[Note: This story appears in Turnstile, a digital match program for Brazil-Argentina, June 9, at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands. Download Turnstile free for your iPad here, or a pdf with the same content here.]
Last year, Brazil and argentina both went out in the quarterfinals of a chaotic Copa América. Now they have to find the right systems to beat the world’s best teams—beginning with each other.
By Jonathan Wilson
Brazil finds itself in an awkward position. After a desperately disappointing quarterfinal exit in the 2011 Copa América, the Seleçao has three years to put it right with only the Olympic Games this year and the Confederations Cup next in the way of ‘proper’ matches. (Even then, the Olympic Games allow only three players over the age of 23, and the quality of opposition in the Confederations Cup is questionable, as the major nations seem unsure of the tournament’s importance.) Other teams may complain about qualifiers, but they do at least offer an opportunity for competitive games. Brazil must rely on friendlies, in which it’s never clear how seriously the opposition is treating the game. That’s one reason the June 9th game against Argentina is so important: La Selección has similar improvements to make after its own quarterfinal exit in the Copa América. And besides, there’s no such thing as a friendly between Brazil and Argentina.
The lack of competitive games is particularly significant to Brazil because it was precisely the high level of competitiveness in the Copa América that undid it. Two of Brazil’s brightest prospects, Neymar and Ganso, had been deliberately fast-tracked to give them international experience before the World Cup, and given how out of their depth they looked, it’s hard to dispute the wisdom of the idea. Neymar has been hyped to the heavens, with Pelé repeatedly insisting that he is a better player than Lionel Messi. Even those who accept that he might have the technical potential to be as good as Messi must regard that as nonsense given what each has achieved. Messi, who is four years and eight months older, has already collected three Champions League medals, five Spanish titles, Olympic gold, and the under-20 World Cup trophy, not to mention three successive Ballons d’Or for being the best player in the world. Neymar has won a single Copa Libertadores.
That is not to deny Neymar’s talent. He is quick and imaginative, has immaculate close skills and can pick a pass. Ghosting in from the left side, he has even developed a trademark goal, opening his body as though to curl his finish around the goalkeeper before hooking it in at the near post. This can look ugly at times, as the ball caroms in off the goalkeeper’s rooted standing foot, but it is highly effective. Neymar is abundantly gifted, and he has already proved that he can turn it on when it matters most. Yes, he was anonymous in the first leg of last season’s Libertadores final—but he was exceptional in the second as Santos beat Peñarol.
And yet in the Copa América, he was muted. (So too was Ganso, whose return from injury for the second leg of the Libertadores final was one reason for Neymar’s superb performance: their combination can be devastating.) In the Copa América, Ganso at least had the excuse that he wasn’t fully fit, but the tournament should have been Neymar’s stage. Is Neymar better than Darío Verón, the Paraguay right back who twice shut him out in the Copa? Is he better than Roberto Rosales, who nullified him in Brazil’s goalless draw against Venezuela?
Of course he is, and yet he—and Brazil in general—struggled against sides that defended aggressively, closing down space and pressing the man in possession. Because of the focus on individual skill and an evolution remote from the Dutch and Soviet schools, pressing is still extremely rare in Brazilian soccer, and the shock it can cause teams that are unused to being systematically hounded in possession was evident when Universidad de Chile—a cohesive, hard-pressing team of the Marcelo Bielsa school—thrashed Flamengo 4-0 in the Copa Sudamericana last year.
Usually when a young player declines to move to one of the major European leagues at the earliest opportunity, the neutral rejoices. Too many have been destroyed by making the move before they were mentally or emotionally—and in some cases physically—ready. Yet with Neymar, one rather wishes he would have a year in Europe before the World Cup, getting used to markers who get tight to him, to not being given a free-kick for every little nudge, to having defenders hunt him in packs. In short, getting used to proper defending.
But Neymar is only part of Menezes’s issues. It’s far from clear what shape the coach will prefer. At the Copa América he played the 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1 hybrid that is familiar in Brazilian club soccer and was used by Dunga in the 2010 World Cup. Alexandre Pato was deployed as the lone central striker, with Neymar joining him from the left. Ganso had a central creative role with Robinho to the right while Lucas Leiva and Ramires sat deep in midfield. The only change came in the second group game, against Paraguay, in which Jadson was deployed on the right for the first half. He scored, and his willingness to shuttle back seemed to offer a better balance, but Robinho nonetheless came on for him at half-time.
Against Bosnia-Herzegovina in February, though, Menezes opted for a 4-3-3, with Neymar to the right and Ronaldinho to the left of Leandro Damião. Sandro was the midfielder holder, with Fernandinho and Hernanes operating just in front of him. A sluggish performance was enlivened just after the hour, when Ganso replaced Ronaldinho and Hulk came on for Hernanes, allowing Neymar to return to his preferred left flank. Ganso will miss this series of friendlies with a knee injury.
And then there is the issue of Dani Alves. He is habitually brilliant for Barcelona, where his surges down the right flank can be accommodated, partly because the Barça has so much possession that it can afford to risk sending one of its full-backs up the pitch—in fact, much of the time he isn’t even nominally a full-back—and partly because the Barça defense, Gerard Pique in particular, is so used to and so good at covering for him. With Brazil, though, his comparative lack of defensive ability can be a liability. In the group game against Paraguay, Alves was so outplayed by the left-winger Marcelo Estigarribia that the Paraguayan subsequently moved from a loan spell at Newell’s Old Boys to Juventus. Can Menezes find a balance to the back four that will allow him to deploy the undoubted attacking quality of Dani Alves? Or will he end up doing what he did in the Copa América and turning to Maicon, who is less exciting but offers a better balance of defensive and attacking attributes?
The center of the back four is far from clear either. AC Milan’s Thiago Silva is arguably the world’s best center-back at the moment, but there are major questions about who should partner him. David Luiz had a poor season for Chelsea and looked out of sorts when Brazil played Bosnia-Herzegovina. But his struggles in the Premier League are related to the fact that he is a quarto zagueiro, a position almost unique to Brazilian football. His role is to step out from the back four to join the midfield, in terms of both making tackles and linking the play; it is a role with limited application in countries where pressing is common, as it is predicated on the zagueiro having plenty of space between the lines in which to advance. At Benfica, which dominates the vast majority of its matches in the Portuguese league, David Luiz’s ability to join the midfield was useful against a massed defense, particularly when his own goal was coming under little threat. At Chelsea, though, his defensive capacity has been tested and found wanting. He may develop that—he has the technical and physical attributes—or he may not; we simply don’t know.
What are the alternatives? Lúcio will be too old by 2014—and his lack of pace to cover was one of the reasons Dani Alves was found out in the Copa América. There is the 23-year-old Dedé, who has been exceptional for Vasco da Gama over the past couple of seasons, but has also, for all his composure on the ball, looked vulnerable when asked to defend.
The upside for Menezes is that he has plenty of time to blend his team in games in which defeat would have no more serious consequence than embarrassment. The concern is that it’s not even clear he has decided on a system, and it has been hard to discern any radical move away from the pragmatism of his predecessor, Dunga, toward the more romantic approach he promised when appointed.
Not that Argentina is in much better shape. Its roll of attacking talent is jaw-dropping: Lionel Messi, Carlos Tévez, Sergio Agüero, Ángel di María, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Javier Pastore…. And yet in three years nobody has come close to fitting them into a coherent team unit. Messi, because so much is demanded of him, frequently cuts a dejected figure, and he has been the subject of much criticism from fans and a media frustrated that he seems unable to reproduce his Barcelona form in a blue and white shirt. Neither Diego Maradona, who led Argentina at the World Cup, nor Sergio Batista, who led the side at the Copa América, were able to settle on whether to use him as a right-sided forward, as a number 10 behind a striker, or in the false nine role—in which the center forward drops back into the midfield—he so often occupies at Barça.
Maradona preferred him as a 10, playing behind Tévez and Higuaín. Batista, in his weirdly vainglorious attempt to turn Argentina into Barcelona, tried to use him in as a false nine, but gave up after opening the Copa América with two draws and moved him to the right in a 4-2-3-1. Wherever Messi is used, the problem is that Argentina is not Barcelona. Messi doesn’t have anybody resembling Xavi or Andrés Iniesta breaking beyond him—which hints at the biggest problem: Argentina produces lots of good midfield holders and forwards, but nothing to link the two. There are no overlapping full-backs and no shuttling midfielders, and the result, almost inevitably, is a broken team, with a unit of three or four attackers stranded from a unit of seven or six defensive players. This can be a viable policy, but Argentina expects something a little more sophisticated.
Alejandro Sabella, who replaced Batista after the Copa América, has yet to settle on a system in the four World Cup qualifiers he has overseen. Three times he’s used a variation of 4-4-2, and once, in the calamitous defeat to Venezuela last October, he went for a 3-4-1-2. His preferred strike partnership seems to be the height of Higuaín with Messi in a free role, which makes sense even if it does seem a waste of Argentina’s talent in that area.
Javier Mascherano is a given at the back of midfield, but the matter of who should partner him is rather complex. Sabella clearly likes Rodrigo Braña, who was a stalwart of his Estudiantes side, and that pairing brought a 2-1 away win at Colombia in November.
But Sabella has also used Fernando Gago, who spent last season on loan from Real Madrid at Roma. The real problem, though, is in wide areas. José Sosa, once of Bayern Munich and Napoli but now with Metalist Kharkiv, played on the right against Colombia with Pablo Guiñazú of the Brazilian side Internacional on the left—but in the home draw with Bolivia four days earlier, it had been Messi drifting right and Ricky Álvarez (of Milan’s Internazionale) on the left. In fact, Argentina’s dearth of options in the role might explain why Sabella, who has historically preferred a back four, experimented with a back three against Venezuela, playing Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo as wing-backs with Sosa behind the front two.
Uncertain formations and uncharacteristic performances aside, Brazil and Argentina remain formidable. Both teams are packed with high-class players. Both can expect to be among the favorites for the 2014 World Cup. But they are also sides in transition—sides that have not yet worked out how best to align their resources. Will Brazil be a 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1 hybrid or a 4-3-3? Can Ganso and Neymar transfer their club form to the international stage? Who will partner Thiago Silva in the center of defense? How can Sabella get the best out of Messi? How will Argentina overcome its dearth of full-backs? How many of its creative talents can he pack into the lineup before their individuality becomes a liability? Whatever the answers, this game will be a friendly in name only. It may be about preparation, but Argentina versus Brazil is always primarily about winning.
Jonathan Wilson is editor of the soccer quarterly The Blizzard and the author of Behind the Curtain, The Anatomy of England, and Inverting the Pyramid, a winner of the National Sporting Club’s Football Book of the Year. His biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You, was published in November 2011. He writes for the Guardian, World Soccer, Fox Soccer, ESPN Star, Sports Illustrated and the Irish Examiner.