‘Slight Return’ Pato’s lost weekend in Brazil

As former Brazilian wonderkid Alexandre Pato prepares for his highly anticipated return to European football with Chelsea, Tim Stillman looks back at his wilderness years in his homeland…

After a dizzying succession of injuries and a controversial relationship with Silvio Berlusconi’s daughter, Alexandre Pato returned to Brazil in January 2013. He signed with São Paulo club Corinthians with the intention of rebuilding a career that had once promised so much. The short term aim would have been to rediscover his touch and his fitness with Corinthians and attract European suitors.

This would very much have been in Corinthians’ financial planning when they sanctioned the purchase of the Pato Branco born forward. Whilst ‘Pato’ is indeed Portuguese for ‘duck’, his nomenclature derives from his city of birth. His actual name, Alexandre Rodrigues da Silva, is a string of very popular and widely used Brazilian names, so ‘Pato’ is used to identify him in the same way that Ronaldinho is called ‘Ronaldinho Gaucho’ and the two famous Juninho’s are known as Juninho Paulista (of Middlesbrough fame) and Juninho Pernambucano (who played for Lyon).

Corinthians have an excellent reputation for rehabilitating players with questionable fitness records and they have certainly nursed Pato back to health. The knee and thigh problems that dogged him in Italy are a thing of the past. The impish forward played 157 games in his three years back in the Brasileirão. (Due to the archaic presence of the state championships alongside the national league, the majority of top flight Brazilian teams play a minimum of 60 games a season).

However, when Timão signed off on the fee and the salary to bring 23-year-old Pato back home, they would have been banking on a big sale to recoup their outlay. This partially explains the naked desperation of their actions in their attempts to auction him. Every other day, Corinthians were linking his name to prestigious English clubs to create the illusion of interest. They hired Kia Joorabchian, representative to the likes of David Luiz, Ramires, Oscar and the man who bought Mascherano and Tevez to Brazil, utilising his network of contacts to create interest.

Corinthians’ CEO Roberto de Andrade confessed this week that the deal to send him on loan to Chelsea was less than satisfactory and that they have merely ‘parked’ a significant headache. Because the transfer to Corinthians turned into a disaster, despite a goal on his debut and a goal in his first Libertadores match for the club. It is difficult to imagine a player / coach mismatch as pronounced as Alexandre (pronounced “Aleshandre”) Pato and Tite. Tite is a coach that demands a high energy approach, counter attacking at speed and tactical discipline. Pato is an individual capable of moments of inspiration, but with a low physical threshold.

To compound matters, Pato was largely played as a lone striker in the 2013 season. He lacked the physicality for such a role and frustrated his manager with his low intensity. Corinthians registered possibly the most tedious season of football ever served up by a single team in the 2013 season. They finished 10th, scoring only 27 goals and conceding 22 in their 38 league games. They were involved in ten 0-0 draws. It was eye watering fare, not only tactically alien to a player like Pato, but bereft of the sort of imagination and inspiration he likes to provide. He is not a tactical player, he is a ‘moments’ player.

This could have simply been viewed as a strategic mismatch and another illustration of Brazilian board of directors’ largesse. Brasileirão is pockmarked by expensively acquired ‘marquee’ signings, with little thought given to how they might fit into a team. Often these signings are made by directors with commercial revenue enlarged in their frontal lobes. Just last year, Fluminense ripped up Ronaldinho’s contract after nine matches when it became clear that shirt sales alone could not justify the presence of a wheezing passenger.

However, Pato rather complicated the situation with reports of a lax attitude to training. Initially, as he floundered, his coach defended him publicly. In May 2013, Pato missed two presentable chances in a league match with Goías, earning opprobrium from the club’s supporters.

“This pressure comes from his high transfer fee. But football is not only about money,” argued Tite defensively, “If it was just about money, we would not have won Libertadores last year.” In early June, he again suffered a profligate performance in front of goal against Cruzeiro.

Again, Tite jumped to his defence, “I always look at the other side. It is necessary to recognise that (Cruzeiro goalkeeper) Fábio had a very good game, it was his merit. If Pato had missed, I would ask him to improve. But today was Fábio’s credit.”

However, Tite’s patience snapped in September. After an injury time 1-0 defeat to Botafogo in Rio, a game in which Pato was a 69th minute substitute, Tite prepared to read his ailing team the riot act. Pato was not present for the team meeting called for the next day. He stayed in Rio because had tickets to see Beyonce perform at the Rock in Rio festival.

Pato found himself on the bench with regularity as relations with Tite became glacial. In October Corinthians played out yet another 0-0 draw with Grêmio in the Copa do Brasil quarter-final, sending the game to a penalty shootout. Pato was Timão’s fifth taker and needed to score to keep the shootout alive. He attempted a ‘Panenka’, which was weakly executed and easily read by his ex-Milan teammate Dida. The club’s only chance of silverware and of a Libertadores spot (in Brazil, the Copa do Brasil winners qualify for the Libertadores) disappeared. Tite’s patience snapped.

The manager reportedly raged at his hapless striker, brandishing him “an irresponsible kid.” 48 hours later, Gazeta Esportiva newspaper ran a poll asking whether Pato ought to be sold, to which 87% of respondents replied in the affirmative. The running of this poll and the leaking of Tite’s seething rage felt like something of a stitch up. It was clear Corinthians wanted to cut ties, but Pato was considered damaged goods. There was simply no prospect of selling him and recouping any of their £12m outlay. In January 2014, angry Corinthians fans burst into the training ground with iron bars, demanding to be directed to the ex-Milan forward. He simply could not stay.

In February 2014, a two year loan deal was agreed with city rivals São Paulo, with playmaker Jádson moving in the opposite direction. During his two years at São Paulo, Pato’s form improved, but only relatively. He progressed from poor to inconsistent. He started slowly under Muricy Ramalho, finding himself on the bench behind Luis Fabiano and Allan Kardec, which ended his fading hopes of World Cup selection. (He was last capped for Brazil in October 2013, trialled as a false 9 by Scolari). But during June and July of 2014, he threatened renaissance, scoring 7 in 9 matches. Ramalho’s criticism of Pato was a little more measured than Tite, which Pato appeared to respond to.

Football today gives much more importance to the team, and that’s what he needs to realise,” Ramalho opined, “The word team is essential, and so it is necessary to work all the time. It is important to run without the ball, and he has to understand that. He has talent, but needs to put that thought in my head that is fundamental. You see the big players running 13 km per game, helping without the ball.”

However, that brief scoring run seemed to end once the European transfer window closed and, once again, clubs passed up on gambling on his talent. Corinthians continued to try to auction him, they had an agreement with São Paulo that they could terminate the loan in the event of concrete interest from European clubs. At the end of 2014, São Paulo signed Kaká on loan and his stardust appeared to rub off on Pato and especially Ganso, as the Paulista club briefly threatened to challenge runaway champions Cruzeiro for the title.

However, Pato ended the season with a pulled hamstring. He struggled to relocate his mojo in early 2015. Happily, he did find a nurturing presence in the manager’s hotseat. Ramalho had left the club, citing health issues, replaced by Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio. With Kardec and Luis Fabiano injured, Pato shouldered much of the centre forward burden alone as his Timão hell threatened to repeat itself. Pato confided in Osorio that he did not enjoy the physical rigours of the central striker role, so Osorio relocated him, indulging him with a free role from the left. Here, Pato was given creative license and little defensive responsibility.

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This suited Pato, his form improved and talk of a recall to the Seleção recirculated. Indeed, the player, who is often critiqued for low self-esteem, embarked upon an atypical public relations bid to win his place back in the national side. With the likes of Robinho and Diego Tardelli removed from Dunga’s radar in China, Pato sensed an opening.

“I don’t see anybody better than me,” he chirped, “I can help either as a false nine or out wide on the right or left. But that will depend on Dunga.” Unfortunately for Pato, Dunga rather shares Tite’s sergeant major approach to football management and Pato’s carefully scripted words fell on deaf ears.

35-year-old Santos forward Ricardo Oliveira was preferred, with Hulk recalled from the international wilderness. The day Dunga’s squad was announced and Pato was omitted, São Paulo played a home match against struggling Chapocoense. It was the only Brasileirão game scheduled for that evening, attracting a larger than usual television audience as a result. This was Pato’s chance to throw Dunga’s decision into question. Pato floundered and was substituted after 57 minutes as São Paulo whimpered to a 0-0 draw. Dunga would have rested easily in his armchair that evening.

Pato was substituted 16 times last season by Tricolor, only one of those occasions owing to injury. This illustrates his low intensity and poor energy levels. In terms of ability, Pato, still only 26, is by far and away the most talented player in the division. His inconsistency grates as a result. It’s difficult to shake the impression that he just doesn’t try hard enough often enough.

He did however refuse a huge salary in China to play for Chelsea. A move back to Europe has been his ambition ever since he packed his bindle and returned home to rebuild his career. Maybe this new opportunity at Stamford Bridge will prove to be the jump cables for his ailing career, but Chelsea’s strength and conditioning team might have their work cut out for the next few weeks at least to bring him up to speed.

Tim is a columnist for Arseblog.

@Stillberto; @The_False_Nine

Three Caribbean stand-outs at 2015 Gold Cup

Nathan Carr of Caribbean Football looks back at three of the standout Caribbean performers from the recent Gold Cup…

Duckens Nazon – Haiti – 21 – Striker

Haiti scored two goals in the tournament and Duckens Nazon got both of them. The 21-year-old, who was born in Paris but has Haitian roots, came off the bench against Panama in Group A’s opener and made an instant impact: latching onto a long pass, turning his marker inside out and finishing with aplomb. It was a lovely individual goal and made people sit up and take notice. Six days later Nazon was given a starting spot against Honduras and he rewarded manager Marc Collat with another goal, a less clean strike this time but just as important. Les Grenadiers subsequently advanced to the last eight, albeit they lost to eventual finalists Jamaica 1-0. Nazon’s achievements at the Gold Cup are doubly impressive considering he was on the verge of quitting football altogether a year ago, when he was playing at amateur level in France. Receiving a call-up to the Haitian U-21s gave him hope and then in March 2014, he made his senior international bow in a 0-0 draw with Kosovo. Nazon has developed at a rapid rate ever since. At the moment he is contracted to Stade Laval having only recently put pen to paper with the Ligue 2 club. Speaking on securing a place in the Laval first team, Nazon explained: “These two goals [at the Gold Cup] are a bonus for me.” It will be interesting to see if he can maintain his Gold Cup form for the World Cup qualifiers, which begin in early September. Continue reading

Nenê – a forgotten artefact of Allardyce’s West Ham dynasty

Charles Pulling profiles Nenê, West Ham’s already forgotten Brazilian from the 2014-15 season…

In 2011, workmen expanding a road in eastern China discovered the mummified remains of a woman dating back 700 years. It was, in terms of the quality of the find and its location one of the most stunning Ming-era discoveries in recent times, a perfectly preserved echo of a long fallen dynasty.

Also in 2011, another altogether less lauded dynasty began in east London. The Allardyce-era at West Ham United may not have stretched over centuries, but for many of the Upton Park faithful the all-too-often turgid, grinding performances may have felt something close to a lifetime in length. And so, with the ominous boos reverberating around Upton Park, ‘Big Sam’ was afforded no reward for securing West Ham’s Premier League status for a third season running and the sun came down on the Allardyce dynasty.

Now, with optimism, a new manager, an impending move to a fancy new stadium and Europa League sojourns West Ham seems a happier, more contented place, despite a ball barely being kicked in anger. But what of the relics of the past four years? What do they tell us?

One of the more rarer finds whilst sifting through the wreckage is the name Nenê, a name that stands out in contrast to the more ‘meat and potato’ Allardyce players such as Nolan or Downing. The name is barely a footnote. Understandable considering the man from São Paulo spent little over three months parking his car at the ‘Academy of Football.’ Continue reading

Fernando – Manchester City’s ponderer from Porto

Stephen Tudor of The Daisy Cutter looks back at Fernando’s difficult first year at Manchester City…

Manchester City’s swoop for Porto’s midfield enforcer Fernando Francisco Reges was long mooted so there was little surprise when he eventually put pen to paper on a £12m switch in the summer of 2014.

What was surprising was finding out how many Blues regularly enjoyed Primeira Liga games, foregoing Sky’s domestic Super Sunday offering or a marquee La Liga or Serie A clash in favour of sourcing Vitória de Guimarães v Porto on a jumpy stream. Let’s be quite clear here: these honest folk did not simply watch a few highlight reels on YouTube. They were ardent aficionados of Portuguese football which, by default, made their assessment of the 25 year old Brazilian worth listening to. They definitely didn’t just watch YouTube clips.

What they told us was here was a serious upgrade on Javi Garcia, City’s popular but slow-as-ketchup midfield anchor who was in the process of being shipped off to Zenit. Fernando was a ferocious combination of Latin nous and bruising endeavour and, considering our FFP restrictions, we had landed ourselves a real bargain. Continue reading

Fernandinho – Manchester City’s Midfield Dynamo

Stephen Tudor of The Daisy Cutter profiles Fernandinho after two hit-and-miss seasons at Manchester City…

Thirty-four million quid was an awful lot of money to be shelling out for a box-to-box midfielder most Manchester City supporters were only familiar with from Champions League highlights, but a need for quality in that role trumped any financial consideration. The recently deposed champions were well-stocked with engine room functionality but fell noticeably short on urgency and general ferreting, someone my dad would call a ‘busy bugger’ with sufficient drive to squiggle over the predictable lines and break into the opposition area while having enough in his legs to make it back when the move broke down. A Yaya Toure, if you like, with the work-rate of a man without a hobby.

Fernandinho was precisely this player and more, and swiftly established himself as a fan’s favourite for playing exactly how we would if handed a shirt.

For his opening campaign he was everywhere, a one-man dynamo who additionally possessed the priceless ability to gauge exactly where a referee’s line in the sand was. Time and again we saw it, an early cruncher earning a warning followed by a series of mini-crunchers that tested the official’s tolerance but rarely resulted in a card. For such a tenacious, scrappy player it really is a gift. Continue reading

INTERVIEW: James Baldwin – From Gloucestershire to North Sweden

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Ben Sibley speaks to semi-professional footballer James Baldwin, an Englishman playing his trade in the Swedish second division…

We’re forever being asked ‘Why would an English player move abroad? Why would they when they have it so good here?’ Whilst this is undoubtedly true for full-time professional players, it is not so for part-time semi-professional players. The difficulties balancing in England part-time football and full-time work has led a growing number of players to pursue other routes to the professional game. The two most trodden paths are West, across the Atlantic to America, and North, across the North Sea to Scandinavia.

Almost 1,000 kilometers north of Stockholm lies the Swedish coastal city of Luleå. For 26 year-old English footballer James Baldwin, this is home. A graduate of the esteemed Hartpury College, James’ journey to professional football has taken him from the sleepy Cotswold town of Nailsworth to within 200 kilometers of the arctic circle. After spending the 2014 season with Östersunds FK in the Swedish Superettan (the second highest league in the country’s league system), James moved north to join IFK Luleå – the city’s most successful football team. Here, he takes us from the very beginning through to the present.

Hartpury University and the World University Games

How important was your time at Hartpury University?

“Going to Hartpury provided me with every opportunity that has led to me living the life I do now. It gave me a feel for the professional environment in terms of the coaching, facilities and training every morning. I was lucky enough to captain the university team the last time they won the BUCS National Championships – my time there gave me confidence to make decisions and not be afraid to voice my opinion – something I might not have done if I was in a professional setup.”

Your performances for Hartpury eventually led to you representing Great British Universities at the 2013 World University Games in Kazan, Russia – did you enjoy the experience?

“It was the best experience of my life. Being part of something so big – with a TV audience of millions – playing against Russia in front of 15,000 people in the semi-final and France in the final was unforgettable. The majority of the teams in the competition consisted of players who had been capped at U21 and U23 levels – for a group of non-league players from Britain to come back with a silver medal was really a great achievement.” Continue reading

Gabriel Paulista – Arsenal’s Silent Tornado from Brazil

The Samba Series returns as Arseblog columnist Tim Stillman profiles Arsenal’s latest Brazilian, Gabriel Paulista…

The career path of Gabriel Armando de Abreu has genuflected the man’s qualities as a defender. Understated, unfussy yet impressive. A quiet and humble family man, Gabriel has spent much of his career under the radar. His rise over the last two years has been stratospheric, but you would never guess from the rugged centre half’s almost expressionless demeanour. Somebody at Arsenal once told me that Wenger was finished with signing Brazilian players. He had had his fingers burned with the likes of André Santos and Denilson. Culturally, countless Brazilians have failed to come to terms with the rigorousness of European sporting culture.

In Brazil, if you’re two hours late, you’re early. This has led to many a Brazilian player on the wrong side of his manager for his time keeping where training is concerned. Shortly after the signing of Gabriel, Wenger told the press that natives of São Paulo, like Gabriel, tend to be more conscientious than their carioca cousins in Rio de Janeiro. It was a slightly disappointing generalisation on the manager’s part, not least when one considers that Santos, Julio Baptista and Denilson, three of his most acute Brazilian disappointments, are paulistas. But within that unintentional cultural stereotype, Wenger’s impression of Gabriel was clear.

For all of the famed stories of bleary eyed Brazilians showing up at training a few pounds overweight, wearing shades to conceal bloodshot eyes, there are a plethora of Brazilian players that have demonstrated great humility and professionalism. Continue reading