For Brazil, this is no time to panic
Before last Friday's meeting in Foxborough, Mass., Brazil's all-time record against Venezuela read as follows: 17 games, 17 wins, 78 goals scored and four conceded.
But in the first half at Gillette Stadium, Venezuela scored twice, had one called back after a questionable offside and saw its star player miss another chance from inside the six-yard box. So in 45 minutes, Venezuela increased its goal tally against the five-time world champions by 50 percent, and came close to 100 percent.
It was, of course, a much different Brazil side from the one that had played Canada in Seattle a few days earlier. But this is hardly an excuse. The performance against Canada was just as desperate and, with the first-choice defense in place, the team looked every bit as vulnerable.
In fact, in the two games, Brazil's back line presented the same problem, a flaw that was apparent within the first few minutes of the Canada match. The defense was positioned much higher up the pitch than usual, and its attempts to pull the opposing strikers offside were unsuccessful.
This was no coincidence. Coach Dunga was tinkering with his team in light of its poor display at home to Uruguay in November last year in the last round of World Cup qualifiers. His experiments touch on an important question: What is the identity of the contemporary Brazil side?
In hindsight, Brazil began to lose the 2006 World Cup with an emphatic victory a year earlier, when it beat Argentina 4-1 in the final of the Confederations Cup.
From that point on, it was clear that Brazil would go to Germany to defend its crown with a team that starred the so-called magic quartet. Adriano had made himself impossible to drop. He would partner Ronaldo up front, with support from both Ronaldinho and Kaká. As then coach Carlos Alberto Parreira commented later, it was practically a 4-2-4 formation which, as he said, was in contradiction to his own philosophy. The talent of the players had forced his hand.
But what was forgotten was how the 4-1 victory had been achieved. Losing coach José Pekerman put his finger on it after the game.
"Every time you lose the ball," he said, "Brazil kills you. They're not what people think. They don't dominate you. They can win the ball close to their own goal and for them it's a chance to score, because they go with impressive speed. They're a counterattacking team."
And the Argentines had played into their hands by taking the game to Brazil and leaving themselves open to the counterattack -- the story of many recent encounters between the South American giants.
At the World Cup, Brazil's opponents were never likely to be -- depending on your perspective -- so naïve or so bold. They pulled bodies behind the line of the ball and worked hard to ensure they were protected against Brazil's rapid breaks. Lacking the midfield guile for a more elaborate approach, Brazil was horribly labored.
Dunga was in Germany working as a media pundit at the time, where his main criticism of the side was its lack of controlled midfield possession. Shortly afterwards, when he was the surprise choice to take over from Parreira as Brazil boss, it became his problem.
He began by giving a chance to elegant CSKA Moscow midfielder Dudu Cearense, but came to the same conclusion Parreira had before him. For all Dudu's passing ability, he was happiest higher up the field and uncomfortable carrying out the defensive duties of a Brazil central midfielder. And so normal service was resumed. Brazil stuttered through the Copa América, until once more taking Argentina apart on the counterattack to win the trophy. But the previous problems persisted.
Dunga had several months to brood on that night in São Paulo last November, when his side was booed by its own crowd against Uruguay. At times, Brazil looked like two teams. When the attacking bursts of its fullbacks were blocked, central midfielders Gilberto Silva and Mineiro were unable to link the defense with the attack.
Now that the European season is over, with time to work together with his players, Dunga resolved to use the quick tour of the U.S. to conduct some experiments -- a thoroughly justified course of action. This, after all, is what international friendlies are for.
He decided to bring the defensive line higher up the field, thereby making the team more compact. In theory, the man on the ball would have more options for a short pass, and Brazil would be able to achieve the controlled possession he was seeking.
But in practice, the high line proved as porous as Swiss cheese. Brazil's center backs are frequently at their most comfortable lying deep. Now they found themselves embarrassed because the midfield wasn't putting enough pressure on the ball when the opposition had possession, and when the ball was played behind them, the fullbacks weren't positioned to move across and provide cover.
Brazil now faces an intense week of work as it prepares for two of the most difficult games in South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign. On Sunday it faces Paraguay, currently top of the table, in Asunción, where the home team is always strong. Then next Wednesday comes the big clash with Argentina in Belo Horizonte.
This is clearly a level of opposition much more difficult than Canada and Venezuela. But it could be that these challenges are exactly what Brazil needs.
In front of its own fans, Paraguay will try to seize the initiative. And Argentina will once more attempt to pass its way through the Brazil team. Its coach, Alfio Basile, is determined to try something different after all those recent defeats to the archrivals.
On the evidence of his own side's quick U.S. tour, Basile will look to play with more width. Instead of his traditional 4-3-1-2 formation, he'll use two wing backs, freed to press forward by the presence of three center backs. But however he plays it, there will almost certainly be chances for Brazil to unleash its awesome counterattack against some sluggish defenders.
Good results in these World Cup qualifiers may not clear up all of Dunga's doubts about whether Brazil is a counterattacking team or one which seeks to establish controlled possession in the opponent's half of the field. But they will go a long way to ensure that -- outside Venezuela -- not too many people remember the historic 2-0 defeat his side suffered in Foxborough last Friday.