July 2, 2010 – The day it all started. Till then, Brazil were seen as potential World Cup winners. The fact that they had also won the Confederations Cup an year back, at the same place, must have given them the edge in the biggest sporting event on the planet. But it did not happen. Brazil did not progress to the semis, falling prey to Sneijder-led Netherlands. Dunga, a player-turned coach, watched from the stands as various thoughts raced through his mind. One of the things on his mind may have been – whether he should tender his resignation or wait for the board to do the honors.
But was this extreme step required? After all, Dunga had produced excellent results over a period of two years, in World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup, as well as in the friendlies. Until that second half against Netherlands, his every move had borne fruit. His player selection (read Ronaldinho) may not have been favorable to everyone, but he formed a group composed of both youth and veterans. Their glory run started with the victory over Argentina in the 2007 Copa America final, where they blitzed La Albiceleste by a margin of 3-0.
A pragmatic person, Dunga stripped the Brazilian midfield of creativity, and instead packed it with tough-tackling, physical players – players who were intent on destroying the game, more so than creating anything. With the exception of Kaka and possibly Elano, the midfield was sorely lacking any sort of creativity. A centre-back such as Gilberto Silva, playing in midfield, would never have been effective as an engine of the team, considering his sluggish and inhibited game play. Dunga’s team was destructive in counter-attacks and also was a constant threat from set pieces. But for most of the game, their playing style looked lethargic. The greatest trick Brazil pulled off since 1982 World Cup was to make the world believe that joga bonito existed, and Dunga only reinforced the belief with his tactics.
After Dunga stepped down, CBF went on the lookout for a new coach. Initial reports suggested Scolari had landed the job, which led CBF to forcibly deny any such claims and suggest instead that Fluminense’s Muricy Ramalho has been approached. A few days after making such a bold announcement, they sheepishly backed off when Fluminense refused to let Ramalho go. Finally, the former Corinthians coach, Luiz Antonio Venker ‘Mano’ Menezes was appointed the coach of Brazil. Surprisingly, he is the third coach to emerge from southern Brazil (Menezes is from Rio Grande do Sul), after Scolari and Dunga. While Scolari used defensive midfielders heavily during the 2002 WC triumph at Japan, Dunga did the same during his tenure. Needless to say, Menezes followed the same process too.
To stamp his authority as a stickler for discipline and his views on no-nonsense football, he included only 4 players from the 2010 World Cup roster. The average age of the team drastically fell to somewhere around 24, with young players blooded in a bid to rejuvenate a growingly stale Brazil team. Out of Dunga’s team, only Dani Alves, Ramires, Thiago Silva and Robinho survived the first cut. Among those left out were war-hardened veterans like Kaka, Luis Fabiano and Julio Cesar.
His unyielding dedication towards discipline was the reason why Marcelo found himself left out in the cold for the ongoing Copa America. The relationship between the coach and player soured before the Scotland friendly, where Marcelo pulled out, claiming a questionable injury. That prompted the 48 year old to take such drastic measures. However, he did leave the door open for Marcelo to return should he reconcile differences and also prove himself worthy of a call-up in future.
Presently, Menezes finds himself with the biggest assignment of his career so far – leading defending champions Brazil to this year’s Copa America. Brazil, being the host nation for 2014 World Cup, have already qualified for the showpiece event. That leaves this year’s Copa and next year’s Olympic as preparatory tournaments for the year 2013, when the Confederations Cup will be once again contested in Brazil. The present squad for the Copa is actually a transitory group, comprising of players who are there for next year’s Olympics as well.
Going into the competition, Brazil had generated the right amount of noises. However, now they need to back them up with actions. Menezes prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation, comprising of holding midfielders as well as wide men, who are fundamental to his set-up. His use of wide players irrespective of forwards or defenders can be seen in his first XI. With Robinho and Dani Alves on the right side and Neymar and Santos on the left, Brazil would look to break at every opportunity. Their formation gives the impression of a solid midfield backed up by pacy players on both wings, who can run the opposition defense haywire on any day.
The central defense is manned by none other than Lucio and Thiago Silva, both superb players in their own right. The positional sense that both the defenders possess is second to none and it would require an extremely lucky or gifted forward to run past them. Lucio is also superb in dead-ball situations and regularly goes up during corners. Should any one of these two get injured, there is also an able back-up in the form of David Luiz, who has been quite superb in the last season with Chelsea. With the central defenders providing solidarity at the back, Brazil also possesses superb full backs in the form of Dani Alves, Maicon and Andre Santos. Out of these three, the defensive ability of Maicon is the highest and he is likely to start in games where a no-nonsense defensive wall is required behind the midfield. Full backs have served Brazil well in the past, with one of their greatest full backs being Roberto Carlos, who plied his trade on the left side. Andre Santos now plays in the role, but reaching anywhere near the level of Carlos would require tremendous amount of dedication and discipline from him.
The marauding runs of the full backs are ably supported by the wide players up front. But once the full backs have charged up the field, the duty of helping the defense then falls on the defensive midfielders – Lucas and Ramires. Although Lucio, Silva, Lucas and Ramires play for different clubs, when they appear for the National Team, it suddenly appears that have been playing together for ages. Besides the job of shielding the defense, one of their most important tasks is to link up with Ganso and occasionally with Robinho.
Ganso is one player Brazil is looking in to replace the void left by the possible departures of Ronaldinho and Kaka. While the former won’t return to the national team in all probability, Kaka has been plagued by injuries more often than not. Ganso would provide that creative spark in the midfield required to get the ball upfront to the attacking trio of Neymar, Pato and Robinho. Neymar is from Santos like Ganso, and has exploded onto the national scene recently. He is a player with incredible pace, dribbling, finishing and sound technique. Robinho is already a veteran amongst the forwards, and would be perfectly able to guide the youngsters.
All in all, the Brazil squad for the Copa looks quite formidable. But we should not forget that this team is still in a germinal stage. Menezes has quite some time till the next World Cup to take Brazil to the zenith of the footballing world; and the time till then will prove to be an extremely testing one for the 48 year old. This squad has all the right elements to become one of the best, but let’s keep our fingers crossed that these young men are able to realize their true potential, if not now, then in 2014.