Brazilian giants Flamengo had a taste of excellence with Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus — and now they want some more. The new boss is Domenec Torrent, who spent the 2018-19 in charge of New York City FC, but is best known for the decade he spent as assistant to Pep Guardiola. The clear hope is that some of that Guardiola magic will rub off in Rio de Janeiro.
The option to hire a Spanish coach is both highly exciting and a little bit worrying.
One of the key dates in the recent history of Brazilian football is December 18th, 2011, when Santos — spearheaded by the teenage Neymar took on Guardiola’s Barcelona — and were brushed aside with ridiculous ease. Both the 4-0 scoreline and the way it was achieved came as a huge shock to the Brazilian game. What Barcelona did — a possession-based game full of small, agile midfielders — had been regarded as obsolete in Brazil, where the dominant belief was that the physical development of the sport made it necessary to fill the team with tall players and go on the counter attack.
In the post-match press conference, Guardiola stuck in the stiletto. His team, he said, treated the ball the way that, according to his grandfather, Brazil used to do. Torrent was on Guardiola’s coaching staff, and followed him to Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
Brazilian club football proved unable — and in many cases unwilling — to respond to the challenge of Guardiola. This helps explain the success of Jorge Jesus with Flamengo — a triumph measured not just by the national and South American titles, but chiefly by the way they were achieved. Jesus played a high defensive line and camped his team in the opponent’s half, pressing when they lost the ball, and able to construct quick passing moves when they won possession. All this is standard practice in top class European football, which has been so influenced by Guardiola. But in Brazil it was as if Flamengo had invented gunpowder.
Hiring Guardiola’s former assistant, then, is an important admission from Brazil’s leading club that the local culture has much to learn. There were times when Brazilian football led the world in tactical terms — the country invented the back four, for example. But, perhaps sated by success, the local game became lazy and needs to catch up.
But herein lies a problem. Not everyone agrees. Many Brazilian coaches and some in the local media are clearly uncomfortable with the current fashion for foreign coaches. Chief among them is former national team and Real Madrid boss Vanderlei Luxemburgo, currently in charge of Palmeiras. “Guardiola is more marketing than coach,” he declared on a TV show in October 2016. Should Torrent fall short of expectations, Luxemburgo will certainly not be the only one to celebrate. Many in Brazil will feel vindicated.
Torrent has a hard act to follow in Jorge Jesus — and lacks some of the advantages of his Portuguese predecessor.
Firstly, he has less experience. The function and responsibilities of the head coach are very different from those of the assistant. True, he had taken charge of teams before backing up Guardiola. And since then, of course, came his successful spell in New York. But in terms of pressure and media scrutiny there is no comparison between coaching an MLS club and the most popular team in a football-crazy country like Brazil.
Moreover, Jorge Jesus could take advantage of a crucial and extremely rare commodity when he took over at Flamengo in the middle of last year — time. The domestic game shut down for a few weeks while Brazil hosted the Copa America. Jorge Jesus had a prolonged period to work with his players on the training ground, and to study his opponents. Torrent, in contrast, goes straight into the deep end. His first game is on August 9th, in the opening round of the Brazilian Championship, at home to Atletico Mineiro, who are looking in fine form under Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli.
Assuming the national league and the Copa Libertadores go ahead as planned, the matches will be coming thick and fast. Torrent will have to get on top of his new job quickly — and show results both to Flamengo fans who have become accustomed to success with style, and to those who will seeking to find fault with his every decision.
This is the consequence of spending a decade as assistant to Guardiola. Torrent is already 58. He is in a hurry to make a name for himself as head coach. Flamengo offer him a fast track to glory — and the risk of being derailed.