Tim Vickery Column: Some thoughts on the Brazil squad announced last week
A little over a month ago I had to predict the squad for World Soccer magazine. I was wrong three times, all of them close calls. I thought that Rafinha’s relative youth would win the day against Maicon in the race to be reserve right back. I went for Robinho over Bernard – and time may well tell whether Scolari has made a mistake with this one. It is a vital position. The make up of any squad should have a likely first team, a number of variations – and a figure able to come off the bench and change the course of the game. Imagine the situation; in one of the knock-out games Brazil are losing with twenty minutes to go, and the opponents are looking comfortable in defence. Who can come on and change things, open up space, provide some individual inspiration? This is the post that Bernard now occupies – Scolari is showing huge faith in the young winger.
My third error would have been avoided had I listened to my own instincts. I had convinced myself that the fourth centre-back position would go to Henrique. But early last month I went to interview Oscar Bernardi, a great centre back of the past, for a forthcoming documentary on Brazil’s 1982 team. We talked about the composition of the squad, and he was convinced that, as part of preparation for future campaigns, Marquinhos of PSG would be named. I bowed to his knowledge and contacts – and got it wrong.
Henrique became a logical choice from the moment that Fernandinho of Manchester City forced his way in. As I argued last week, against South Africa in March Fernandinho played an unconvincing first half in the holding midfield role, and then did much better after the break when he was pushed forward into Paulinho’s slot. His inclusion meant there was no room for Lucas Leiva, leaving Scolari without a natural reserve for the holding position – identified last year as a vital part of Brazil’s defensive system, when Luiz Gustavo established himself in the side. But an occupational hazard of the defensive midfielder is the possibility of picking up cards – meaning that Scolari felt the need to include more cover for this position. He knows Henrique well from their time together at Palmeiras, where the player was often used in midfield. As befits one of the fringe members of the squad, Henrique has the versatility to provide cover in two functions.
Henrique’s call up, then, was not so hard to predict. The fact that in Brazil it has been treated as something of a shock is an eloquent symbol of the lack of surprise, and the absence of controversy, in Scolari’s list of 23.
But that is not how it looks from the other side of the Atlantic. Those whose primary focus is European club football have been scratching their heads at some of Scolari’s decisions – or more specifically, some of those he has left out.
Some – and you would surely have to be in Europe to think this – are shocked by the absence of Ronaldinho. They have clearly not seen much of him in the last few years. They have, though, seen plenty of Phillipe Coutinho, who has enjoyed such an excellent season with Liverpool, and would not be out of place in the squad. His problem, though, was the fact that Brazil are strong in his position, and everyone who has played there for Scolari has done well. There was no space for him – or for Kaka, who, unlike Coutinho was given a chance to show Scolari what he could do, and was judged physically past his best.
A strong case could be made for the Atletico Madrid pair of Miranda and Filipe Luis – though the latter clearly did not impress in training during the Confederations Cup. Miranda only played a few minutes under Scolari – the last few minutes of his first game back in charge, the 2-1 defeat against England last February. Maybe he came close to being named in that final centre-back slot - which Scolari said had taken up more time than any other during the selection meeting, and which finally went to Henrique.
And then there is the case of Lucas Moura, such a big money signing for Paris Saint Germain. That huge transfer fee (in excess of 40 million Euros) hid the fact that the right winger remains more of a promise than a reality, a rapid dribbler with sustained pace, but still a work in progress.
Some of his problems started with success; in the 2011 South American Under-20 Championships he had enjoyed an interesting, if frustrating campaign, full of pace but one dimensioned and lacking in collective play. The last game, though, was one of those in which everything went right. It was against Uruguay, and would decide the title. The Uruguayans had a man sent off early, and Lucas ran riot, scoring a hat-trick in a 6-0 rout.
It was the last impression and in the epic match of the year – and on his return to Brazil Lucas was treated as if he had played the entire tournament at the level of his great display against Uruguay. This was not true, but, mistakenly, he was fast tracked into the senior Brazil squad for the Copa America. It would have been far better had he gone to the World Under-20 Cup in Colombia, where, with Neymar on senior duty, Lucas would have had the responsibility to carry the attack. He would have been obliged to operate in a more collective manner.
Instead, his presence in the senior squad allowed the hype to build around his transfer fee. Then-Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson exclaimed that PSG paying so much for a 19 year promise was evidence that “the game’s gone mad.” The young man at the centre of the insanity, Lucas Moura appears remarkably level headed. But being surrounded with massive expectations at such an early stage of his career must inevitably take a toll, and he is still a long way from the finished article.
The 2018 World Cup may be his moment, but he has missed out this time - missed a chance to be part of that epic match of the year in his homeland. During last year’s Confederations Cup he was head-to head against Bernard. Lucas had the big name price tag, and started the race in front – he was the player the crowd called for whenever Brazil needed a goal. But over the course of the campaign he was overtaken by Bernard, who comes with the extra bonus of looking comfortable on either flank.
Lucas then played himself out of contention with a very disappointing first half against Zambia last October, and Bernard made the most of his chance in the next game against Honduras, scoring the opening goal and ensuring that he is the man to whom Scolari is most likely to turn to if Brazil are desperate for a World Cup goal.