Brazil in shambles after Copa America loss to Paraguay
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Nearly five years have passed since Brazil exited the 2010 World Cup in the quarterfinals, losing 2-1 to the Netherlands. Since then, they've only played 15 competitive games, as they didn't need to qualify for 2014. They won just 6 of those 15.
Sometimes, you don't need to see a doctor to know you're unwell. A self-diagnosis will tell you all you need to know.
Brazil's malaise pre-dated their Copa America quarterfinal loss on penalties to Paraguay on Saturday night. Bringing back Dunga, who returned as manager to replace Luis Felipe Scolari after the 2014 World Cup, was clearly the wrong cure -- a reminder to check the expiry date before dipping into the medicine cabinet and stuffing yourself with pills. His passed a long time ago.
It obviously won't hurt as much as last year -- there was no 1-7 -- but in some ways it's more worrying. You were looking for some kind of progress, some kind of movement along the learning curve. When that wasn't coming, you hoped for at least a reaction. After all, this was Dunga's team, surely -- even just by some kind of unconscious osmosis -- he could transmit some of what made him such a great player on to his squad?
For all the fight and winning mentality they managed to absorb from Dunga, they may as well have been led into battle by Miffy the bunny rabbit.
Managers can only do so much, of course, and we'll get to the players in a minute. But viewed from the outside, it looked as if Dunga was part of the problem.
After Neymar's four-game suspension, Dunga gave the captaincy to Miranda rather than to Thiago Silva. It doesn't matter much who wears that little strip of cloth, but it does have symbolic value. When you choose the less-experienced guy over someone who has skippered the team before and is the same age and has nearly three times as many caps, you're sending a message. Perhaps it's not a message that helps the squad.
Dunga also originally left Dani Alves out of the squad entirely, only to recall him when Danilo got hurt and then having him play every minute of every game. At the very least, that shows muddled thinking: Surely you would have thought that if Dani Alves is the second-best option at right-back, Dunga would have taken him from the start?
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The other loud-and-clear clarion call Dunga sent was evident in earlier games but became obvious in the third group match against Venezuela. With Brazil 2-0 up midway through the second half of a game they were dominating -- probably their best performance of the tournament -- he sent on two extra centre-backs, David Luiz and Marquinhos, for two attacking midfielders. The Selecao finished the game with six defenders and two defensive midfielders against (no disrespect) Venezuela. This despite the fact Brazil could have drawn 2-2 and still won the group.
It revealed Dunga's distinct lack of faith in his team's ability to hold up the ball and maintain a lead. Indeed, what we saw was Brazil compressed in their own penalty box, furiously defending the Venezuelan siege.
Saturday against Paraguay may have been a reaction to that. This time, nursing a 1-0 lead, Dunga steered clear of the defensive substitutions, even as Paraguay had four de facto strikers on the pitch. Yet Brazil turned out to be just as ineffective at defending the lead. Every time the ball was cleared, it came straight back, the front four incapable of keeping possession in a rational way and creating chances or even just providing enough of a shield for the back six.
Thiago Silva's handball in the penalty box was the incident that allowed Paraguay to equalize, but it was Ramon Diaz's crew who had the most clear-cut chances in the second half. That's how poorly Brazil played.
Dunga has been in charge less than a year, but you still would have expected him to give this team more of an identity, something other than over-relying on Neymar. We don't know if Brazil's poor showing in Chile was a case of the players failing to execute or the players being given a goofy plan. But with enough veteran leadership on this team -- Thiago Silva, Dani Alves and Robinho have 240 caps between them - you expected more.
Apart from pointing to the supposed flu epidemic which hit in the previous 48 hours (and which the Brazilian media is taking with a truckload of salt) Dunga might simply point out that there's a lack of talent and he was hit by pre-tournament injuries.
That may be true, but only to a point. The drop-off from Danilo to Dani Alves isn't that significant, assuming it even is a downgrade. Oscar, another absentee, had a rotten end to the season and was clearly physically shot. He needs a long rest. Marcelo would have given Brazil a more attacking dimension down the left than Filipe Luis, though given how the Selecao played, especially when in the lead, you wonder if he wouldn't have preferred the more defensively disciplined Chelsea man anyway. Luiz Gustavo, a late injury casualty, was a blow, but the problem in defensive midfield was on the ball, not off it, and he contributes little going forward.
One guy who might have made a difference was Lucas Moura. He missed three months of last season through injury but returned in April, was eased back into the PSG side and started the last two games of the season. Yet Dunga looked elsewhere for his attacking flair.
Is the Brazilian talent pipeline going dry? That's the sort of deep philosophical question the punditocracy love to engage whenever a nation makes an early exit from a competition. It's also the sort of knee-jerk reaction that is deeply unhealthy. (Will Germany, everybody's flavor-of-the-month footballing model, go out of fashion because their Under-21 side was just spanked 5-0 by Portugal in the Euro semifinals? You'd hope not.)
This may not be a Golden Generation, but Brazil won the 2007 Copa America with a squad (with Dunga at the helm, no less) that was arguably less talented than this one as it included the likes of Doni, Gilberto, Mineiro, Julio Baptista and Vagner Love.
Even right now, few teams have as much depth at centre-back as Brazil. Indeed, the whole defensive corps -- taken as individuals -- have quality. Marcelo is still 27, Danilo 23 and Fabinho, 21, has a bright future.
Central midfield could be better, sure, but on the flip-side there's a deep pool of attacking midfielder/winger types from which to choose. Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Douglas Costa, Willian, Everton Ribeiro, Rafinha, Oscar and Lucas Moura will all still be in their twenties by the time Russia 2018 rolls around.
The real concern is the lack of a genuine centre-forward. If Leandro Damiao and Luiz Adriano can't crack this Copa America squad, it says a lot about the regard in which they're held. Then again, Germany won a World Cup with just one centre-forward in their squad and he was 36. You don't necessarily need a central striker if you have a coherent tactical scheme.
Then there's Neymar. Just because he's 23 and has carried Brazil on his back in the past doesn't mean he should at every turn. It's not lost on anyone that playing for Barcelona, as second fiddle to Lionel Messi and with Luis Suarez clearing the middle, he's devastating, but with Brazil Neymar has a different set of challenges. He can be the main man, but it's a huge burden to carry and, frankly, an unnecessary one. Or, at least, it would be an unnecessary one if there was a rational game plan with responsibility spread among the front four.
That will be one of the challenges for the next Brazil coach: handling Neymar correctly. You can only go to the well so many times, he's 23 but he's at risk of being an old, battle-weary 23 if you're not careful.
There's no question that there is something seriously dysfunctional in the way the Brazilian game is run. The fact that so many of the powerbrokers at the helm are under indictment or facing various legal challenges doesn't help matters. But there remains a very rich vein of talent to be tapped. A quality coach who makes the correct decisions -- whether Dunga is the former remains debatable, that he failed to do the latter is not in dispute -- should be able to at least sort out the Selecao rather quickly.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.