In search of Brazil's missing midfield
As Julio Cesar's crossbar trembled from Mauricio Pinilla's fearsome uppercut in the last seconds of extra time against Chile, Brazil were punch-drunk and on the ropes. But like Sylvester Stallone in a certain series of Hollywood boxing flicks, the hometown heroes managed to fight back in improbably dramatic style against Gary Medel, Arturo Vidal and the rest of the Chilean Clubber Langs.
Even Rocky ran out of steam eventually, however. Whether the Selecao do the same against Colombia depends on a number of factors. Will the galumphing Fred or his stablemate Jo be able to provide even a semblance of an attacking threat? Can hapless full-backs Marcelo and Dani Alves deal with Los Cafeteros' pace on the flanks? Just how much fun is James Rodriguez going to have with the footballer formerly known as Paulinho, rather than the doughty Luis Gustavo, covering him? How many Brazilian players will descend into a hysterical, 12-year-old-girl-at-a-One-Direction-show crying jag during the course of the afternoon?
Perhaps the most important question, however, is what Brazil are going to do about the yawning chasm that lies at the heart of the team: its midfield. "As well as lacking a playmaker, Luiz Gustavo is too close to the centre backs, Neymar is too close to Fred, and Oscar and Hulk are too far wide. Fernandinho (or whoever plays in his role) is as marooned as Robinson Crusoe on his island, watching the ball fly over his head," 1970 World Cup winner Tostao wrote in the Folha de Sao Paulo after the Chile game. "Brazil's midfield is like a semi-arid region," journalist Mauro Beting said in Lance! magazine, a reference to the parched, sprawling inland territories of the north-east region of the country, where little manages to grow.
It is hard to disagree. Other than in Brazil's opening game against Croatia, Oscar has been wispy, ineffectual and isolated. Against Chile he was virtually invisible. Paulinho -- whose forward runs and knack of grabbing important goals were so important during the Selecao's Confederations Cup triumph last year -- has brought his dreary Tottenham form with him to the World Cup. Despite the awful blunder that led to Chile's goal, Hulk was one of Brazil's best players in Saturday's nerve-shredding epic, storming up and down the wing, but as Tostao points out, he is a wide player, not a midfielder. While an improvement on Paulinho, Fernandinho was mais ou menos ("not great, but not bad") in the same game; Ramires was largely ineffectual in the first half against Mexico; and Hernanes and Willian have been used mainly as late substitutes.
The problem, however, is only partly to do with positioning. Just like at the centre-forward position, where Fred and Jo are more Pete than George Best, Brazil is suffering from a dearth of midfield talent -- so much so that it only took a few strong domestic performances from Sao Paulo's talented, if often insipid, creative midfielder Paulo Henrique Ganso to have a number of fans and journalists crying for his inclusion in the World Cup squad. Nor is it difficult to find Brazilians who believe Ronaldinho Gaucho should have been brought to the Mundial party as an attacking Plan B. Perhaps a year ago, when the old lag was still in something close to his pomp while helping Atletico Mineiro win the Copa Libertadores, he might have had a shout, but his decline, partly due to injury, over the last 12 months has been precipitous. Kaka and Lucas Moura were closer to a World Cup call-up than either Ronaldinho or Ganso, but in the end neither really shone when given a chance in friendlies.
It is slim pickings, and a considerable fall from grace for a country that at the 1982 World Cup in Spain boasted players such as Falcao, Socrates, Zico and Cerezo in midfield. In those days the ball spun from Brazilian toe to Brazilian toe as though on a string, while opponents watched hypnotised. But the team's ultimate failure led to a sea change in Brazilian football (1994 World Cup-winning captain Dunga described the side as "specialists in losing"), and a retreat into a more muscular, European style of midfield play, epitomised by the likes of Dunga himself, Gilberto Silva and (gulp) Felipe Melo. The creative midfielder was dead, a solid defensive base was key, and the goals would come from flying full-backs or individual attacking geniuses such as Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and, today, Neymar.
It has worked to a point -- two World Cups in 20-odd years would be plenty for most countries. But the ball does not move around this Brazil team as it once did. And elsewhere, football has progressed. In recent years Spain, and at this World Cup, France, Germany, Chile and Colombia, among others, have impressed through the trickery and speed of their midfielders, attacking or otherwise. Brazil, meanwhile, seem like a team in search of an identity -- something they thought they had rediscovered during last year's Confederations Cup triumph -- unable to hold the ball for very long, overly reliant on Neymar, and with coach Luiz Felipe Scolari rumoured to be considering tactical switches for the game against Colombia.
"We're stuck in time. While other teams have evolved, we continue to be trapped in the same methodology," said Brazilian club coach Paulo Autuori in O Tempo newspaper on Wednesday. Brazil have survived this far, but unless there is a considerable improvement against Colombia, Rodriguez and pals could be ready to land the knockout blow.