Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Friendly fire: strikerless Brazil stumble upon winning blueprint

Two games, ten goals scored and none conceded. Brazil’s record during the October international break was an impressive one, but the figures both overblow and undersell the significance of the past week. Firstly, caution must be taken in light of the relatively modest opposition put before the seleção by whatever nefariously obscure marketing company has the ear of the Brazilian federation this month. A 6-0 win over Iraq in Malmö (me neither*) was probably about par for the course in the eyes of most, while Tuesday’s romp came against a Japan side for whom a midweek match in Poland (again, no idea**) was probably more of an inconvenience than a fillip.

On the other hand, though, the results alone fail to tell the whole story of what could prove to be a crucial week for Brazil in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup. A side that had been roundly booed by fans in São Paulo last month – partly due to petty club allegiances, partly because the seleção were dire in a 1-0 win over South Africa – found the kind of identity that had been lacking since the early days of Mano Menezes’ stewardship.


For “found”, read “stumbled upon”; necessity was the mother of invention against Iraq. With Luís Fabiano and Fred victims of a one-player-per-Brazilian-club selection policy designed to minimise domestic disruption, an injury to Leandro Damião left Menezes without a natural number nine at his disposal. While many expected Hulk to assume the role – as he has a handful of times, to negligible effect – Menezes instead pushed Neymar forward, ahead of a supporting cast that included Kaká, recalled after a two-year absence.

The new system worked masterfully. With Neymar repeatedly and intelligently drifting to the left and Hulk stretching play on the right, midfield runners were beckoned forward, giving Brazil a renewed fluidity. Chelsea youngster Oscar was the chief beneficiary, dictating play from midfield and picking up two goals before the half-time whistle. His development into an international-quality playmaker, while hardly surprising, has been staggering in its swiftness.

Things got even better against Japan, with Kaká and Corinthians powerhouse Paulinho making notable contributions. The former revelled in a slightly more peripheral role; no longer burdened with the responsibility of being the number ten (a job to which his skillset was never truly suited), his sashaying forays in the left channel proved a permanent thorn in Japan’s side.

He also linked well with Neymar, a player with whom he traded a series of saccharine “no, I love you more” press statements prior to the Iraq game. An unbroken exchange of six or seven passes between the pair against Japan demonstrated a nascent relationship that Menezes is understandably keen to harness. If the reserved, thoughtful Kaká can serve as a role model off the pitch as well as on, his recall will go down as a masterstroke

Question marks remain, of course. The central midfield pairing of Paulinho and Ramires is undoubtedly dynamic, but may not offer sufficient protection against top-level opponents. The inclusion of Sandro would solve that problem, but at the cost of some of the attacking fluidity that marked this week’s displays. Hulk, meanwhile, continues to impress only in bursts (only when he’s really angry, or something) while Leandro Damião would feel understandably aggrieved at the prospect of becoming a bit-part player, having led the line with some aplomb during the 2012 Olympic tournament.

These concerns seem slightly trivial, though, and for good reason. For the first time in months (and arguably for the first time since the post-World Cup youth blowout against the USA), the seleção has an identity. That it is a flexible, modern identity suggests Menezes’ occasional tactical intransigence could be dissipating, and bodes well as thoughts turn to the 2014 World Cup. Two games, ten goals scored and one new dawn: not bad for a week’s work.
 
*  NB – I know where Malmö is, thank you for asking.
**  See above.


A version of this article was published by The Guardian HERE.

(Photo credit: Odd Andersen.)

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