Interviews

Let’s Talk: Danilo, the versatile Brazilian on his way to Manchester City (with @BrazilStat)

With a deal for Real Madrid right-back Danilo appearing very close, we spoke to Brazilian football expert @BrazilStat about the 26-year-old – his background, playing style, strengths, weaknesses, and has his spell at Madrid been a true reflection of Danilo’s talents?

After the very abrupt news of Danilo ‘being only a step away’ from joining City, can you tell us a little about the player’s past, and what made Madrid pick him up from Porto in 2015?

Danilo was born in Bicas, a municipality in the state of Minas Gerais. He caught the attention of local side América Mineiro at the age of 12, then gradually progressed to the first team and helped them win the Série C in 2009, before Paulista giants Santos grabbed him shortly after. At Santos, Danilo revealed himself as one of the hottest prospects in the league by pulling high-quality performances at the right-back position, as well as impressing when he was asked to play in midfield, due to team needs. As a matter of fact, he started – and finished – both legs against Peñarol in the 2011 Libertadores final. In the first tie, Danilo operated as central midfielder, in a goalless draw in Montevideo. In the second, he was back to his favorite right-back position, and scored the decisive goal that guided Santos to their first Libertadores triumph since 1963. It was logical that he was selected for the under-20 World Cup, and occupied the right-back spot as a starter throughout the tournament, helping Brazil win the prestigious title for the first time in eight years.

Portuguese giants FC Porto, who have some of the best scouts on the South American continent, were quick to secure his services in January 2012. Upon arrival, the Brazilian found himself warming Cristian Sapunaru’s bench, but was able to outperform him and eventually secure his place. After impressive performances in between 2012 and 2015, the player had become a regular at Brazil’s national team and a Dunga favorite. The 2014/2015 season was the best in Danilo’s career, he started eight successive games for the Seleção, leaving a good impression, and was one of Porto’s main leaders as they beat German giants Bayern 3-1 in the first leg of the Champions League quarter finals. Danilo missed the return leg and Porto were eventually knocked, but he had done his homework and showed enough potential to justify his transfer to Real Madrid.

Was the criticism of Danilo by Madridistas a true reflection of the player? It’s strange that Pep, Conte and Allegri have all chased him at some point this summer, so are we missing something?

In terms of individual performances, the consensus is that Danilo’s transfer to Real Madrid was a failure. Every time Spain international Dani Carvajal was absent, the gap left behind him was visible, a gap that the Brazilian never looked close to filling. However, if we take a look to the situation from a different angle, Danilo has played 55 games in two seasons for arguably the best club in Europe, where he won the Spanish league, two Champions League titles, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. In the UCL final against Atlético Madrid in 2016, Carvajal picked up an early injury, which meant that Danilo would play the second half, and extra time in the biggest game of the continent. And as a matter of fact, the Brazilian’s last-man tackle – which Spanish press described as the million dollar tackle – to deny Griezmann a one-on-one opportunity to kill the game, meant that he was just as decisive as any other teammate in conquering La Undecima.

Yes, Danilo started his Real Madrid adventure in a very discouraging way, but in the second half of the 2016/2017 season, he has arguably shown his best level since joining the club in 2015. His improved performances, besides his glorious past, were no doubt an important factor in attracting some of the top managers in the world. When your competitor is among the best three right-backs in the world, and when you arrive with high expectations, it makes your adaption even more complicated as a player, especially at a club like Real Madrid. The idea of Danilo deserving another chance to revive his Porto days, could have certainly struck Pep Guardiola’s mind.

Do you see him as a typical Pep right-back, in the mould of his Brazilian counterpart Dani Alves?

Danilo is a typical Guardiola right-back, in the sense that when in possession, he likes to cut into a more central position, rather than make constant flying runs down the flank, as, say, Dani Carvajal tends to do. The Brazilian likes to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible, whereas Carvajal likes to drive it forward thanks to his explosiveness and pace. Guardiola appreciates wide-playmakers who help make the back-line more compact. Danilo is almost like a central midfielder, whereas Kyle Walker is almost like a winger. In theory, Danilo’s level is inferior to Dani Alves in terms of playmaking skills. and to Walker in terms of supporting the attack from the wing. However, this variety would perhaps offer Guardiola a ‘Plan A’ and a ‘Plan B’, depending on the circumstances of each game – besides Danilo’s ability to fill in the gap on the left-hand side, whenever needed. It is always good to have such type of players who offer you either something different, or the availability to operate in more than one position – as Pep, typically likes.

Does Danilo have any particular strengths or weaknesses?

At Real Madrid, Danilo looked inconsistent defensively especially in one-on-one situations against pacey wingers. Whereas in terms of supporting the attack, he always looked a step below Carvajal, sometimes pissing-off the fans with a heavy first touch here, and an inaccurate cross there. However, it could be a matter of system-fit. Real Madrid’s play requires and is based on having two dynamic fullbacks making constant runs and delivering the final ball to Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema – keeping in mind the responsibility to track back throughout the whole game. Whereas Guardiola’s tactical plan could perhaps offer more security and less exposure to Danilo, because his tendency to draw centrally would then be appreciated rather than criticized for not making long runs, dribbling opponents and making assists in every single game.

If Guardiola’s Manchester City can reach a level where they dominate possession for the largest parts of the game, against most opponents, then Danilo would be less exposed against wingers with bursting pace – as was the case of Dani Alves at Barcelona. The system often protected Alves, but his defensive flaws almost always showed up whenever playing for Brazil’s national team – a little reminder that a 34-year-old Maicon benched peak Dani in the 2014 World Cup, after flopping badly in the group stage and getting exposed on numerous occasions. Could it be that Danilo would benefit from the Pep system, the same way his compatriot did? Alves was always the type of full-back who excels in pressing high to recover the ball in the opponent’s own half, rather than being content to sit deep and wait for him to arrive with an explosive run.

There’s been some whisperings that Danilo can play in midfield, in a similar way to another Brazilian City target, Fabinho of AS Monaco, can. Do you think he has a future solely at right-back or could he make the move into midfield at some point?

Guardiola is very picky when it comes to midfielders, and the requirements for a midfielder to fit in a Pep-system are quite elevated. Danilo is not technically good enough to sustain the pressure against high-pressing teams. He prefers to release the ball very quickly, as he does not possess the ability to maintain his calmness when being closely surrounded. Besides the fact that a deep-lying midfielder should be the best passer in the team, and Danilo’s passing is decent but not extraordinary enough to be the midfield general of Manchester City. However, Pep could always try to reinvent Danilo as a centre-back in a back-line of three. The Brazilian has a good physique and is strong in aerial duels. He is too heavy to operate in an advanced central role in a demanding league as England’s, but I can see him do a job of a deep-lying play-maker from the center back position, where he would have more time on the ball and concentrate on improving his distribution rather than worrying too much about releasing the ball immediately.

Finally, do you think that City having a strong Brazilian spine (Ederson, Danilo, Fernandinho, Gabriel Jesus) could help the Brazilian national team?

The fact that City has, or could soon have, four Brazilians who are in contention for a World Cup spot, certainly improves the team’s chemistry and is something for the national manager, Tite, to keep an eye on. Regardless of whether all of them will book themselves a ticket to Russia next year, it is very exciting for Brazilian football to have an increasing contingent in one of the top European sides of recent years, a side that will be competing for the English Premier League title, as well as possibly the Champions League. Vasco teenager Douglas Luiz has recently signed for the Blues, which confirms the theory that Pep Guardiola loves dealing with Brazilian footballers. And the feeling is most probably reciprocal – it takes a lot to convince Gabriel Jesus to turn down Barcelona, and Danilo to join a club where his competitor would be Kyle Walker.

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