Vickery Column: Scolari's successful experiments leave him spoiled for choice
Julio Cesar in goal. A back four of Daniel Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Marcelo. A central midfield duo of Luiz Gustavo, to hold, and Paulinho, to perform a mixed role. A fluid line of three containing Hulk, Oscar and Neymar. Fred at centre forward.
It was Scolari’s first team then, and it still remains so. But that does not mean Brazil have been resting on their laurels. Rather, Scolari has been using subsequent friendlies to add options and variations. Let’s go through them;
Last September against Australia and Portugal there came the recall of Ramires, permitting a switch from 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. Maicon was successfully brought back as a reserve right back, and Maxwell introduced on the other flank as a less talented but steadier back up to Marcelo. Plenty of centre backs have also been placed under the microscope; Dante was already part of the group, and Dede, Marquinhos and Henrique have all had a little chance to show what they can do.
In November William made a triumphant return to the squad, enthusing Scolari and presumably ending the hopes of the likes of Kaka and Philippe Coutinho. And there was also the interesting experiment with Robinho; the injury to Fred had opened up a debate about Brazil’s lack of options at centre forward. Scolari has always favoured a traditional target man figure. But he was sufficiently wise and flexible to perceive that Brazil currently lack strength in depth in this position, and that it might be a good idea to investigate an alternative. Robinho, then, as recalled and asked to play in the ‘false nine’ position. Against Chile in Canada last November he came off the bench to head the winning goal.
And the experiments continued this week against South Africa. Now Scolari does not only have one quality back up to Daniel Alves at right back. As well as Maicon, he now also has Rafinha of Bayern Munich, who gave a competent display. Presumably Maicon is still in pole position, but should age have taken its toll by the end of the season another satisfactory option has been tested. Meanwhile, there might be no need after all to select a reserve left back. Daniel Alves could perform the role – he was brought on early in the second half against South Africa to have a look at this very variation. Should Scolari decide that, on the basis of this experiment, he can do without Maxwell, a place in the squad is opened up for an extra attacking player.
There is also the case of Fernandinho, though here things become a little more complicated. The Manchester City midfielder scored a magnificent goal, struck from range with such sweetness that the South African keeper did not even move.
But Fernandinho had been brought in mainly to be given an opportunity in the holding role, sitting in front of the back four. This is not his natural function – he is more of a lung buster, hence the fact that his club have been interested in his near namesake, Fernando of Porto. Fernandinho did not look at all comfortable in the first half. At the interval, though, Luiz Gustavo was brought on to play the holding role, freeing Fernandinho to play his more natural game, in the slot normally filled by Paulinho.
What conclusions can Scolari draw from this? He is a big believer of the importance of the holding midfielder; the introduction of Luiz Gustavo last year was one of the most important pieces in his jigsaw. It is also a position where a player is liable to pick up cards. Brazil’s coach will surely think that he needs a specialist reserve – a place in the squad which, until his recent injury, was being filled by Lucas Leiva of Liverpool. What might Scolari do, then? Keep Lucas Leiva in his squad and instead view Fernandinho as a rival to Hernanes for the post of reserve to Paulinho?
There is plenty, then, for Luiz Felipe Scolari to think about in the two months before he names his Word Cup squad. In fact, he has almost become a victim of his own success. He has more options than can be included in a group of 23.