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Jul 1, 2014

Scolari's midfield under scrutiny

Luiz Felipe Scolari has always trusted Paulinho in midfield, but the pressure's on the Tottenham man to excel vs. Colombia.
Luiz Felipe Scolari has always trusted Paulinho in midfield, but the pressure's on the Tottenham man to excel vs. Colombia.

TERESOPOLIS, Brazil -- It's yet another strange jigsaw for Luiz Felipe Scolari. Luiz Gustavo's suspension has forced the Brazil manager to come up with a new-look Seleção midfield for their World Cup quarterfinal against Colombia on Friday in Fortaleza. In order to handle one of the fastest teams in the tournament, Big Phil will need to break their pace, but Gustavo's absence has made the mission a bit harder. While Brazil have options on the bench, the way those pieces combine isn't ideal; as a result, the manager himself has given few hints of what he intends to do in search for balance.

One of Brazil's most instrumental players, "LG" will sit out the Colombia game after picking up a second yellow card during the dramatic win over Chile on Saturday. In that match, the Wolfsburg man started alongside Fernandinho, a player who many felt should have been introduced during the group stage. The problem is that Fernandinho's follow-up in the round of 16 was underwhelming; he was more notable for persistent fouling than anything else.

Gustavo's absence will therefore give Paulinho an opportunity to put a pedestrian World Cup behind him. One of the Seleção's most influential players last year, the Tottenham man couldn't look more jaded after a troublesome first season in the Premier League. His sulking during training after Scolari dropped him was there for all to see, although he did score with a rampaging run in a first XI vs. reserves kick-about as if to show some pride. Brazil could do with some of that in Fortaleza on Friday.

The challenge for both Paulinho and Fernandinho will be discipline. Both like a good run forward, but neither will have Gustavo sometimes dropping back almost as a third defender to help protect the fort. Just like at Manchester City, where his understanding with Yaya Touré was so vital for their title challenge, Fernandinho will have to talk to Paulinho a lot.

"We are improving with every game and it's obvious that LG will be missed," Fernandinho said. "But we need to be able to replace players because these things happen in football. If I am picked, there will be no problem, because at City I sometimes have to play more defensively."

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Scolari has other options, too. Ramires would offer extra protection, but that could mean the sacrifice of Oscar, especially after Hulk seemed to have earned back some cred after his gutsy display against Chile. Willian is a player many saw making considerable gains into featuring more regularly, but for this specific situation, he looks surplus to requirements.

After a series of World Cups in which Brazil deployed midfield enforcers in pairs, they arrived for their home World Cup with a different idea. LG was the only "pit bull" par excellence listed in the squad, and the manager even resorted to calling up a defender (Napoli's Henrique) whom he could deputize as a last-ditch defensive midfielder. Those who follow the Premier League will point out David Luiz worked half of last season in Chelsea's midfield, but it still looks unlikely that Scolari would try to solve a problem by creating another and tampering with the Thiago Silva-Luiz centre-back partnership, the one that without Brazil statistically concedes almost twice as many goals.

Luiz Gustavo's absence is a big concern for Brazil, who benefit from his aggression in defensive midfield.
Luiz Gustavo's absence is a big concern for Brazil, who benefit from his aggression in defensive midfield.

However, Scolari could resort to something even more radical. In an interview Monday night with Brazilian TV channel Sportv, he even mentioned a possible emulation of the back three system he deployed in 2002. That sounds wild for the simple fact that none of the men who could form this line -- Silva, Luiz or Dante -- have been playing like that for their clubs, and the formation was only briefly and sporadically tested by Scolari during practice sessions for Seleção friendlies.

Possession-wise, Brazil are averaging 53 percent in this World Cup, which is not absurdly different from the 56 percent registered in 2010 when Dunga's team played in a much more cautious way. Four years ago, Brazil had 72 attacks in five games; this year, in four matches at home, they have produced 190. Visual evidence, however, tells a different story: Against Chile, Brazil were sometimes chasing shadows in midfield while opponents seemed to swarm in numbers every time a Seleção player received the ball.

BrazilBrazil
ColombiaColombia
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FT
Match 57
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The irony is that Brazil still restricted opponents to long-range efforts, and Julio Cesar has made only six saves in the whole tournament -- the lowest number among teams still in the competition, and half the amount he registered in South Africa. All of the three goals Brazil conceded so far had a blunder element to it, with Marcelo's clumsy throw-in against the Chileans the biggest one.

On the other hand, creativity also looks scarce and the amount of balls punted forward to Neymar in Belo Horizonte Saturday was ineffective and showed Brazil's lack of imagination. The hope here is that after watching a Seleção game from the bench for the first time in two years, Paulinho will come back with a furnace in his belly.

Fernando Duarte

A U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has followed the Selecao for 10 years and regularly features as a pundit for media outlets in Europe, South America and Asia. He's also a Flamengo fan.