The sacking of Scolari is an extreme case of football’s flawed decision making

The remarkably star-studded managerial class of this season’s Campeonato Brasileiro recently lost its most famous member in Luiz Felipe Scolari. Big Phil was sacked when Palmeiras sat third in the league and had some of the best defensive statistics in Brazil. A look at the numbers reveals an extreme case of flawed decision making.

Written by Erik Elias.

In July 2018, Scolari took over a Palmeiras team that ranked seventh in the Campeonato Brasileiro, with fifteen of thirty-eight games having been played. The appointment was greeted with a bit of cynicism in Brazil, as Scolari was still very much associated with the country’s humiliating 7-1 defeat against Germany in 2014. As a veteran of three World Cups, Scolari was not seen as experienced, but frankly, as old. Add in the fact that his last domestic league title came as far back as 1996 with Grêmio and his last stint as Palmeiras manager (2010-2012) was quite unsuccessful, and it is clear to see how Brazil’s opinionated voices welcomed Big Phil back to Brazil.

Boy, were those critics wrong. In the remaining 23 matches of the 2018 league season, Palmeiras won the league and gathered a whopping 57 points, which clocks in at the incredible rate of 2.48 points per game. Palmeiras did not lose a single league match in 2018 with Scolari at the helm. All of this was achieved while also reaching the Copa Libertadores semi-final, which was lost against Boca Juniors. 

This season, they continued to look quite the solid football team. Palmeiras started the season with sixteen points from six games, led the league easily in both goals scored and least amount of goals conceded. After the league took a break because of the Copa América, things started to go south. The seven league games Palmeiras played after the break yielded only five points, meanwhile they were knocked out of the Copa do Brasil on penalties and crashed out of the Copa Libertadores

Now, that’s not a pretty spell of games. However, it would be a major problem if underlying performance numbers would drop accordingly. In terms of expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. conceded and created, the chart looks like this.

You probably notice the red line going down remarkably fast after Scolari made his entrance as Palmeiras manager. That means the volume and quality of chances for the opponent to score goals went down as soon as he took over, while the offensive department remained steady. As you can see, at the very end of Scolari’s reign, the xG against and the xG for crept together a little bit, but not at all in a way that would justify sacking the manager.

Defensive organization under Scolari

As you can see in the chart, by the time Scolari was fired, the defense was still performing at a level that was unseen in the past five years at the club, without sacrificing offensive output. The way Palmeiras achieved this was not that uncommon: put together a solid defensive organization and rely on individual quality up front.

Even though a lot of managers in Brazil attempt to follow this model – pressing is rare and 4-2-3-1 is the most common formation – Palmeiras were the most successful team in doing so. Scolari’s team put up a zonal 4-2-3-1 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. when the opposing team commenced their buildup, and dropped back into a 4-4-1-1 as soon as they had to defend deep in their own half. 

The way Scolari typically set up Palmeiras. Match against Internacional in May 2019, 24th minute. 

In this 4-2-3-1 shape, the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. was perfectly fitted to perform what Scolari asked of them. Captain Bruno Henrique was allowed to venture a bit further forward in possession, but mostly protected the back four together with Felipe Melo. You might remember him from some crazy red card he picked up at one point in his career, but most of all, he is still a really solid defensive midfielder. 

Number ten Gustavo Scarpa was able to do a bit of everything, supporting striker Deyverson in possession, as well as cutting off pass lines by using his cover shadow When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. when Palmeiras were defending in their medium block. Dynamics on the left were different than on the right; on the right, Dudu played as a traditional right winger, meaning right back Marcos Rocha rarely overlapped. When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. In our passmaps, Dudu consistently pops up high and wide on the right, while the left winger comes inside more, naturally meaning left back Diogo Barbosa went further forward than Rocha. 

Nothing too fancy or special, but doing the basics right off the ball and having a good squad relative to the opposition can get you very far. Which is exactly what happened here, considering the defensive statistics Palmeiras can boast, while their attacking numbers are decent too. At the time of Scolari’s sacking, Palmeiras were second in the league when it comes to expected goals for, only bested by Flamengo.

This should not at all be common

Scolari was fired because of a spell of seven league games wherein his defensive brand of football resulted in more losses and draws than wins – while underlying data suggests everything was fine. Add in some unlucky knockout football exits (which can be even more random!) and it is clear Scolari can feel hard done by here. 

Let this sink in: after his first (!) back-to-back loss in regular time, and only the second league game Scolari lost since July 2018 (!!), he was fired.

Sure, it’s Brazil. Emotions run evten deeper in the decision-making departments than they do in Europe, and your first reflex might be a shrug, and the good ol’ line ‘Ah well, that’s just how it goes in football.’ 

Well, yes, indeed, it is just how it goes in football. But that does not mean it should be the way it goes. The fact Scolari was fired after one of those common streaks of inefficient finishing by a team – combined with efficient finishing by the opponent – is a strong example of chasing the noise, and not the signal. 

The low-scoring nature of the game can make football results random and hard to predict. Judging the performance of a manager solely on results means as a club, you’re making decisions based on narratives, and not on underlying longer-term trends, which you can detect by studying the data or by doing good tactical analysis. In this case, both would have been quite beneficial for Palmeiras.

Erik Elias (27) is co-founder and chief editor of Between The Posts. Dutch, so admires Johan Cruijff and his football principles, but enjoys writing about other styles as well. Former youth coach. Videoscout at digital scouting consultancy 11tegen11. 'Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.' [ View all posts ]


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