I had the privilege of watching the Brazilian national team at the Emirates last night. It may have been more of a privilege than I regard it right now; I could well have been watching the team that lift this year’s World Cup. But based on last night, I don’t think that will be the case.
Brazil, as always, contain some of the most talented players in the world. Lucio is still a supreme centre-half (eventhough he will be 32 by the start of the tournament), flawless last night and nearly perfect against a top-form Didier Drogba in the Champions League last week. I don’t think anyoe can truly appreciate the faculties of Maicon until you see him in person; the man is a fantastic athlete and a graceful footballer. The sight of him marauding down the right flank is truly something to behold. And then there is the crown jewel, Kaka; anything of any substance attack-wise flows through him at some point. For me, these three are the best in the team and would be worthy world champions, but they are not going to achieve this status with some of the supporting cast performing as it is.
Robinho, somewhat misguidedly, was awarded man of the match last night, which I presume was only because he finished off a fine move to score Brazil’s second goal and there wasn’t really another obvious candidate. His perfomance other than scoring was limp and ineffective; he had missed an easy chance to score earlier in the second half, his passing was poor and his numerous stepovers amounted to nothing. Robinho, on his day, is among the best; skilful, plenty of trickery, unpredictable- when all these things come together (and he uses his brain too), he’s a frightening prospect for any opposition. Unfortunately these occurences are all too infrequent. Someone asked me: who would you rather have, Robinho or Ronaldinho? And my response was a shrug of the shoulders; in the case of either, it’s easier to predict the toss a coin than if they play well or not. Ronaldinho has had something of a resurgence ins recent months (the most obvious example of this being the first hour against Manchester United a couple of weeks ago); if he carries on like this and Milan put together a late challenge for the Serie A title, Dunga will be under pressure to bring him back into the fold. I think Dunga is reluctant to do so, not least because Ronaldinho doesn’t really fit into his 4-2-2-2 system, but I think he must surely be worth taking a risk (if indeed there is any element of risk) on and including in the final 23, if only to make use of him as an impact substitute.
Past the issue of (supposedly) star men not performing, I think that there are problems with the quality of some of the first team players and a lack of strength in depth in some positions. The most obvious problem seems to be at left back. Michel Bastos played there last night, as he did against England in November, but he doesn’t really convince me; Shaun Wright-Phillips had the beating of him more than once and he might not even make it on England’s plane to South Africa. A high calibre winger with a bit of speed and trickery (not Liam Lawrence) could be troubling for him. Deportivo La Coruna’s Felipe seemed to be favourite to fill the void until injury brought his season to a premature end. Other recent left-back call ups:
- Gilberto; back in Brazil with Cruzeiro after failing miserably with Tottenham. He will be 34 by the start of the tournament and, unless he’s undergone a magical transformation since his time at Spurs, doesn’t seem like the solution to me.
- Kleber: aged 29, plays for Internacional in Brazil. In all honesty, I know nothing about him and can’t say that I’ve seen him play (to my knowledge), but the fact that he’s accrued only 19 international caps in 8 years tells me that he’s never going to be the long-term answer to the problem. He seems to be one of the first ports of call if there’s need for backup and there’s no one better around.
- Andre Santos: aged 26, plays for Fenerbahce. Seemed to first choice last year, playing in the majority of the Confederations Cup games as Brazil won the trophy. I thought he was fairly competent; wasn’t outstanding, but was a decent enough defender and fairly adept at going forward.
- Marcelo: aged 21, Real Madrid. I don’t really know why he’s not the first choice. He’s not the most consistent performer, but is now playing at left back regularly for one of the top clubs in Europe. He does like to get forward though, and I can see how, with Maicon often forward on the opposite side, Dunga might be concerned that both his fullbacks might commit too much to the attack.
Whoever is chosen to start at left back, the position is still one of the weak links of the team.
The 4-2-2-2 system has been much lauded and the players are familiar with it and slip into position with ease, but is it not perhaps too conservative? If any country can actually put the shackles on Maicon and make him think about defending more than attacking, then the use of two holding players becomes redundant. The way I see it, Gilberto Silva’s function is to drop into a centre back position, whilst one of the existing centre backs pushes out wide to cover a vacated full back position. The 4-2-2-2 can often end up looking like this:
< -Lucio Juan Bastos
Maicon Gilberto Melo
Brazil are too reliant on Maicon and attacking down the right. If he’s off-form or a team set up defensively to counter his threat, then there’s not a lot of attacking thrust coming from elsewhere. In qualification they drew 7 times; 4 of these were 0-0 draws at home. There is a distinct lack of imagination coming from other areas; Kaka was often forced yesterday to go backwards when in possession, as there wasn’t enough coming up to support him. Ramires offered nothing- he simply seems to be there as a security net for Maicon roaming forward, protecting the area immediately behind him as he blasts forward. Brazil played were a much more effective attacking unit when Dani Alves replaced Ramires. I would guess that in the vast majority of Brazil games I’ve seen over the 2010 qualification period, Alves has been brought on to play with Maicon. I can’t understand Dunga’s apparent reluctance to start them together, when it evidently works. Perhaps he just thinks it would be less effective from the outset and Dani Alves has more of an impact coming off the bench to change the tempo of the side. I think it must surely be worth starting both of them; Alves is a much more capable and invtentive player than either Ramires or Elano. Strikeforce is another problem. Luis Fabiano is a world class centre forward, but is currently injured, as he has been for most of the season. Adriano replaced him last night and might as well have not bothered making the journey from Brazil for all the work he put in. The system relies on using a target man-esque striker, but beyond Fabiano they are lacking in this position.
A (Tentative) Guide on How to beat Brazil:
- Shut down Maicon. Much easier to say than it is to do, but I think this is integral to success. Teams need to be defensively sound and not afford him the space to get down the flank. For example, sticking a hard-working winger who’ll track back on him (someone in the Park Ji-Sung mould) should limit his threat. The only alternative is to perhaps go completely in the other direction and stick someone high up on the left and leave them there; Maicon would think twice about marauding forward if Robben or Messi were left in space down his side.
- They don’t like a target man, or at least Juan doesn’t. Juan seemed quite uncomfortable yesterday with the balls played into Kevin Doyle: he’s not the biggest centre-back in the world, and didn’t seem to enjoy Doyle having his back to him holding up the ball. I think he would be very tested and exposed against someone with more presence than Doyle (someone like Emile Heskey, maybe?)
- Attack their left. As I’ve pointed out, left back is a bit of problem for them- none of the potential solutions are brilliant defenders and good wide men will cause problems for them down that flank.
- Move the ball quickly in midfield. The two holding players are not the quickest; age is catching up with Gilberto Silva, and both he and Melo would have received bookings last night if the game weren’t a friendly, for poorly timed, sloppy challenges. Snappy, accurate passing could be their undoing (I think if they met tomorrow Spain would beat them).
- Don’t try and beat them. For the first hour last night, Ireland had Brazil contained (I don’t really count the first Brazil goal as any sort of breakthrough; it was an unfortunate own goal and Robinho was offside in the build up). They sat back with 8 men behind the ball, pumping it up to Doyle to hold up- they did not dare to be the least bit adventurous. Eventually, they could not keep up the intensity of their pressing, Brazil started to assert themselves on the game more and eased through the last half hour. But as their 7 draws in qualifying show, if a team can keep up a solid defence for 90 minutes, Brazil aren’t necessarily going to break through.
So, I don’t think Brazil will win the World Cup (and with me having said so and written this article on it, they’re almost certain to.) Discuss.