Who’s your favourite brazilian footballer? If you’re my age, it’s probably Ronaldo or Ronaldinho. If you’re older, maybe it’s Romario, Socrates, maybe even Pelé himself. And if you’re too young to remember the times when Zidane had any hair on his head, I’m guessing it’s Neymar. It’s all too logical; they’re the deadly strikers, the tricky wingers, the magic number 10s. But what if told you there’s another kind of Brazilian magician?
From a tactical standpoint, it’s hard to argue that Brazil’s greatest contribution to the game so far has been the 4-2-4, and the conception of the attacking full backs with it. It is very much the stereotypical Brazilian futebol, a string of hugely talented and tricky attackers going all out on the opponent with little regard or regret. Except hidden inside there is a player with all that flair, but cut to a different mould: the Segundo Volante.
Second to none
So, what does that expression mean? Segundo Volante. “Segundo” it’s rather easy, it’s the portuguese word for “second”; volante… volante it’s a bit more tricky. Brace yourselves, we’re about to hitch a ride in the historical rollercoaster.
Carlos Volante was an Argentine midfielder of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Born in the city of Lanús in 1905 he debuted for the club of the same name in 1924. The son of Italian immigrants, he got a move to Napoli in 1931 and went on to play for several european clubs in Italy and France. In 1938, fearing the threat of WW2, he moved to Flamengo after some brazilian friends convinced him to play his trade over there.
The man who started it all, Carlos Martín Volante. He would retire in 1943 and become a coach, managing sides like Internacional of Porto Alegre, Vitória and Bahía, with whom he won the Brazilian Cup in 1959
His arrival coincided with the short but immensely relevant stay at the club of Hungarian coach Dori Kürschner, who was attempting to apply the highly structured WM to Brazil’s typically free flowing game. Kürschner deployed him as one of the halfbacks, and even though the Magyar was out by September of that year, Volante was highly successful. His style as a rugged, combative ball-winning midfielder with a never-say-die attitude was both surprising and illuminating for Brazilian football. So much so that other managers, looking for his players to emulate that, would tell them to “play as Volante”. From there the expression has grown to conquer all of South America, where it came to mean any midfielder. Even now, when in Brazil they use the expressions “cabeça de área” (18-yard box leader) and “meio-armador” (playmaking midfielder), here in Argentina we say “volante de contención” and “volante creativo”, quite literally “holding midfielder” and “creative midfielder”.
So that explains the “volante” part, but why “segundo”? Back into the rollercoaster we go. As Kürschner was sacked following a string of bad results, the Flamengo job went to the Hungarian’s assistant (and former player-manager of the club), Flávio Costa. It was largely expected that he’d drop the WM, but he instead opted to tweak it. He rotated the square formed by the four midfielders, so one of the halfbacks would drop in front of the back 3 (a role that would come to be known as the quarto zagueiro, a ball playing centreback) and one of the inside forwards would advance to sit right behind the front 3 (creating the traditional ponta da lança role) and the set-up came to be known as the diagonal.
Izidor “Dori” Kürschner was a successful player in Hungary before becoming a coach. He died in 1941 in Brazil from a heart attack, never knowing he had laid the foundations of a 3 time World Cup winning side.
As the 4-2-4 developed from that system, a 2-man midfield was formed by the remaining players, a “primeiro” (or first) volante and our man, the “segundo” (or second) volante. The reason as to why each took its name is less clear, but reading a bit of football history it’s not hard to hypothesize an explanation. When Kürschner implemented the WM in Brazil he did it not by dropping the centrehalf between the fullbacks (as it happened in England) but rather by dropping the left half into the defence. That way, the two half backs were number 5 and 4, and when Costa and other coaches implemented the diagonal, it was numbers 5 and 8 which formed the midfield. As such, anyone reading the team sheet list would have read the midfield as 5, the first midfielder, and 8, the second midfielder, primeiro and segundo volante.
The team that won the 1970 World Cup was in many ways the culmination of the process that started with Kürschner’s arrival to Flamengo, and for the Segundo Volante, the coronation of arguably it’s greatest exponent, Gérson de Oliveira Nunes, better known simply as Gérson.
The Brazilian National Team for the 1970 World Cup. To many, the best there ever were.
The first player to have taken the role of segundo volante on the international level was probably Zizinho, as the deep inside forward on the right in the diagonal played by Brazil’s 1950 WC side, the same role he had occupied in Flavio Costa’s Flamengo. Much more of a dribbler than those who would follow, his skillset and quality were such that when he missed Brazil’s second match of the 1950 World Cup vs. Switzerland the home team struggled to break down the deep defense of the Swiss. Even years later, Bela Guttmann would sign the then 34yo Brazilian from small side Bangu for his Sao Paulo side to take the role of the creative midfielder in the 4-2-4 he was looking to implement. That side would go on to win that year’s Paulista Championship, and Zizinho would become a Sao Paulo legend.
His successor in the national team, Didi, was much more defined in his role as a midfielder. An elegant passer of the ball, he dictated tempo while also helping the defense. He had a cold head and a smart reading of the game, and also possessed a killer mid-range shot, inventing the folha seca free kick style, most famously used in the modern times by Cristiano Ronaldo and Juninho Pernambucano. The man who would succeed him would take the position even further.
The man himself, Gérson de Oliveira Nunes. He left Flamengo after being forcibly assigned the ungrateful task of man-marking Garrincha, and joined a star studded Botafogo side. The mysterious connection between great midfielders and terrible hair remains indecipherable.
Born into a footballers family, Gérson has often said that he had wanted to become a footballer ever since he was a child. In those days his hero was actually one of his dad’s friends, none other than Zizinho himself; however, as he grew and his passing ability and intelligence began to shine, his eyes turned to the man he’d replace in the National Team: Didi. Nicknamed Canhotinha de Ouro (Golden Left Foot) thanks to his powerful long range shot, his performance in the 1966 World Cup went largely unnoticed as Brazil transitioned from one generation to the next, but he was the mastermind behind the win in 1970. Therefore, let’s take a look at Gérson’s mastery of the position to understand how it works and why it was key to the 1970 World Champions.
Gérson and the 4-2-4
As previously noted, that Brazil team played with what you could call the definitive version of the Brazilian 4-2-4, the culmination of a process that had started almost 30 years prior.
The back four was perfectly balanced. On the right, Carlos Alberto, a fullback very much in the same mould as Nilton Santos, had greater license to push forwards, whilst on the opposing flank Everaldo acted as a counterweight. Standing at 1.89m (6’2), centreback Hércules Brito offered aerial capabilities; next to him, the much shorter Wilson Piazza played as a defensive midfielder for Cruzeiro and was the perfect quarto zagueiro, allowing the team to bring the ball from the back.
In the mid, Gérson played on the left next to a much more defensive player in Clodoaldo, who stood on the right and covered for Carlos Alberto’s marauding runs. It’s interesting to see how, in the same way we can see the role of the Segundo Volante develop through the years, a similar progression can be seen with the more defensive of the partners. In 1950 it was Danilo Alvim who stood between Zizinho and the quarto zagueiro, an elegant, long passing midfielder, much more similar to Gérson himself than a modern day holding midfielder. Eight years later, when Didi took on the role of Brazil’s midfield orchestrator, he did it with Zito by his side, a much more defensively minded, combative player, but still a marvelous technician who dictated tempo in Pelé’s Santos as he barked orders and lead the team. It was only with his successor (both at Santos and on the National Team), Clodoaldo that the position became a mostly defensive, positional role. As an article on the Brazilian football magazine Placar points out: “[Clodoaldo], always calm and strong, was a master of ball recovery and excellent on support, becoming one of the first cabeça de areas of Brazil”. We can maybe put him, then, as the starting point of a long line of rugged and talented Brazilian holding midfielders, including Dunga, Gilberto Silva and Fernandinho.
Clodoaldo was just 21 years old when the 1970 World Cup came around. Sitting next to a wise mind such as Gérson’s, he shone by his own right, becoming one of the revelations of the tournament.
Up front, four of the most creative players in that era combined. Jairzinho started wide on the right, cutting inside to create space for Carlos Alberto’s runs, while the industrious Rivellino positioned himself a bit deeper, in a role similar to that which Mario Zagallo (who coached the side) occupied in 1958. In the middle, Pelé and Tostão, both ponta da lanças in their teams (Santos and Cruzeiro), started together, with O Rei usually starting deeper to find space and attacking from there, and the Cruzeiro man dropping off in the attacking phase, but pushing forwards when Brazil lost the ball.
Gérson’s role was about linking those around him, and making the team work. As Jonathan Wilson notes in “Inverting the Pyramid”, “Gérson spent hours practising clipping diagonal balls for Jairzinho to run onto, in effect calibrating his left foot, making adjustments for the thinness of the Mexican air”.
Gérson carried the ball forwards into the space left by the Italian defence. They allowed him to operate all match long, focusing instead on the front four, which allowed the midfielder to pick and choose passes everytime (1). After an Italian attack, Gérson carries the ball forwards from the back. He constantly set up plays from deep (2). Through the match he would look for teammates in space and find them with long passes from his fantastic left foot (3); Carlos Alberto was one of his go-to options (4), as the right fullback often found himself in acres of space (5).
He would take the ball deep and look to advance it, either via long passes or with dribbling runs forwards, as the attacking quartet stretched the defense and looked to find space so Gérson would find them.
Carrying the ball forwards into space (1), Gérson spots an opening an signals for Carlos Alberto to run into space (2). As the fullback advances, the midfield maestro places a weighted pass forwards (3), for a first touch cross from the defender. (4).
Not only that, but he would also often the opponent’s box, either arriving late from deep or carrying the ball forwards with intent, looking to exploit any gaps created by the fear his teammates drove into the defender’s hearts with a quick lay off or (as he did in the 1970 World Cup final), launching a powerful shot with his left foot from the edge of the area.
Carlos Alberto spots Gérson running into space and finds him with a switching pass (1). Gérson receives and attacks the box, resulting in a chance for one of the strikers (2). His 66th minute goal in the finale came in similar fashion, as he picked up a rebound (3), and created space for a shot from his left foot (4). Italian goalkeeper Albertosi could do nothing but lament as Canhotinha de Ouro put a magnificent shot past him (5).
Crucially, he was also a volante, and there he aided the defense at all times. As Sandro Mazzola would quickly find out, his forward runs didn’t mean he left Clodoaldo exposed, but rather they formed a solid duo guarding their centre backs, combining the cabeça de area’s strength and speed with Gérson’s positional awareness and intelligence.
Gérson often found himself recovering space to tackle the Italian attackers (1). Very aware positionally however, his forays into the opposing half were aided by Everaldo’s more cautious approach (2). Still, when the Italians attack on the front foot, the tandem of Gérson and Clodoaldo was very balanced and calm in defense (3).
He was, in many regards, a total midfielder, and the perfect man to make that highly skilled team work.
A secret weapon
The Segundo Volante was added as a role in FM18, as yet another option in the DM slot. When used correctly, he can prove an all-round influence and, as Gérson, the brain behind a great offence. It is, however, a highly demanding role, requiring a player that not only excels in many areas of the game (passing, dribbling, shooting, defending) but also has the stamina and mental awareness to perform all of those tasks.
In order to try it out I asked my friend FM Stag for some help. He’s been trying to emulate legends for a while now in his Dictate the Game series “Mirror the Magic”, so I asked him, who could be the modern day Gérson? He was an excellent passer, very aware of his surroundings, so we’re looking for a player with high Passing, Vision and Anticipation. He was also very good with the ball at his feet, and covered a lot of ground so high Dribbling, Flair and Technique. Defensively, although he relied on his partner to do most of the work, he was also very competent, so decent Tackling, Marking and Positioning. As for weaknesses, he was of very languid physique so mediocre Strength, Speed, though he did cover a lot of ground, so Stamina, Balance and Agility should be decent.
Out of the several candidates he kindly went through for me, I went with Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Joao Moutinho. I chose him for two reasons. One, his lanky, elegant presence on the pitch really reminded me of Gérson’s own field panache; and two, he plays in a team with enough quality to play with a fairly offensive style, but also not a side too dominant so it overpowers the rest of the league.
This is the way I set up Wolves. I feel there are definetely some things we could work on, but as a fast and loose recreation of the tactic it works, and should be able to extract big performances from Moutinho. Indeed, he quickly became one of the team’s best and most consistent performers, with a 7.52 average rating by the end of December. Let’s take a look at some of the keys for this.
Moutinho has been for Wolverhampton, like Gérson was for that Brazil team, a prime creator. He is currently 2nd on the list for assists within the club, with 10. The reason for it can be seen on this graphic combining his passes, key passes and heat map in a 3-0 win vs Southampton at Molyneaux.
The combinations map for that very same match shows how important he’s been for the Wolves’ passing game, receiving from deep and combining with the strikers and wingers.
In the same way, he hasn’t been neglecting his defensive responsibilities. Taking a look at his average position compared to his midfield partner (Leander Dendoncker), in a 2-2 draw at Leicester we can see he’s been taking a stand in the middle of the part without the ball. A demonstration of his tackles and interceptions in that same match when combined with his heat map shows the amount of ground he’s been covering.
In terms of drives forwards with the ball, the best example I can give is his run vs. Sevilla in a key Europa League match, as he takes the ball from left-back Kilman and runs forwards to score the sole goal of the match at the Sánchez Pizjuan.
Whilst going all out on a mission with a Brazil-like 4-2-4 and a player of Moutinho’s quality might not be within reach for every team, I hope this shows how much of a deadly weapon the Segundo Volante can be when correctly used.
So keep your eyes open the next time your scouts return from Brazil with the latest and greatest newgens, you might find the juiciest catch is not the next Pelé, but Gérson’s heir.