Tim Vickery Column- Who will Luiz Felipe Scolari turn to in the absence of one of his key players?
What a time to lose Luiz Gustavo to a suspension!
Friday’s opponents Colombia have the best player of the World Cup so far in attacking midfielder James Rodriguez, and now Brazil have to do without the man who would normally be expected to keep him quiet – without a natural substitute in the squad.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had enough on his plate on Saturday steering his side past Chile. But once the penalty shoot out was over and the place in the quarter finals was assured, he must surely have regretted the second yellow card picked up by a player who for over a year now has been one of the first names on the team-sheet.
The story began at the start of last June with the friendly against England that re-inaugurated the Maracana stadium. Scolari put his foot down and made sure that Bayern Munich, where Luiz Gustavo was playing at the time, released the player in time to get back across the Atlantic for the match. The insistence of Brazil’s coach on this issue was seen as something of a surprise; Luiz Gustavo had not been seen as a likely starter for the England game. And indeed, he only lasted 45 minutes. Brazil dominated the first half, but created little. Scolari decided to take a risk, and replaced Luiz Gustavo with Hernanes at the interval. The team had more attacking possibilities, but at the expense of defensive solidity. England scored two goals, from precisely the space in front of the centre backs that Luiz Gustavo had been protecting. It needed a late Paulinho equaliser to give Brazil a 2-2 draw. Scolari’s mind was made up. There was no chance of him starting another game without a specialist holder – a decision that was confirmed a few days later when Luiz Gustavo helped set up the opening goal in a 3-0 win over France, Brazil’s first victory over heavyweight opponents in four years.
Ever since, then, Luiz Gustavo has been a fixture in the team. After the Confederations Cup, Lucas Leiva was recalled as his reserve. But then two things happened. First, Lucas had an injury problem at Liverpool which kept him out of action for a while. And also Scolari found it hard to ignore the form of Fernandinho at Manchester City.
Fernandinho came into the squad for the friendly away to South Africa at the start of March. He played the first half in Luiz Gustavo’s position, and did not look entirely convincing; he is a player of lung power rather than defensive positioning. After the break he pushed forward into the role normally filled by Paulinho, and looked much better, scoring a long range special.
This left Scolari with a problem when it came to naming his 23 man squad. Paulinho was his first choice for the second man in midfield in his 4-2-3-1 system, and Hernanes was his reserve. Including Fernandinho as well gave him three men for the same position – four if Ramires is included. There was therefore no room for Lucas Leiva, and thus no reserve holding midfielder – a position which is always likely to pick up yellow cards.
This was the background to what Scolari confessed was the position in the squad that took up most time and discussion amongst the Brazil coaching staff – that of the fourth centre back. Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Dante were obvious choices, but who should complete the set? The winner was Henrique, seen by many as the sole surprise in the squad. And clearly part of the justification for his inclusion was the fact that he can also operate in the holding role, and did so many times under Scolari’s command at Palmeiras.
So what happens now? There are probably three options. One is to drop Fernandinho deeper and hope he can adjust. Another would be to be to move David Luiz forward to midfield, and bring Dante into the back four – though Scolari would surely be reluctant to break up his centre back partnership. And the other is to throw Henrique into the deep end.
Whatever Brazil decide, James Rodriguez is waiting.