To the cynics, Mano Menezes' seleção reign has been little more than a sparkly new paint-job on what is looking like an increasingly defunct car. Sure, Neymar, Alexandre Pato, and Paulo Henrique Ganso may have provided some youthful zest to Brazil's post-World Cup performances, but the side's shortcomings against the Ukraine (a terminally dull 2-0 win) and Argentina (a 1-0 loss) fuelled the flames of those who see Menezes as little more than a media savvy Dunga. Wednesday evening's defeat at the hands of France will likely have converted even more observers to this point of view. Are the doubters right?
Kind of. The mistakes that Menezes made at the Stade de France were certainly of a piece with Dunga's failings at the World Cup. In South Africa, Brazil's central midfield platform consisted of two players - Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva - whose remit was almost entirely destructive. Admittedly, Felipe Melo enjoys the odd foray forward, but he was in the side for his muscular presence and lung power, alongside the more subtle (read; invisible) Gilberto. Menezes, to be sure, has put an end to this midfield giants' causeway, but has replaced it with something equally frustrating; a pair of all-round, box-to-box midfielders. Lucas, to his credit, has been excellent since the World Cup, and fully merits his place; he generally sits in front of the back four, only occasionally surging forward. His partner on Wednesday, however - the Atlético Madrid midfielder Elias - had a much less obvious role; neither contributing to the side's defensive solidity, nor offering anything of note in attack. The former Corinthians man, as I noted on Twitter during the game, suffers from an acute case of Ramires-itis; he is a jack of all trades, and a master only of running round a lot.
From my point of view, Brazil could use a deep-lying playmaker alongside Lucas; a regista who is able to calmly construct attacks from in front of the back four. It was ironic on Wednesday, then, that Hernanes, perhaps the perfect option for this role, was shunted out to the left-hand side by Menezes (see below), in what can only be viewed as a tactical misstep. One has to feel for O Profeta (the Prophet); he waited so long for a start for the national team, a side that (in the absence of Paulo Henrique Ganso) so clearly needs a creative player in the centre of the park, only to be played out of position on his big day. That he was dismissed in the opening period for a wild foul on Karim Benzema only served to compound his misery; he admitted on Thursday that he "couldn't sleep" on the night after the game.
Menezes was also criticised in the Brazilian press for the selection of Renato Augusto on the right. This, I think, was not entirely fair; Augusto is a player who has performed admirably for Leverkusen, and had earnt his chance with the Brazil side. His performance on the night, although lampooned in post-match ratings ("Was he even playing?") was actually far better than those of more experienced players like Robinho and the aforementioned Elias. Another surprise call-up, Jádson, acquitted himself well, picking out nice passes to Hulk and André Santos in rare second half attacks. The latter was actually one of Brazil's better players, but sod's law dictated that he should be at fault for the French goal; Jérémy Menez roasted him before crossing for Benzema to score.
What, though, can be said in Mano's defence? Menezes can be praised firstly for giving the national side a more meritocratic feel. Gone, it seems, are the days of players being picked on the basis of former glories (the populist selection of Ronaldinho against Argentina is the exception that proves the rule) or on reputations alone. Júlio César made his first start under the new regime on Wednesday, but there is still no indication that players such as Lúcio, Maicon, Juan, Luís Fabiano, and Kaká will be recalled any time soon. The faith placed in (relative) youngsters like David Luiz, Thiago Silva, and Lucas will be fundamental for the reshaping of the side.
Secondly, we must remember that Menezes' team selections have been hamstrung by the absences of key personnel. Paulo Henrique Ganso, the Santos No.10 around which Mano was planning to construct his side, suffered a cruciate ligament injury soon after his first Brazil start, and has been missing ever since. Neymar too has missed three of the five games since the World Cup; firstly for discliplinary reasons and now due to the South American Youth Championship. The lack of these players has forced Menezes to (temporarily) abandon his preferred 4-2-1-3 system (see below), in favour of more pragmatic formations. Against France, that meant a fairly standard 4-4-2, which allowed Les Bleus to dominate midfield. Of course, the 4-2-1-3 could have been maintained with Hernanes as No.10 and Hulk joining Robinho and Pato in attack, but Menezes' apparent distrust of the Porto man meant that this was never a realistic option.
Menezes, then, is in a somewhat curious position; he already seems to be reliant on the return of Ganso and Neymar in order to salvage his new vision for the seleção. In the interest of fairness, one could argue, he must be judged by the performances of his first choice XI, the side that obliterated the USA back in August. He must hope, however, that that game itself was more than just a false dawn; having whetted the Brazilian appetite for slick, inventive, attacking football, a return to the turgid pinch hitting of the Dunga era would likely spell the end of Menezes' stewardship. I, for one, hope that Menezes proves his critics wrong, but a couple more poor performances and the wolves will be out for the former Corinthians boss. Força, Mano!