Green (and Yellow) shoots of recovery?

Crisis? What Crisis? Two International Friendlies, two positive results and the assumption would be that all is rosy in the Brazilian garden. Or is it? Since the bitter disappointment in South Africa coupled with this year’s failure in the Copa America, the Samba Boys have looked a pale shadow of their former selves. A Seleção’s latest set of opponents provided another opportunity to assess Mano Menezes’s choice of personnel, his team’s temperament and, above all, determine whether Verde-Amarelha are headed on the road to recovery. 

Since his installation as Head Coach of the National side last year, following the dismissal of 1994 FIFA World Cup winning captain Dunga, the former Corinthians manager has been frustrated in his attempts to implement the jogo bonito brand of football which many Brazilian fans have wanted to see a return to. A constant shuffling in personnel, a lack of consistency in major tournaments and International Friendlies and, as some Brazilians maintain, an apparent dearth in the quality of resources available to Menezes, as opposed to previous years, explains the team’s current lowly seventh position in the FIFA World rankings However, with the National Team not penciled in to compete in a major tournament until the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013, Mano Menezes has two full years to tinker, tailor, scrutinize and strengthen his squad. 

Much of the build up however, was again centred on the longstanding debate between the compatibility of the Brazilian domestic calendar with that of FIFA’s international calendar. As it stands, the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A carries on regardless of FIFA’s international dates. And whilst A Seleção would be mad not to use FIFA’s dates in order to continue their preparations for the FIFA World Cup Finals in 2014, several Brazilian managers have been, somewhat unsurprisingly, left infuriated, with a host of big-name players, namely Botafogo’s Jefferson, Flamengo CF’s Ronaldinho, São Paulo’s Lucas Moura, Internacional’s Oscar and Santos’s Neymar, being whisked away for International Duty at a particularly vital time in the season for their respective clubs. Nonetheless, the show must go on and both of Brazil’s performances revealed plenty of strengths as well as weaknesses.

Menezes’s primary concern over these next two years will be to experiment both with formations and, more so, personnel, especially those Brazilian players who are currently plying their trade in the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A. Step forward Botafogo’s 28-year-old goalkeeper Jefferson. There’s no doubt that within the space of 90 minutes at the Estadio Corona in Torreón on Tuesday evening, Brazil’s 49-year-old Head Coach would have seen the Jekyll and Hyde personality of Júlio César’s deputy. Whilst the tall São Paulo born man produced a number of terrific saves, including pulling off a save low down to his left to keep out Andrés Guardado’s penalty in the first-half, he was often guilty of flapping at too many crosses and looked uncertain when in possession which consequently had a similarly unsettling effect on the Brazilian backline.

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Despite speaking to Brazilians who argue that the current crop of defenders are the best that the country has witnessed in a decade, both games seemed to somewhat undermine that suggestion. Against Costa Rica, the centre-back paring of Chelsea’s David Luiz and AC Milan’s Thiago Silva, looked susceptible from long balls, often allowing striker Winston Parks to find an outlet in behind the pair. In the face of a more cohesive Mexico team, Brazil’s defence managed to hold its own for large parts of the game however, on the rare occasions when it was breached, its was often as a result of through balls threaded from the midfield through to Mexico’s front three of Real Zaragoza’s Pablo Barrera, and the Barclays Premier League duo of Tottenham Hotspur’s Giovani dos Santos and Manchester United’s Javier Hernández.

Where Menezes will take most encouragement from is further up field in midfield and attack. Despite at times looking shaky, Brazil’s defence was generally well shielded by Liverpool’s defensive-midfielder Lucas Leiva who has become an integral part of the Brazilian set-up. Yet, it was Flamengo CF’s Ronaldinho who arguably stole the headlines. Since his return to the National squad after a four-year absence, the 31-year-old looks revitalized. On Tuesday evening, Brazil’s Captain passed the ball around with confidence. And whilst he may have lost his pace, which once gave rise to his trademark jinking runs, he was central to Brazil’s creativity. Having drawn a number of saves from Mexico goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, the attacking-midfielder capped off a fine display with a wonderful free kick from outside the six-yard box to level the game at 1-1.

Although Ronaldinho was given licence to weave his magic in midfield, he was often left frustrated by the team’s lack of width down both sets of flanks. His frustration is primarily due to Brazil’s formation – that of 4-2-2-2 – which relies heavily on both Full backs bombarding forward along with constant movement upfront from both strikers. Ultimately, a lack of options on both counts often put an end to a series of promising Brazilian attacks in the final third. And yet ironically, when the ball was played out to the wide areas, it paid dividends as Real Madrid’s Marcelo’s marauding run come shot down the left hand side sealed a much deserved win for Menezes’ team and inflict a first defeat for Mexico manager José Manuel de la Torre. The fact remains though, that Brazil have yet to find a way of consistently threatening in attack.

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Against Costa Rica, Menezes’s team struggled to get a single shot on target in the entirety of the first half as a result of a disconnection between the front four attackers. Real questions still remain as to what the National Team’s front four should be? Neymar, with his liveliness on the ball, excellent link-up play and goal scoring temperament, is almost sure to spearhead the Brazil attack however the remaining places are very much up for grabs. Internacional striker Leandro Damião has only recently burst onto the scene and it remains to be seen whether he has enough in his game to cope on the International stage; Real Madrid’s Kaká will need to ensure he continues to play regularly under José Mourinho whilst Santos’s Paulo Henrique Ganso must ensure he secures the number 10 jersey.

A Seleção’s preparations continue in earnest in mid-November with away trips to Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian subcontinent with matches against next year’s African Cup of Nations co-hosts Gabon and seven-time winners of the competition Egypt in Qatar, respectively. And whilst the real acid test of this current Brazilian team will come against big-name opposition, on this evidence Brazil’s green (and yellow) shoots of recovery are slowly and shyly re-emerging.

Twitter: @aleksklosok