Robert Renan: Brazil and Zenit’s new linchpin in defense by Vuyo Ndebele
Name: Robert Renan
Preferred foot: Left
Brazilian football for decades has been notoriously popular for producing the most flamboyant players with the likes of Ronaldinho, Neymar and most recently Vinicius Jnr all lighting up the world stage thanks to their eye-catching flair. The whole emphasis of playing the beautiful game in the South American nation is based on self-expression and creativity with the occasional star making a name for themselves in defense – particularly the ageless duo of Dani Alves and Thiago Silva. Lately however, with Tite at the helm the Seleção opted for a more pragmatic approach in a bid to reclaim their throne as undisputed kings of World football at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar but unfortunately this philosophy saw them fall well short as they exited the tournament at the hands of Croatia in Quarter-final stage.
The ensuing result of the disappointing showing was the legendary coach being relieved of his duties, signaling the end of an underwhelming era. With changes anticipated both on and off the field, the country’s attention has turned to the U20 side currently battling it out for the Sudamericana Sub-20 title in Colombia. Although most of the plaudits have been for the more forward oriented players in the form of Victor Roque and Andrey Santos, who recently penned a long term deal with Chelsea, one of their young leaders in defense is also playing exceptionally well and going about his business quietly. Zenit St Petersburg’s newly acquired linchpin, Robert Renan has been at the heart of the Brazilian backline so far in the tournament as the Canarinho has only conceded 3 goals in their 4 games, advancing comfortably into the knockout phase.
Born on October 11th 2003 in Brasília, Brazil, Renan began his youth career at Novorizontino in São Paulo before being picked up by local giants Corinthians a year later in 2019. After impressing for both club and country in the U20’s, Robert’s breakthrough at senior level came in 2022, almost exactly 10 years after PSG captain Marquinhos’ emergence from the same academy – making his debut for O Timão on April 20th in a 1-1 away draw against Portuguesa da Ilha in the Copa do Brasil. He soon followed this with a first league appearance on the 25th of June vs Santos in which the spoils were shared between the two giants in a 0-0 tie. Surprisingly enough, he proceeded to only play 11 more games for Vitor Pereira’s men before his recent transfer to Russian club Zenit (on a free as part of a wider cooperation between both clubs), however his talent and potential should not be understated and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world takes notice of the defender’s quality once settled in St Petersburg.
A left-footed center back with remarkable ball playing prowess in addition to being very solid defensively, Robert excels technically, physically and has equally outstanding mental traits. The 19-year-old offers exceptional class and composure on the ball with a great first touch. Standing at 6’1, he is not exceedingly tall in comparison to other players in his position. As a result has not yet mastered getting the most of his height, successful in 37% of his contested challenges in the air but with time and experience I have no doubt that he will improve drastically in this regard. Anyhow, he makes up for it on the turf, coming out on top in around 62% of his ground duels with an average 2.1 won per 90 in large part because of his lanky legs and long reach.
Renan is also blessed with good pace which he regularly uses to cover ground and recover the ball, however he is very selective when it comes to engaging in tackles but the youngster is very efficient when he does decide to do so – winning about 65% each game, as marking and sticking to his man is another strength in his game. Another positive to his style is the fact that he does not commit many fouls and intercepts the ball quite frequently with 19 in his 10 Brasileiro Série A games, displaying his superb anticipation.
As he evidently does well to retain possession, the next challenge becomes what to do with the ball once he’s won it and the teenager has shown great decision making in this aspect. Renan is also heavily involved in the build up phase due to his technical proficiency, having close to 70 touches per game. He usually assesses his options before making the choice of either passing or dribbling out using La Pausa. This is a skill whereby the player in possession pauses momentarily, drawing pressure in a bid to entice the defender into making a movement towards the ball. Robert has the ability and mobility to quickly speed up play by then making a pass or shift in the direction that exploits the fact that the defender has approached him. Typically, La Pausa is associated with midfielders who operate in between the lines, so this just goes to show the young defenders bravery, composure and confidence alike.
Moreover, as space is often limited in the middle and final third due to the highly tactical manner of today’s game, in most cases center-backs are now required to also have qualities that enable them to initiate the team’s attacks effectively and Renan does this especially well owing to his passing ability. With an agile frame and good balance, he is able to disguise his passes and find teammates through very tight spaces. Mature beyond his age, Robert is a polished passer with a proclivity for penetrating defensive lines with intricate vertical balls. The eminence of his distribution is seen in various scenarios and areas of the pitch. In addition, his range is vast and compliments his excellent vision to pick the right pass well. This makes it difficult for opponents to restrict him to a specific passing lane, as he looks to provoke the press before releasing the ball with his timing. Mostly threatening to play it wide, defenders tend to angle their run in an attempt to cut the wide player off, and by doing so inadvertently leave the midfielder(s) open, resulting in Renan using his footballing IQ to find teammates in much better spaces. Last season he managed to complete over 400 passes, at an average of 44 per 90 with a success rate of 85%.
Side note: Seeing that his game is modeled around smart off the ball positioning as it is in possession some of the statistics do not necessarily highlight his dominance.
Still young and with lots to learn, Rauzinho, as he is called by some, has massive potential to reach the very top of the game if he continues to improve. He is also a born leader and has captained numerous squads he’s been a part of at youth level. The only weakness I’ve personally seen in this game has been the lack of use of his right foot, which could come in handy at a higher level but even so, some could argue that when you’re that good with one foot who needs the other. As far as rumors go, Inter Milan apparently turned down the option to sign the defender in January, as they deemed him a “talented prospect” but did not feel that he was ready to make an impact in their squad just yet. (Source: sempreinter.com)
According to another report, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is said to be a huge fan of Renan which can only be a positive. With the Russian Premier League starting in less than a month, his progress will definitely be interesting to track as he looks to adapt to a new league and culture in Europe. I’m confident we could soon see him move to a Top 5 league sooner rather than later and hopefully lay a claim for the Samba Boys at the 2026 World Cup in the coming years.