It was approximately one year ago when Luiz Felipe Scolari’s managerial tenure as Brazil’s head coach looked in tatters. Some would argue that partially through no fault of his own, Scolari’s stint was left in a sorry state. Neymar’s campaign was over after having his back broken in the latter stages of their World Cup quarterfinal against Colombia courtesy of a cynical challenge. Such was the loss that the players all donned snap backs in support of their injured warrior, a move Dunga at the time was highly critical of. Forget about Neymar and get on with the job was the message.
Fast forward 12 months and Dunga himself found himself in a similar career defining moment. Ironically, once again, it was Colombia who had ended Neymar’s participation in a major international sporting competition, this time through a four match suspension handed down for the 23-year-old’s antics.
Neymar, of course, had acted like a spoiled kid who was dissatisfied with everything that went against him. His frustration at being unable to break down Colombia’s stubborn defense clearly evident as he was lucky to escape a booking towards the end of the first half after protesting against the referee and subsequently punching the ball away. He would later try to headbutt an opponent and strike another with the ball, all of which culminated in a dramatic downfall. A monster had been unleashed, so they said.
Although Dunga faced criticism for his move in naming a still immature Neymar as captain of world soccer’s most successful side, Dunga largely dealt with the situation with class and didn’t allow such a controversial scenario to derail the Selečao’s attempt to reach the knockout stages. The fans too accepted Neymar’s suspension with grace.
But unlike his heroics against Peru in the match earlier in the tournament, Neymar endured a sub-par performance against the Colombians in part due to a disciplined defensive set-up to deny the 23-year-old space. With Dunga’s tactics largely based around feeding Neymar the ball, effectively shutting the attacker out meant Brazil had no chance with such inflexible tactics. When afforded space, though, the Barcelona man was guilty of overplaying in situations where laying it off to a teammate would’ve been a more prudent decision. Not to mention the fact that he had missed a sitter of a header yards out from the goal.
In Neymar’s absence, Joao Miranda, a no-nonsense defender, has stepped up to the plate and led the side with conviction. Thiago Silva, who was perhaps unfairly stripped of the captaincy after Dunga’s re-appointment, also led from the back. His opening goal against Venezuela off a corner after some solid build-up play helped settle some early Selecao nerves. But Silva is a leader who walks the talk.
But, bar the nervy moments towards the end, Brazil’s defense has significantly improved. Thiago Silva has performed well, Miranda has been assured, Alves has shown versatility in defense and attack, playing as a left winger for the final moments of that same match, and Felipe Luis has been solid. Marquinhos also provides a solid option in the back and would fit in with ease. Meanwhile, David Luiz seems to have found a new role as a defensive midfielder next to Fernandinho at the expense of Elias.
More importantly, Neymar’s absence seems to be a blessing in disguise. Sure, the Barcelona attacker is a class act. He’s been the only Brazilian in recent years to have been touted as a prospective Ballon d’Or winner since Kaka. And it would be far-fetched to suggest that Brazil would be a better side without him.
Yet, the match against Venezuela demonstrated a fact that the vast majority of people had seemingly forgotten about. Brazil have other high profile attackers who are considered to be up there with the best. Robinho is an ex-Real Madrid striker who, although his career is in decline, still has the ability to be a worthy deputy on his day. Willian, a talismanic Chelsea winger, and Coutinho have proven to be a midfield sensation for Liverpool over the past few seasons.
And it was the trio of them who stepped up when called upon. Coutinho ably performed in his wide role, providing flair while linking up well with teammates. Willian’s industrious nature in attacking both wings and providing assistance in defense was abundantly clear,while Robinho has the ability to knit together an attack. Meanwhile, the versatility of new Liverpool signing Roberto Firmino has given Dunga a plethora of alternate attacking outlets.
If anything, instead of the previously one-sided nature of Brazil’s attack, Neymar’s absence and the resurgence of key players may prove to be a defining feature of the Selecao in the years ahead.
Against Paraguay, who alongside Chile and Argentina, are one of three undefeated nations in the Copa America, the quartet of them will need to once again step up to the task at hand. While their future in the Copa remains dubious, Neymar’s absence may well be a blessing in disguise. And with a tough 2-year long World Cup qualifications stage beginning in October, this change is exactly what Dunga needed.
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