A question of balance for Big Phil

RIO DE JANEIRO – SK.  It is often said that the main task of Brazil´s coach is to find and strike a right balance between defence and attack – between Brazilian flair and European organization. A Brazil coach should unearth a synergy between flamboyance and order. Instilling a certain discipline into his loose headed players is the key recipe for a Brazil coach to have success. 

Balance is paramount in football. Brazil gained its reputation as samba king of world football when its outfits struck a perfect balance between the defensive and offensive compartment.  Brazil´s 4-3-3 formation in 1970 is the perfect example – sensational attacking force was combined with defensive security spearheaded by Clodoaldo. The marauding rushes of Carlos Alberto Torres, Rivelino´s thunderous shots and Tostao´s neat play off the ball against Italy in the final have since become part of football folklore.

In many ways the 1970 Selecao was a refined version of Brazil 1958, which lined-up in a 4-2-4 formation. Zagalo provided Vicente Feola´s eleven with the right poise, often pulling back to help out in midfield. The industrious outside left made it thus a 4-3-3. Zagalo´s role became evident in the crucial group game against the USSR where Garrincha dazzled his way forward on the right wing. Gabriel Hanot dubbed the first three minutes of the encounter as the best in the history of football.

One wonders what Zagalo must have been thinking as Brazil desperately tried to strike a right balance in testing out a number of formations and personnel in recent friendlies against Italy and Russia. While Brazil do not longer boost players the likes of Djalma Santos, Didi, Clodoaldo, Rivelino, Gerson, etc., Brazil´s Luiz Felipe Scolari was appointed to implant more pedigree and panache into the slumbering Brazil XI of recent seasons. Gone would be the days of Mano Menezes perennially rebuilding the side, instead  Scolari would with aplomb bulldoze his way to another world title.

His quest to win the world cup seems, however, to have hit a bumpy road already. After capitulating a two goal advantage against Italy in Geneva, Brazil nearly succumbed to defeat against Russia in London four days later.  Scolari must have been agonized but what he saw from his team in the course of this European trip: blatant incompetence reigned both at the back and at the front of  the team. The defensive frailties, so often the Achilles ´heel during Mano Menzes´ tenure,  were exposed again in a barren manner while the front men showed a distinct lack of mutual understanding.

Against Italy, Brazil were on the back foot straightaway. The Squadra Azzuri pilled on the pressure, creating plenty of chances as the Selecao failed to pick up Italy´s linkman Giacherini. It enabled Italy to carefully spread the play and often get in behind the back of the Brazilian defense, often to the torment of Dante and Filipe Luis. The Italians cut at will through the benevolent Brazilian defense and only outstanding saves from Julio Cesar from Balotelli and Maggio prevented Pirlo and co taking the lead.

Against the run of play Fred, Fluminense´s outstanding striker during the 2012 Brasileirao, put Brazil in front connecting with Neymar´s cross in the 32nd minute. Oscar doubled the lead, graciously carving it past Buffon off the outside of his right-foot. It was much more a testimony to the level of efficiency  – that Brazil has shown ever since Carlos Alberto Parreira truly ´Europeanized´ the Selecao during the 1994 World Cup adhering to a rigid 4-4-2 formation –  than to the pure class and incisiveness that is still so often linked to the Brazilian game.

But after the break Italy deservedly managed to turn the tables. The introduction of El Shaarawy and Cerci brought more mobility and agility to Italy´s game and Prandelli´s substitutions paid dividends before the hour mark: De Rossi gently turning in a corner-kick before Mario Balotelli unleashed a ferocious drive that caught Julio Cesar badly off his line.  Italy should have won the game from thereon, but failed to convert its chances.

Balotelli´s meak attempt inside the box was again saved by the admirably playing Julio Cesar; Bonucci´s header flashed past the far post. Scolari, often dubbed pragmatic, refused to alter his 4-3-3 formation, while the circumstances of the game thoroughly warranted it. He opted to give Kaka a run out, substituting Oscar. The Real Madrid star though failed to impose himself in the remainder of the game.

Rightly praising Hernanes and Julio Cesar after the game, Big Phil insisted 4-3-3 might be his preferred formation come the Confederations Cup early summer. He benched Dante, Filipe Luis and Hulk for Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Kaka for the friendly against Russia at Stamford Bridge. In 2006 Brazil last met the Russians, beating them in the freezing cold in Moscow thanks to a lone strike from Ronaldo.

Brazil  began at Scolari´s fomer home ground where it had left off against Italy – with a festival of defensive errors inviting pressure from the opponents. Russia, ranked 10th on the FIFA ranking and therefore 8 places higher than Brazil, duly obliged with an encouraging tempo: Iganeshevich from a free-kick and Glushakov at the far post threatened.  Russia controlled the game, pressing high and limiting the space for Brazil to express itself.  Kerzhakov and Shirokov pulled the strings in a well-orchestrated Russian show.

Brazil, wandering somewhere between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2, gradually restored the equilibrium, but mustered little in the final third. There was more Brazilian huffing and puffing after the break with Neymar and Oscar briefly switching flanks and Kaka, non-existent in the first half, playing closer to the box. Russia remained very compact and a lack of coordinated interaction among Brazil´s frontplayers had Capello´s outfit never troubled. Neymar´s selfishness personified Brazil´s lacklustre perfomance up front, devoid from any inspiration and collective aspirations.

A never-ending goal mouth scramble, including last ditch blocks from Hernanes and Fernando, lead to Vazuylin finding the ball unmarked in the area and from a few yards out he left Julio Cesar with no chance. Vazuylin enforced a fair verdict on Brazil, which never fully recovered from a very jittery start. Panicky and woken form its internal struggles,  Brazil did get out of jail a few minutes before the end: Fred, a true goal poacher,  tapping in a Marcelo cross, after the latter´s excellent exchange with substitute Hulk. Marcelo´s fine use of space and Hulk´s cameo were a refreshing sight, but could not undo the fact that Brazil had again turned to individual guile to salvage a draw.

Brazil´s lamentable showing scarcely deserved a draw, but more importantly  Russia, and Italy, were not unfazed by Brazil, comfortably holding, and for the better part outplaying the Selecao. Italy and Russia reduced Brazil to an overhyped globetrotting samba band, no longer playing with an intimidating batucada rhythm, but merely representing Brazil´s most famous export product. The days of genuine football fans nursing a soft spot for Brazil seem truly to be over.

A debate about Brazilian football identity is of remote interest to Scolari, but he will have realized that Brazil no longer command great respect on the international stage. His three games in charge underline this: since November 2009 Brazil has been unable to beat a former World Champion. It´s grim reading for Big Phil and the recent friendlies have been far from encouraging.

Taking a mere quantative approach, Mano Menezes got it right from midfield to attack towards the end of his reign. It begs the question whether in hindsight it has been a mistake by the CBF to appoint Scolari? The host nation of the 2014 World Cup can only reassure itself with the idea that a deplorable outing such as against Russia is barely possible to repeat, but it is counting on Luiz Felipe Scolari to get his balance in personnel and formation right very soon with the Confederations Cup looming around the corner.