later.
Brazil's journey in the tournament began smoothly with an important 4x2 win over last edition's finalist Germany. The game was completely controlled by the Seleção, who created various big chances and could've put the game to bed much earlier, rather leaving it to an additional time goal to seal the win. Less convincingly, Brazil's second game was a simple 0x0 draw to Ivory Coast, with Jardine's men reduced to 10 due to a Douglas Luiz send off still in the first half. Regardless, they took the first spot with a 3x1 win over Saudi Arabia, once again.
The journey through the knockouts was not as easy however. It was filled with tight margins and unconvincing, tense results. In the quarter-finals, Brazil beat Egypt 1x0 thanks to a Matheus Cunha goal. The Selecao controlled the game, maintaining the preferred line-up discussed in Jardine’s tactics, only with Claudinho playing more centrally and Richarlison out-wide on the left. The tactics worked, and despite only winning by one goal, Brazil conceded no big chances while producing a wealth of quality opportunities including 3 big chances, however could not score more goals, similar to the story in the group stage. Possession was also a deciding factor in this match, allowing Jardine’s men to retain control of the game with 63% of the ball.
Coming into the semi-finals Brazil were once again the clear favourites to progress to the final. Things didn’t go exactly to plan, however, as Mexico put up a good fight and left the Brazilian fans weary of facing the demons of the 2012 Olympic Final, when Mexico beat Brazil 2x1 to take home the gold. Thankfully, this was not the case. Despite an extremely open-ended game, with Mexico having the most of the big chances (1) and Brazil hitting the woodwork, the Canarinho were eventual winners 4x1 on penalties after a nerve-racking 0x0 in normal time. On a better day it could very well have been Mexico progressing to the final, but it wasn’t meant to be. The stats also show a slight Brazilian superiority, having the usual higher possession (67%), a higher number of total shots (12 to Mexico’s 9) and shots on target (6 to Mexico’s 4). The tension of the match was also illustrated by the fact that both goalkeepers had the highest match ratings (8.3 for Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and 7.9 for Brazil’s Santos) according to SofaScore. Regardless of the unconvincing win, Jardine was set on a path to the final, to play eventual semi-final winners Spain in his pursuit of gold.
The final was unlike any other match Brazil had played in the tournament. Although possibly the slight favourite, Jardine’s men were to face their toughest opponents yet, in a Spain side led by 6 players from their 2020 Euros team, including the likes of Pedri (Barcelona), Dani Olmo (RB Leipzig), Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad) and Pau Torres (Real Betis). Brazil, on the other hand, only had two members of their second-place Copa America squad in Richarlison and Douglas Luiz, who did not start in the main team. In a similar fashion, Spain came from an unconvincing semi-final win over Japan, 2x1 in extra-time. This meant both teams had played a full 120 minutes just days before the final, leaving them at somewhat of an even playing field.
For the final, Brazil chose to line up as they did previously, only with adjustments to the overall game plan. Claudinho and Antony would play slightly deeper roles to contribute defensively and help deal with the Spanish attack. This was also the case with a lot of the Brazilian team, as is usual when facing a tougher opponent. Spain chose to line up in their somewhat usual 433, with no fixed striker, which meant they could play a fluid system based on positional interchangeability, in an attempt to make it difficult for the Brazilian back line to deal with attacks.
The game itself was tough, and Brazil actually missed the opportunity to open the scoring in the 38th minute, as Richarlison sent a penalty over Unai Simon’s bar. This did not stop the Selecao from attacking, however, as they bagged the first goal of the game just 4 minutes after. Claudinho sends a long cross into the area from the left flank, and Dani Alves manages to send the ball up into the air to keep it in the Spanish box. In between three defenders, Matheus Cunha takes a touch to set up the shot and sends it home.
The second half was a lot more dominated by Spain, who equalised in the 61st minute with a Mikel Oyarzabal finish and applied pressure up until the dying moments, very close to grabbing a winner and even hitting the woodwork on two occasions. They fell short, however, and the game was set for extra time.
In extra time, Brazil somewhat regained control of the game, maintaining possession more frequently and creating small chances, something they were not able to do for the majority of the second half. This also led to an eventual winner in the second half of extra time, after Antony sent a long ball through to Malcolm, who came on as a sub, and beat Vallejo to the ball before sending in a cross-goal driven shot which hit the keeper's foot before going in, putting the game to bed and securing the gold for Brazil!
Statistically, the game reflected the equilibrium that both teams displayed on paper. Much different to all of its previous games in the tournament, Brazil was not completely dominant. Statswise, Brazil had the most big chances (4 to 2), more shots (15 to 9) and more shots on target (4 to 3), but had an atypically low possession (41% to 59%), courtesy of Spain’s second-half dominance. It is also important to note the fact that Spain hit the woodwork twice compared to Brazil’s once, showing they were very close to changing the course of the game on multiple occasions.
As such, Jardine had to change his game plan to suit the game at hand, since Spain is a lot more high-pressing and intense in their passing game, plus a lot more talented than the other teams they had faced before. Brazil opted for a less-pressing defensive tactic, and Antony and Claudinho played very important defensive roles as was intended. Claudinho, for example, got 2 tackles and 3 interceptions, and Antony's heatmap was a lot more active in the defensive half than the offensive one.
Ultimately, Jardine was intelligent in his tactics and made do with the team he could take. Although it was not Brazil's strongest possible team, they fought their way through tough games to bring home the second olympic gold medal, proving that we do very much like the taste of gold and are here to defend our reigning champions title for the foreseeable future.
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