Sport Club Corinthians Paulista and the Art of Defending

On Saturday night Corinthians beat Sport Recife 3-1 to chalk up their 14th victory in 19 league games and maintain their eight-point lead at the top of the Campeonato Brasileiro. It was the latest triumph in a spectacular run of form that has now seen them go 34 games unbeaten in all competitions and romp to the highest points total at the half-way stage for any team, in any season, since the Brazilian league took its current format in 2003.

Saturday’s game saw another statistic that flew a little further from the radar but perhaps goes some way to show why and how the team from São Paulo have achieved such an impressive feat.

After 55 minutes of the game Jô, Corinthians’ top-scorer this season, was pressing the ball deep in the Sport half trying to impede its progress upfield. As he did, he made very slight contact with the defender, and the referee (perhaps incorrectly) blew his whistle.

Nothing too special, until you consider that it was the first foul committed by a Corinthians player in the game. Not a single foul in the first half. Not one. Not a little accidental trip, a cynical shirt tug or a silly handball. It is surely the rarest of events; I could not recall a game where a team did not perpetrate any infringement for so long.

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Jô, formerly of Everton, Manchester City and CSKA Moscow, celebrates a goal for Corinthians.

A quick look on the Google, however, informed me that a Chelsea versus Norwich game in 2012 went a full 45 minutes without a single foul from either side before, in the opening moments of the second half, Steve Morison tripped Raul Meireles, causing Mark Clattenburg to put the whistle to his lips.

Individuals like Rio Ferdinand and Phillip Lahm have gone inordinate amounts of time without breaking any of the game’s 17 laws, but, to my knowledge, statistics of whole teams doing so are limited.

By the end of the game Corinthians had given away one more, a tired trip by Fágner late on, that took them to a grand total of two. With the result they had scored more goals than they had made fouls, another thing I cannot remember witnessing in my years watching the beautiful game.

It is a silly statistic, you may think. Surely more coincidental than anything else.

It is, though, illustrative of Corinthians, 2017 edition, a team moulded in the image of their head coach, Fábio Carille.

They are the outfit with the lowest total number of fouls committed in the league, with 211 infractions in those 19 games. They are also the team that has conceded the fewest goals; just nine in 1710 minutes of football.

With players like Lahm and Ferdinand the absence of infringements is taken as a sign of sophisticated, intellectual defending. With Corinthians it is no different. You do not need to commit a foul if you are already in the right place to block or intercept.

Positional intelligence, impenetrable compactness, military-like organisation and faultless concentration allow Timão’s defenders to leave the field each week without a speck of mud on their shorts and, more often than not, without a notch in the goals against column.

In a country that values individuality and spontaneity above all else it is a divergence from the norm.

It is a divergence, though, that has precedence in this part of São Paulo. Starting with Mano Menezes, continuing with Tite and now being implemented by Carille, who was assistant to both, Corinthians have for almost a decade played this organised brand of football, built first and foremost on a solid back-line.

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Corinthians’ first-choice centre-backs Pablo and Balbuena supervise two São Paulo players at a set piece.

The current unit is so well-drilled that players can be swapped in and out with very little effect on the collective. Carille has a clear idea of his best eleven but when one or more of those players is not available their immediate reserves, or even the reserves of those reserves, come in knowing exactly what is expected of them. There are no real stand-out individuals, but a side that is so cohesive does not need any.

Carille’s men sometimes appear more confident and comfortable without the ball than with it and, watching them defend, it is obvious why. When they are out of possession, Corinthians move with such beautifully defined shape, synchronicity and symmetry that they look like a table football team.

There is a great deal to be said, in aesthetic terms, for order and equilibrium. When you look at the facade of a beautiful building, be it a grand cathedral, royal palace or ancient temple, a large part of its beauty comes not from its towering spires or ornate decorations but from the simple fact that both sides are exactly the same.

Similarly for Corinthians the beauty of their play lies not in individual flair but in balance and proportion.

Though most obviously beneficial when watching the opposition impotently exchange passes, the utility of that wonderfully symmetrical compactness is not confined to the defensive phase of play. Despite having less than half of the possession in many of their games, Corinthians have completed more passes than any other team in the league.

The proximity of the players to one another provides more feasible options to the man in possession and allows the team to move the ball quickly from one side of the pitch to the other in search of breaches in the adversary’s defence.

Corinthians’ goalkeeper Cássio on one of the rare occasions he has been forced into action. His composed performances have led to calls for Tite to select him for Brazil.

The lack of fouls also shows the vastly different approach emerging with a new generation of Brazilian coaches. Carille is only 43 and this is his first time as a number one.

In the 1990s and early 2000s there was a school of thought that the team that committed more tactical fouls would win the game. Ex-Brazil and Chelsea manager Luiz Felipe Scolari was one of its main proponents.

The BBC’s Tim Vickery quoted Scolari as saying that, “well played, normal football in certain situations obliges a player to commit a foul – a push, some shirt pulling, use of the shoulder, fouls that don’t give the opponents the chance to organise an attack”.

Corinthians, however, are showing there is another way. To defend well does not necessarily mean playing outside the rules, you can be firm and fair.

If defending is an art then, for the moment, Corinthians are the great Brazilian masters.

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