Fred conundrum a worry for Brazil
"Two games into the tournament, and Brazil centre-forward Fred is under pressure. He has scored no goals and made little impression. Many doubt his right to a place in the starting lineup."
Those two sentences could easily have been written about the 2014 World Cup. But in fact, they are part of the story of the 2013 Confederations Cup.
Fred tells the story of how coach Luiz Felipe Scolari reassured him of his importance to the team -- and Fred responded with five goals in the remaining three games, as Brazil took the title.
This year's title, though, is the one that matters. There is little point in starring in the rehearsal if you cannot remember your lines at showtime.
Fred, of course, spent several months injured after the Confederations Cup, which leads to two questions: is he capable of hitting the same level as last year, and would that level be good enough this time around?
The stakes are much, much higher this time. The criticism is far greater, and it comes from many more places.
Former England international Alan Shearer, a centre-forward of some pedigree, has voiced the opinion that Fred is so immobile and participates so little in the game that Brazil are effectively playing with 10 players. A feature of this World Cup has been lone strikers able to move incisively all across the front line and carry the fight to the opposition. Fred is emphatically not one of them.
There is a third question: are Brazil getting the best out of him? Some have compared Fred to Serginho, Brazil's much criticized centre-forward in the 1982 World Cup. It is misleading. These are very different cases.
Serginho was something of a blunderbuss. Physically imposing and mobile, he was a consistent goalscorer in domestic Brazilian football, especially when he had wingers to play the ball in behind the defensive line for him to attack. What he was unable to do was combine back to goal with the astonishingly skillful midfield that Brazil fielded that year. Fred would have been far happier in that role.
It is true that the Fluminense striker does not offer much mobility. But he is far more technically proficient than Serginho. Midfielders can play up to him in the hope of receiving a return ball. Indeed, one of the strengths of the Brazil team in the Confederations Cup was the way he combined in this way with Neymar.
A year later, the team is the same. But in the first two matches, there has been a slight tweak. Previously Neymar operated high on the left in Brazil's 4-2-3-1 formation. Now he has been moved into the centre.
In the opening game the logic of the move could be understood. Croatia played without a holding midfielder, and there was space down the middle for Neymar to run at the defence -- which is exactly what happened when Brazil scored their vital equalising goal.
In the second game, it was harder to figure out. Mexico's Jose Vasquez bossed the space, and it was hard for Neymar to impose himself -- and harder still for him to find space to combine with Fred.
When he played on the left, it was easier for Neymar to pick up the ball and cut in on the diagonal. He would look for Fred to give the pass and move into position to receive a return ball, either carrying on his run inside or switching the angle and moving outside. It was an interesting little partnership, and good teams are made of interesting little partnerships.
All the concentration on Neymar has so far robbed Brazil of a number of these. The idea seems to be to create space for the star No. 10 by opening up the pitch.
Oscar and Hulk in the first game, and Oscar and Ramires in the second, have been thrown wide to stretch the opposing defence. As a consequence, Oscar and Neymar are now many yards apart. Some of Brazil's best play last year came when these two were close together. And as they were exchanging passes, Paulinho was the third man breaking into the penalty box.
This little combination too seems to have been lost.
Brazil's third game, against already eliminated Cameroon, would seem to be an ideal opportunity for a rethink on how to achieve a better collective blend. The pressure is on to do just that, especially after Croatia took Cameroon apart in the previous game.
There are, however, two worries from the Brazilian point of view. One is the possibility of picking up injuries. Brazil are wary of the physicality of the African sides -- they lost Elano to injury in a bruising encounter with Ivory Coast four years ago.
The other concern is disciplinary. Thiago Silva, Luiz Gustavo and Neymar, three of the most important players in the side, are all on a yellow card. Earn another on Monday, and they will miss a second-round game against Holland or Chile, when defeat would give them no second chances.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.