No Plan B for Brazil's attack
Before the World Cup began, most observers felt that the settled nature of Brazil's side was a huge advantage. Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari seemed to have found the winning formula during the Confederations Cup, providing answers to questions that had troubled the Selecao for years.
Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho emerged as a genuine centre-midfield pairing after months of uncertainty; Julio Cesar made the goalkeeping berth his own; Hulk silenced his doubters to become a certain starter; Fred jumped to the head of the queue of slightly underwhelming Brazilian strikers. Everywhere you looked, there was stability. "We have a team," remarked former Selecao striker Tostao, with customary succinctness.
How quickly things change. After four largely underwhelming World Cup games, the local press is conducting an ongoing inquest into Brazil's tactical setup.
Most criticism has focused on the midfield -- or lack thereof. With Neymar occupying a more central position than last summer, Oscar is increasingly finding himself out wide, putting more pressure on the deep midfield pairing to create chances. Paulinho, so good in 2013, was not up to the task and has already been dropped; Fernandinho impressed in the second half in the win over Cameroon but was far less convincing against Chile.
With those players struggling to perform, Brazil have often resorted to route-one football. Indeed, central defender David Luiz has become something of a quarterback, lofting long diagonal balls to the flanks and bypassing the midfield pairing entirely.
"Felipao is using a revolutionary strategy," wrote Tostao on Tuesday. "We're playing without a midfield. Luiz Gustavo plays right-back alongside the central defenders, while Oscar and Hulk stay on the wing. That leaves Fernandinho (or whoever) isolated in the middle like Robinson Crusoe, watching the long balls fly past."
There are other question marks: Daniel Alves has come under fire after failing to reproduce his Barcelona form, with some calling for Maicon to replace him; Oscar looks tired after another long season; and then there's Fred, a pure goal poacher who is not poaching enough goals.
It is fairly clear that Scolari could do with a Plan B. But the feeling is that it may now be too late -- and too risky -- to stray from the formula he has used for the past year.
He did briefly experiment after the Confederations Cup, using a 4-1-4-1 formation in the friendlies against Australia and Portugal. With Neymar, Paulinho, Ramires and Bernard in the attacking line behind a No. 9 (Jo), Brazil won those games comfortably, 6-0 and 3-1 respectively.
But with Luiz Gustavo suspended for the Colombia quarterfinal, using the system would likely mean playing at least two central midfielders who didn't start against Chile as well as shunting Neymar back out wide. That seems unlikely, to say the least -- as does using the latter as a false nine. Scolari has never hidden his preference for playing with a conventional centre-forward.
A more straightforward solution would be to change personnel within the existing system. Willian impressed in the pre-World Cup friendlies and may feel hard done by not to have started a game so far. Scolari could be brave and start him wide on Friday, moving Oscar deeper. But Colombia's attacking potency is likely to encourage the manager to select a more combative player alongside Fernandinho.
It is in attack that Brazil's lack of options really hits home. Fred is far from the chancer many have made him out to be, and he is playing far below his best. With a top-class replacement in the squad, he would surely have been replaced by now, but Jo is viewed more as a last resort than a genuine starting option.
It is probable, then, that Scolari will maintain the bulk of the side that faced Chile, with only one enforced change. With no real Plan B, he must cross his fingers and hope that the faith he has shown in his favoured system -- and in his players -- was not misplaced.
The elephant in the room here, of course, is the possibility of an injury to Neymar. After a bang on the thigh against the tough Chileans, he has been passed fit to face Colombia, but doubts remain over whether he will be at 100 percent. Simply put, if he is not firing on all cylinders, Brazil could have a Plan B, a Plan C and a Plan XYZ for all it would matter. Without the 22-year-old, everything falls apart.