April 25, 2013
The Frog Princes

The marathon that is the first phase of the Campeonato Paulista has finally come to a close. After nineteen rounds of games, the bread and butter of the competition will begin this weekend. The usual suspects are among the eight qualified teams in the playoffs as all big four teams booked their places. However, of the state giants, only Santos and São Paulo replicated their stature on the league table as Corinthians and Palmeiras finished fifth and sixth respectively. Fourth place belonged to Ponte Preta. The defensively solid and well-drilled counterattacking Serie A team from Campinas will be a force to reckon with in the last eight. The title of best placed time do interior went to Mogi Mirim who finished second just two points behind São Paulo. The presence of the newly minted Serie C side in the last eight—not to mention finishing that far up the table—was completely unexpected. What makes it even more impressive is that O Sapão (The Frog) eschewed the usual reactive template that is ubiquitous in Brazilian football. Mogi looked to play on the front foot with intricate football. 

It was this tactical deviation from the norm that has made them so interesting to watch. A loose 4-2-2-2 formation is the base on which Mogi built their campaign. From that foundation attacks are built around midfield elaboration composed of movement and short passing between the points of the hexagon in front of the defense. The three key vertices of this polygon are the reliable Val in the double pivot, erratic attacking midfielder Roger Gaúcho, and the vibrant Roni up front. This emphasis on keeping the ball, unsurprisingly, is also shown at the back. Mogi’s defensive line—lead by captain Tiago Alves—will look to pass rather than hoof their way out of danger. On the back of this ethos, Mogi was the top  scoring team in the league stage, and possessed the fourth best defensive record.  

Of course, the style is far from perfect given the technical limitations of the squad. Attacking moves have the tendency to break down because of wayward passing and control, while the defense is often left exposed down the flanks by the positional interchange in midfield. It’s difficult to see any player on the team beyond Roni being looked at by bigger clubs. This just serves to further underline how good Mogi’s achievements up to this point have been.

The mind behind this superb campaign is Dado Cavalcanti. The thirty-one year old was hired at the start of the year and is the youngest coach in this year’s Paulistão. He walked an unorthodox path to the technical area. Cavalcanti’s playing career ended at at the tender age of twenty-one after he concluded that he didn’t have what it took to make it as a professional. By age twenty-two, he was the youngest coach in Brazil, and, only two years later, he became the youngest coach to win a title in Brazilian football. (The aforementioned trophy was the state title in Rondônia). Three other trophies and a famous win over Botafogo in the Copa do Brasil with Santa Cruz have been his major coaching milestones since that first taste of success. Triumph in the Campeonato Paulista would dwarf his previous accomplishments by quite some margin. Whatever happens, Cavalcanti is certainly one to keep an eye on in Brazil’s coaching sphere.  

Mogi’s first hurdle in the playoffs comes in the form of Botafogo-SP who they lost to away from home in the league stage. Their high finish in the standings gained them home field advantage against all opponents except São Paulo in the playoffs. With this factor tipped in Mogi’s favor, Cavalcanti’s men will be favorites to progress. If this does come to pass, a meeting with either Palmeiras or Santos in the semifinal awaits.

It’s unlikely that this prospect will be daunting to anyone involved, least of all Dado Cavalcanti. As he said in a recent interview: “It was humility that brought us to this moment and we must remain humble, but, above all, ambitious.” It will be interesting to see how far their ambition and their football will take them. 

[Photo Credit: esportes.terra.com.br ]