Mario Zagallo: Adeus to One of Brazil’s Greatest Managers

In the hallowed corridors of football’s history, there exists a rarefied air reserved for the immortals. Every manager and player aspire to sip from the cup of glory, the FIFA World Cup, at least once. Yet, imagine a maestro who not only tasted victory four times but orchestrated a symphony of triumph for a fifth. Such a man transcends the realm of mortals, ascending to heights where few dare to dream. But even in the rarefied atmosphere of success, an undeniable truth persists – the cold touch of mortality.


Enter the luminary, the trailblazer of innovation, the architect of a life steeped in the ethos of triumph: Mario Zagallo. Team after team, he wove a tapestry of success, infusing them with the very culture that defined his existence. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the full embodiment of “Jogo Bonito” – the beautiful game in human form. Today, we gather to celebrate the indomitable spirit of Mario Zagallo, a legend whose legacy echoes through the ages.


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Mario Zagallo’s philosophy rested on the premise that individual brilliance thrives with the scaffolding of order and teamwork. As a composed and conciliatory figure, he effectively persuaded a team laden with stars to embrace specific on-field responsibilities, stressing the importance of discipline, order, will, and self-sacrifice the foundational meeting with his  team, Zagallo declared, “In today’s football, everyone has to fight, regardless of your role.”


The heartbeat of Zagallo’s tactical framework was the principle of pass and move, rejecting any notion of players standing still. Every team member was entrusted to seek optimal passing positions, emphasizing immediate support upon receiving the ball—a straightforward concept that became the central pillar of Zagallo’s Brazil.


In an era marked by rigid positional structures, Zagallo orchestrated a paradigm shift. Full-backs ascending, midfielders and forwards seamlessly interchanging – this was the genesis of a tactical evolution that redefined traditional roles, introducing a nuanced approach to the game’s dynamics.


The functional attack, Zagallo’s magnum opus, was not merely about putting stars on the field. It was about imbuing each player with a specific role that harmonized with the collective symphony. Whether it was Rivellino on the left wing or Jairzinho on the right, Zagallo intricately designed roles that maximized their potential, elevating them beyond their positions.


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Zagallo’s tactical brilliance extended to a dynamic organization based on the ball’s position. A series of movements unfolded: when the ball graced the right side, the right full-back attacked, the left winger moved centrally and the team gravitated towards the right. When in possession on the left side, a reversal of roles unfolded. The right-back, positioned on the opposite side of the ball, executed a defensive diagonal, assuming the role of the third defender. Simultaneously, the left-back surged forward, prompting the entire team to converge on the left side. 


This coordinated movement maintained both offensive and defensive diagonals, fostering intricate pass exchanges and fluid, purposeful transitions. This set-up showcased Zagallo’s meticulous planning, turning football into a strategic art form. In the defensive phases,  Zagallo employed a 4-4-2 setup with wingers dropping back. The team Withdrew from midfield to open up space upon regaining possession.


Central to Zagallo’s system was the tandem of first and second infiltrating midfielders. Gerson and Clodoaldo seamlessly oscillated roles in the ’70s team, exemplifying tactical fluidity. It wasn’t just about skill; it was a synchronized ballet, a testament to Zagallo’s tactical sophistication.


Zagallo departed from convention, uniting the best in a system accommodating two playmakers and three strikers. Riva, a midfielder on the wing, harmonized with Gerson, while Jair assumed the role of a second striker supporting Pelé and Tostão. The ‘five 10s’ moved in unison, executing a coordinated assault on the field.


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The iconic goal by Carlos A. Torres encapsulated Zagallo’s philosophy – a team huddled on one side, swiftly changing flanks. The ’70 selection etched its name in history, finishing first in possession, shots on goal, and dribbles per game. It wasn’t just a triumph; it was a symphony of footballing brilliance orchestrated by Zagallo, resonating through generations.


Following the ’70 title, Zagallo’s imprint on Brazilian football became indelible. His functional attack wasn’t just a tactic; it became a legacy. Coaches, in subsequent years, emulated his style, making it a cornerstone of Brazilian football – a testament to Zagallo’s enduring influence on the beautiful game.


In 1998, Zallago re-emerged in a managerial role, introducing tactical adjustments. Zagallo initiated the 98 World Cup cycle by shifting from Parreira’s 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 to his distinctive 4-3-1-2 formation, where Zagallo’s iconic “1” occupied the ’10’ role. The objective as articulated by Bozsik, involved prioritizing the generation of plays in central areas and fostering a sense of comfort for the attacking midfielder (number 10) even in moments without possession.


In the Brazil vs.Morocco encounter, Brazil’s exquisite play unfolded with a 3-0 triumph. Employing a methodical approach, they initiated build-up from the rear, orchestrating moves through Jr. Baiano and Dunga to seek out the full-backs and the inside presence of Leonardo and Rivaldo. Bebeto showcased versatility by frequently vacating the penalty area, engaging in short, incisive plays, and demonstrating proficiency as both a forward and a playmaker. Ronaldo’s assertive pursuit of breakthroughs was evident, while Leonardo’s positional shift from right to left enhanced his impact.


Cafú, despite occasional isolation, delivered remarkable performances on the wing, contributing significantly. Sampaio, however, deviated from his usual involvement, displaying limited attacking contributions and build-up participation. Morocco struggled to mount offensive threats throughout the 90 minutes, relying heavily on sporadic counterattacks. Brazil adeptly regained possession post-loss, credited to the effective pressing from the full-backs and the collaborative efforts of the Dunga/Sampaio/Leonardo trio.


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Bebeto and Cafú emerged as standout performers in this tactically intriguing match. Against Scotland, Brazil also demonstrated a functional attacking strategy, structuring its play around ball possession. Employing a full-back, midfielders, attackers, and Sampaio’s penetrative movements, they utilized a full-back on the opposite side executing an expansive defensive diagonal to exploit available space, countering Scotland’s positional attacking approach.


However, in 1998, much like any tactical system, this approach had its defensive vulnerabilities. Notably, susceptibility to counterattacks in wide areas was a notable weakness. Despite this, Dunga proved instrumental in midfield, particularly exemplified in the quarter-final clash against Denmark.


The Brazil vs. Denmark encounter marked Brazil’s most challenging match in the competition. Defensively flawed, with Roberto Carlos and the defenders displaying lapses in attentiveness, Denmark exploited a 4-3-1-2 formation, relying on the movements of Brian Laudrup and Moller behind the Brazilian full-backs. Quick free kicks were a strategic tool to catch Brazil off guard.


Michael Laudrup had his poorest World Cup performance, effectively nullified by Dunga. Denmark left considerable gaps between full-backs, defenders, and the three midfielders. When Ronaldo dropped back, a defender pressured him outside the area, creating corridors for Rivaldo and Bebeto to exploit the space between the playmaker-midfielder and full-back.


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Despite Ronaldo’s apparent ankle discomfort following a challenge from Brian Laudrup, his movements outside the area and subsequent spin were pivotal. The first half saw Brazil creating opportunities and overturning the game, but the second half witnessed a decline in performance.


The decisive goal originated from Rivaldo’s dynamic play and a well-executed shot from outside the area, exploiting Denmark’s defensive gaps. Dunga played a crucial role, pressuring the Danish ball for the first goal and providing the assist for the third with a precise vertical pass to break the defensive line. Zagallo adapted to a 4-4-2 formation towards the end, with Emerson and Denilson securing the flanks, and Rivaldo and Ronaldo leading the attack.


In the arena of football, where limits and restrictions now dictate the beautiful game, Old Wolf, Zagallo, gifted us an extraordinary revelation—a football that knows no bounds, restrained solely by the confines of our minds and the potency of our imagination. It’s a poignant reminder that within the structured rules of the sport lies an untapped wellspring of creativity and enchantment.


As we unleash the power of our imagination on the field, football becomes a canvas for pure magic, intertwining the realms of reality and dreams, proving that the beauty of the game is not just in goals scored but in the limitless fabric of possibilities it weaves.


By Tobi Peter / @keepIT_tactical

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Cathal McNaughton – PA Images