While Brazil is famous for developing talented attacking players, this year has seen an emergence of promising defensive midfielders in Brazil’s Série A. As football continues to evolve, positions change into new roles with new profiles. One of the most significant changes has been in the defensive midfield position, or as known in Brazil, the volante. Defensive midfielders are now required to perform significant roles both in and out of possession. Being able to perform roles such as commanding the press or constructing play is essential for modern midfielders.
This year, there has been a common trend amongst some of Brazil’s top clubs. Last month, we had a look at how 21-year-old Danilo has been the backbone of Abel Ferreira’s tactics. In addition to Palmeiras, teams such as Flamengo, Corinthians, and Red Bull Bragantino also have young players commanding the midfield. These players not only protect the backline well but also play a key role in possession. While specifically varying in some characteristics and strengths, this new generation of Brazilian defensive midfielders is generally very well-rounded and dynamic.
In this data analysis, we will conduct a statistical analysis to examine the playing style and characteristics of five of the most promising young defensive midfielders in Brazil’s Série A.
João Gomes, 21 years old, Flamengo
Perhaps the biggest name in this group alongside Palmeiras’ Danilo is Flamengo’s João Gomes. The 21-year-old had occasionally featured in 2021, but this year he has cemented himself in the starting line-up. João Gomes has a market value of around €9m, according to Transfermarkt and is quickly attracting the attention of European clubs.
Especially in Paulo Sousa’s Flamengo, João Gomes has always featured as part of a double-pivot. While at times he plays in front of two centre-backs, Paulo Sousa constantly opts for three at the back. His role in the various phases of the game is dependent on the team’s overall structure and the characteristics of the players on the pitch. For instance, when alongside Willian Arão, João has more freedom to venture forward and attack the spaces. When alongside a more creative player such as Andreas Pereira, his movement is a little more restricted as more protection is required of him. At any rate, João Gomes is a dynamic player and able to perform a variety of roles.
The 21-year-old leads the Série A in defensive duels per 90 with 13.78 per 90, at a success rate of 61.04%. He is also one of the leaders of the Brasileiro in successful defensive actions per 90 at 13.06. Furthermore, his possession-adjusted interceptions figure stands at 6. Undoubtedly, João Gomes offers a relentless presence in the defensive phase of the game. He can cover a lot of ground and challenge for the ball with frequency. Against Palmeiras in the Brasileiro, he had 12 recoveries with six of them being in the opposition half. The map below illustrates how he is able to recover the ball both lower and higher up the pitch. As he played on the left side of a double pivot, they are predominantly on the left.
Offensively, João Gomes also has a key involvement. While his 39.54 passes per 90 are not exceptionally high, it does show he is quite involved in possession. Most impressively, though, is his pass completion rate of 91.4%. Of these 39.54, 13.42 are forward passes, highlighting his willingness to go forward and break lines. Furthermore, he has 3.76 progressive passes per 90 and 6.8 passes to the final third. As part of an overall system, he can perform his role very well and effectively assist in constructing play.
Du Queiroz, 22 years old, Corinthians
Since the arrival of Portuguese manager Vitor Pereira, Du Queiroz has transformed into one of Corinthians’ most important players. The 22-year-old has the most minutes played in the Libertadores and Série A for Corinthians in 2022. While he occasionally featured in Sylvinho’s 2021 side, his significance and development have tremendously increased under Vitor Pereira. His market value of €2.5m is relatively cheap for what he has displayed in 2022 and similar to Salernitana’s Éderson, he could certainly prove to be a bargain should any European teams come calling.
Under Sylvinho, Du often played as a single pivot. Sylvinho was notorious for sticking with a 4-1-4-1 and rarely making any structural changes. In this system, Du’s role was significant in connecting the defence with the attack in possession while also protecting the backline out of possession. This system had many flaws, but perhaps the biggest one was how it left Du Queiroz outnumbered and alone in such an important sector. This hindered his performance and consequently his development.
Whether in a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-3, Vitor Pereira has consistently opted for a double pivot. Although he constantly rotates his players, a partnership of Du Queiroz and Maycon, ex-Shakhtar Donetsk, has been his go-to in the midfield. Similar to João Gomes, a double pivot allows Du Queiroz the freedom to drive forward and attack spaces. This has transformed him from a one-dimensional ball-winning midfielder into a well-rounded box-to-box player.
In the Série A, he has averaged 2.83 dribbles per 90 and 1.67 progressive runs per 90. Passing wise, he’s averaged 41.67 passes per 90 at an 87.2% success rate. He averages 5 progressive passes per 90 and 6.67 passes to the final third per 90. The heatmap first displayed above is for the 2022 season as a whole. Below is his heatmap under Sylvinho alone. It is clear how Vitor Pereira’s arrival turned him into a more advanced, box-to-box midfielder.
Defensively, Du Queiroz gets the job done. His 8.33 successful defensive actions per 90 and 8.83 defensive duels per 90 highlight both his presence and effectiveness. With 4.71 possession-adjusted interceptions, he is also very good at reading the opposition and disrupting play. While his defensive numbers are not top of the league, he does a good job of securing the midfield and protecting the backline. He is best used with a partner, definitely not alone as a single pivot.
Jadsom, 21 years old, Red Bull Bragantino
Red Bull have always had a defining playing style, and at Bragantino, Jadsom has been key in implementing this. Having arrived from Cruzeiro at the beginning of 2021, Jadsom is now one of Bragantino’s most important players despite having just turned 21. At just €2.5m, he is incredibly undervalued and should be heavily considered by many clubs throughout Europe.
Red Bull Bragantino have a very vertical approach to possession. As I have detailed in previous analyses, they have a very direct style and aim to break lines as early as possible. This approach can be identified through metrics such as long passes, progressive passes, match tempo, and more. On a micro-scale, the same trend can be seen in their players, especially in their main orchestrator.
While Barbieri constantly switches between a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2, and a 4-3-3, a single pivot in possession is constantly seen. This is primarily due to Jadsom’s ability to dictate and construct play. He is able to constantly find gaps between the defensive organisation and progress the ball. He averages 45 passes per 90 at an 86.86% success rate. His average pass length is 20.29m while also averaging 4.58 long passes per 90. Both are the highest out of any of the five players looked at today. He also averages 6.1 progressive passes per 90 and 5.72 passes to the final third per 90. He offers quality in possession from a much deeper role.
His defensive numbers are also impressive, especially given how good he is in possession. With 11.82 successful defensive actions per 90 and 9.92 defensive duels per 90, he offers presence and success in defence. More impressively, though, he has 7.97 possession-adjusted interceptions. His ability to read the game and disrupt opposition play is exceptional. In a side that constantly presses high and intensively, he is also able to cover players and command the press from deeper.
Zanocelo, 21 years old, Santos (on loan from Ferroviária)
While Santos is known for its traditional youth academy, one of their most exciting midfielders comes from the countryside. Rising out of Ponte Preta’s academy and joining on loan from Ferroviária, Zanocelo has demonstrated tremendous quality on the ball. His market value of €2.5m is appropriate but should continue to increase throughout this year.
Vinicius Zanocelo is perhaps the most attacking player out of the five and has almost always played in a double pivot. Although he is very good offensively, he has also produced very good numbers defensively. He offers a dynamic presence to compose the midfield.
Zanocelo’s most significant trait is his ability to break lines. From deeper positions, he can put his teammates in very good positions and progress the ball very well. He only offers 30.58 passes per 90 at an 87.26% success rate, but that can also be linked to Santos’ playing style. Of these, only 6.43 are forward passes while 16.17 are lateral passes. He offers support and retains possession very well. When he does choose to go forward, he does so very well. He averages 4.87 progressive passes per 90 and 4.87 passes to the final third per 90. In conclusion, Zanocelo’s contribution in possession is in quality rather than quantity.
On the other hand, he has very good defensive numbers. With 11.49 successful defensive actions per 90, he is definitely active on the defensive end. Furthermore, 10.52 defensive duels per 90 at a 51.85% success rate is fairly good. His work off the ball is also good with 6.09 possession-adjusted interceptions. Overall, he performs his defensive duties very well. He is not an exceptional defender and should not defend the backline alone, but in a collective system, performs his role very well.
Pablo Maia, 20 years old, São Paulo
Rogério Ceni’s return has seen the emergence of many promising players out of Cotia, São Paulo’s youth academy. Most notably, winger Marquinhos has just been sold to Arsenal. However, in the midfield, youngster Pablo Maia has been a pleasing surprise. As the backbone of the team, Pablo Maia commands the midfield both in and out of possession. With a market value of €5m, he begins to attract the attention of European clubs.
Rogério Ceni has constantly opted for a 4-1-3-2 in 2022. In this structure, the single pivot is incredibly important to the functionality of the system. Despite being just 20-years-old, Pablo Maia has assumed the role and performed with consistency and quality.
In the Série A, São Paulo have averaged over 56% of possession and 454.17 passes per 90. They are very much a possession-based side and as a consequence, their defenders do not average high numbers. Pablo Maia averages 8.35 successful defensive actions per 90 and 7.42 defensive duels per 90 with a 58.33% success rate. When possession-adjusted, his interceptions figure rises to 5.29. While they are not exceptionally high, they are still very good numbers.
As they are a possession side, Pablo Maia’s involvement can be very much seen through quantity. With 49.48 passes per 90 at a 92.5% success rate, he constantly gets involved in possession and is very effective in doing so. He also looks to progress through the zones with 12.68 forward passes per 90 and 5.88 progressive passes per 90. His 5.88 passes to the final third are also impressive, even more so at a 94.74% success rate. His average pass length of 16.78m further highlights his style. Overall, he plays a lot of quick and short passes to retain possession and progress through the zones, but he also looks to go forward and break lines when able to.
The five players we have looked at are demonstrating tremendous quality and tremendous potential. Despite their young ages, they have become key pieces to very important teams. While they differ in specific characteristics and strengths, they are all very well-rounded and perform well in all phases of the game. It will be very interesting to see how they continue to perform in 2022, and if any clubs come calling for their services.