Brazil must remember that it can't let friendly results go to its head
Brazil beat defending World Cup champ Italy 2-0 in a friendly last week in London
Five-time World Cup champs have done well on counterattack, but are vulnerable
Fullback Maicon looks like an impact player, but Ronaldinho may end up on bench
There's a lesson soccer teaches again and again: Never place too much importance on the results of friendlies. They can be very deceptive, and they're always forgotten once the competitive action gets underway.
So it would be unwise for Brazil to get carried away with last week's 2-0 victory over Italy in London, a battle of the last two World Cup winners. As Brazilian TV was quick to concede, Italy had a legitimate goal disallowed for offside in the opening minutes. The Italians also seemed in "holiday camp" mode -- and though both of Brazil's goals were wonderfully taken, it's hard to imagine either of them happening in a competitive match.
On the first goal, Italy left too much space between the lines, no one picked up Elano as he drifted across from the right and Robinho's marker was the wrong side of him as he threaded through the pass for his Manchester City teammate to score. And the second was a superb piece of quick thinking, dribbling skill and finishing from Robinho, but Andrea Pirlo never should have been caught in possession wandering around on the edge of his own penalty area.
These, though, are details. With friendlies, what's more important is the big picture: What is the team working on? How will the experience of this game benefit the side in the forthcoming competitive matches?
These are pertinent questions in the case of Brazil, because the World Cup qualification campaign has revealed an obvious problem. Coach Dunga's men have been devastating against opponents who have pushed forward and left themselves open to one of the most potent counterattacks in world soccer. But they have struggled mightily against sides who have sat back and invited Brazil to pass its way through.
In the South Africa 2010 campaign, Brazil's last three home games have ended in scoreless draws. In the case of the first, against Argentina, the score line is no disgrace, but the same cannot be said of the second, against Bolivia, a team whose away record is appalling. And the third was against Colombia, a side desperately short on confidence.
The story of these games hasn't been one of constant Brazilian pressure, near misses and great saves by the visiting keeper. Brazil hasn't looked capable of scoring a goal at all. This isn't going to stop the five-time champs from qualifying for South Africa -- they're well on course to maintain their proud record of being the only country to have appeared at every World Cup. But if unsolved, this problem surely will prevent them from winning the tournament, since they're unlikely to meet many teams bold or naive enough to charge forward and play into Brazil's counterattack.
So what does Brazil intend to do about it? Based on last week's evidence, it proposes to give right back Maicon as much freedom as possible. Many in Europe are baffled by the fact that Barcelona's Daniel Alves isn't an automatic selection at that position. Fine player though he is, Alves hasn't convinced fully yet in a Brazil shirt. Indeed, his best performance so far wasn't at fullback, but on the right side of the midfield when he came on early as a substitute in the final of the 2007 Copa América.
Maicon lacks the sleekness of Alves, and is not the world's greatest defender. But he is an extraordinary physical specimen. Tall and strong, in full flight he's a fearsome and imposing figure, capable of bursting to the byline again and again.
Last November, Brazil played a friendly at home to Portugal. It led 2-1 at halftime, but Portugal had enjoyed most of the possession, and was only trailing thanks to some moments of sloppy defending.
After halftime, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo came off the left wing, drifting infield in search of opportunities -- and suddenly Maicon was free, with no one to mark and acres of space in front of him. He blasted in one goal and set up another, and Brazil's sketchy 2-1 lead almost instantly became a comfortable 4-1. It ended up with a tennis score, 6-2 to Brazil.
Against Italy last week, Dunga organized the right flank of his team to give Maicon a license to attack. Holding midfielder Gilberto Silva frequently dropped back to fill the space behind him, often operating like a third center back, to the right of Lúcio and Juan. And the versatility of Elano was especially useful, dropping back to mark and breaking forward to appear as an element of surprise, cutting in to take advantage of the space created by the fact that Maicon's bursts down the touchline were stretching the Italian defense.
True, this arrangement nearly cost Brazil a goal. Italy was denied when left back Fabio Grosso wrongly was flagged offside when he latched on to Pirlo's magnificent pass and volleyed past Júlio César. Grosso had made his run beyond Elano, with Maicon nowhere to be seen.
This merely reinforces the old observation that organizing a team is like having a small blanket on an icy night: Pull it over your neck and your feet freeze, cover your feet and your neck gets cold. Sending fullbacks forward always represents a risk -- it isn't always possible to cover the space they leave behind them. But attacking fullbacks are part of the Brazilian tradition, and Dunga is entitled to believe that the cost-benefit analysis of freeing Maicon is firmly in his favor.
But it does make it hard to see how Ronaldinho can retain his place in the starting 11. He played against Italy, and contributed the occasional eye-catching flick. But there are still no signs of him gliding past his marker with the ease of old, and when Kaká returns -- he missed this game with an injury -- there seems to be no other obvious candidate to step down to the bench.
For a while, Dunga played a line of Kaká, Ronaldinho and Robinho behind the lone out-and-out striker. It never really worked. The three tended to get in each other's way. And that was when Brazil was selecting two midfielders. If Maicon is to be given such freedom, there must be three -- Elano runs the right, Gilberto Silva drops into the defensive line -- and there must be another all-around midfielder who can play in the center and also push left. Fiorentina's Felipe Melo made a sound debut in his role against Italy, while Anderson of Manchester United and Hernanes of Săo Paulo are strong candidates.
This leaves just two slots for the magic trio. Kaká is a lock, Robinho is a Dunga favorite (on merit after a goal and an assist against Italy) and the only space remaining for Ronaldinho is on the bench.