What's gone wrong for Lucas Silva, once Brazil's most promising midfield prospect?
Buried in the hurried details of the transfer window was a little defeat for Brazilian football -- the return of Lucas Silva to Cruzeiro.
Two years ago Real Madrid signed him on a long-term contract. He was an important player in the Cruzeiro side that won the Brazilian title in both 2013 and especially 2014. But his significance went far beyond silverware. What made Silva particularly interesting was his playing characteristics. He represents a type of player that Brazil have found very hard to produce recently.
The production line in the country of the five-time world champions keeps churning out players. Last year, Brazil exported 806 footballers, more than any other country. The trend is demonstrated by a deal concluded toward the end of the transfer window; Ajax signed Sao Paulo striker David Neres, who is currently in Ecuador with the Brazil Under-20 team.
Neres has played just eight games at senior level -- and has hardly pulled up any trees in the Under-20 Championships. And yet Ajax are prepared to invest a reported €15 million in this player, who turns 20 a month from now. They have seen enough raw talent. Neres is a wide attacker, quick and left-footed, who can play on either flank. He is a type of player that Brazil are producing in spades. At senior level the national team currently have more of them than they can possibly use.
But what they lack is midfield generals, the kind who can dictate the rhythm of the game like Didi in 1958 and 1962, or Gerson in 1970, or Falcao twelve years later. But it is hard to think of too many players since. The Brazilian midfield has suffered greatly from the idea of splitting it into two; defensive specialists who mark, cover, tackle but cannot pass, and attacking specialists who look to tip the balance in the last 30 metres of the field. There have been no all-rounders, those who can run the game from deep, and then choose their moment to link up with the attack.
Silva looked, at last, to be exactly this type of player. With a fine range of passing, positional skills and a good engine, he seemed to be the man to solve this long-term problem. It was hardly a surprise when Real Madrid came knocking. They looked at the player and saw a potential successor to Xabi Alonso. So there were high hopes on both sides of the Atlantic when Silva traded Cruzeiro in for Real Madrid.
Two years later, though, there is nothing to celebrate. Approaching 24, when he should be starting to come into his prime, Silva is going back home -- and the fact that Real are prepared to loan him back for 18 months is further evidence that he has no place in their short-term plans.
What has gone wrong? These moves are always a gamble, no matter how talented the player. In addition to a footballer, we are also dealing with a human being, with all the problems of adaptation entailed by a move to a different country with a new climate, language, cuisine and so on. Some always suspected that Silva might be too quiet, too introverted to impose himself in such demanding circumstances.
There is also the question of fitness. A medical carried out by Sporting Lisbon in Portugal detected a heart problem. There were rumours that it might be career threatening -- quickly denied and seemingly belied by the fact that he is still playing.
The real problem, unfortunately, has come on the pitch. Silva has played just eight times in the league for Real Madrid and 22 times for Marseille on a loan spell -- and he has been unable to get a grip on the game as he did in Brazil. With Cruzeiro he had much more time on the ball. The defensive lines in Brazil tend to play very deep, so there is space in the middle of the field and time for the man on the ball to choose his option. Top level European club football is much more compact and intense. Adapting to this was always going to be his biggest challenge.
A striker in wide positions also has to adapt. He, too, needs to play more quickly, and needs to get used to having less acceleration space when he runs at the opposing full-back. But he can play in bursts. The process of adaption for a passing central midfielder is much more difficult, because his position requires him to be in constant contact with the ball.
Whatever personal, psychological and physical problems Silva has experienced in Spain, his failure to establish himself on the other side of the Atlantic does not reflect well on contemporary domestic Brazilian football. Its best passing midfielder has, so far at least, not been able to impose himself on European club football.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.