This past Saturday’s defeat on penalties to Paraguay has shown a light yet again on a growing issue within Brazilian football- Brazil is, frankly, pretty average these days. They are still blessed with skilled players with lots of technique but as a team, they are pretty pedestrian by their standards. They no longer look the innovative, impish but intelligent artists of football.They were always likely bound to play more conservatively following their 7-1 demolition at the hands of Germany on home soil in last summer’s World Cup but they are hardly recognizable as a Brazilian team any more and with Dunga at the helm of Seleçao, they looked bereft of ideas in their Copa America campaign once Neymar was suspended.
When you watch Brazil now they are a team that look all runners and no creators or playmakers in their midfield or strike force. Even their fullbacks, especially Dani Alves, were often the runners who got forward more often and end up in more forward positions than their main striker, Roberto Firmino. Now, I’m no tactical expert but in my somewhat rudimentary understanding of tactics, Brazil look to have too many trequartistas or running attacking midfielders and no out-and-out strikers or the kind of strikers who play more through the middle and run the channels. They seem to run around too much at times, often looking like they’re lacking true attacking purpose and in this Dunga Brazilian side it seemed Roberto Firmino as the main striker often got into others’ way and positions where runs could be made the players seemed to get in each other’s way and clog their areas of attack.
This style of play is also compounded by how Brazilian sides tend to play in their domestic league since the nineties as well where they seem to attack almost in platoons or groups of three of four with the fullbacks often providing the only width. Narrow formations of 4-2-2-2 with a “box” midfield proliferate Brazilian domestic clubs and it isn’t the 4-2-2-2 of the Brazilian ’82 World Cup side that had four creative number tens in midfield. The current midfield that dominates Brazilian football is a pretty stale boxed four that often consists more of two number sixes and two number eights than anything resembling a samba midfield of days gone by. Some clubs have gone to narrow 4-2-3-1s with three attacking midfielders but they generally play so narrow that their attacks lose impetus because the attacking midfielders get in each other’s way because they’re similarly styled, generally. Or the two outer attacking midfielders spend time trying to provide a bit of width with the fullbacks causing attacks to peter out. Picture domestic leagues with midfielders trying to beat several players on the dribble before losing it outside the box. Repeat ad infinitum and sprinkle in the odd goal and that’s Brazilian Série A matches for the most part. Couple that with a pragmatic coach in the likes of Dunga and you can see why sans Neymar, Brazil has a bleak outlook in their near future for their national side. So, while Dunga tightened up their defense and salvaged some pride following the embarrassment versus Germany, his current team doesn’t instill any sort of awe or entertainment and skill that history is littered with from Brazilian sides of the past.
What’s interesting about this situation is not only that Brazil is struggling but it’s a good case study in how even a nation that was at the top of the footballing food chain for decades can not only stagnate but regress in their standards. Brazil are by no means terrible but by their standards they are in what might be considered a crisis. For all the talk of progression in this country about the standards of our soccer/football, we can use the case of Brazil (and to a lesser extent the Magic Magyars of Hungary of the fifties) to remind us that while we may very well be getting better at the sport, it’s by no means a guarantee that we will be on top because other nations are progressing as well. In fact, in my opinion, despite regularly getting out of World Cup groups recently and even winning our group in 2010, as far as our actual talent, despite our talent pool being much larger than in the past, in terms of how we currently fit into the global game, it feels like we’ve stagnated.
Others have talked on this point at far greater length and much more detailed than myself but the point is, getting better isn’t the same as being good or great and even when you’re great, like Brazil has been, it doesn’t mean you’ll remain so forever. Evolve or die; repeat cycle perpetually lest you get caught by the chasing pack. Because here’s the thing that sometimes people forget for those who aren’t geologists or geographers- not only is climbing the mountain difficult (e.g., getting better at football like the US or being good at football like Brazil) but because of active plate tectonics (e.g. tactical evolution, socio-economic changes, etc.) the mountain can actually get higher. As Brazil as found out, sometime you remain on a plateau.
Like Germany’s revitalization of their development structure in the 2000s which led to their rebirth of being at the top of world football, Brazil is also in need of drastic change but their domestic federation is so traditionally corrupt (hint-hint, MLS) it will take a historical revolution in the administration levels of Brazilian football and as you are likely aware if you listen to the podcast regularly, I like to remind people that people in power tend to only give up power through revolution or scandal. With the political undercurrents in contemporary Brazil there’s a chance that change may occur but it is still far on the horizon at this point. Maybe the Seleçao sliding into mediocrity will be the catalyst of change both on and off the field. The initial post Copa America exit comments coming from the Brazilian camp, however, sounds more like they’re in denial than actually being closer to the solution.
I hope Neymar gets stronger because he’ll be carrying an entire nation’s hopes on his shoulders like a Latin Atlas. Because short of him, the days of samba soccer, sadly, look to be dying.