Brazil's victory offers glimpse of hopeful future under Mano Menezes
In its first game under Mano Menezes, Brazil was more explosive and creative
The Brazilians demonstrated a more possession-based attack than under Dunga
Once they solved the U.S. defense, they opened up the field and dominated
It would be grossly unfair, on the basis of Tuesday's match against the United States in New Jersey, to jump to the following conclusion: Dunga's Brazil bad, Mano Menezes' Brazil good.
One of the first rules of international soccer is that it is a big mistake to place too much faith in the evidence of friendlies. Levels of fitness, intensity and tactical organization are nowhere near the real thing.
Moreover, the Mano Menezes team has done well -- extremely well -- in one non-competitive match. Under Dunga, until they blew up in the second half against Holland in the World Cup, the Brazilians accumulated two years of excellent results, in World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup as well as in friendlies.
So a sense of proportion is called for. With these restrictions in mind, though, there seems to be plenty to celebrate in this new era for the Brazilian national team.
A little more than three years ago on this website I wrote that in the long term Brazil could benefit from losing to Argentina in the final of the 2007 Copa America. In the event, nothing of the sort happened. Dunga's men blitzed their way to a convincing 3-0 win.
Some readers, convinced that the victory justified everything, seemed unable to understand my point. Perhaps they understand now. Because it seems clear that defeat in South Africa, coupled with the triumph of Spain, has had a beneficial effect on the direction of the Brazilian game.
Clearly, it is still very early. But if the 2-0 win over Bob Bradley's men gives us little to go on, it also would seem apparent that there are key differences between Dunga and Mano Menezes in terms of ideas and intentions.
Dunga's team could be devastating on the counter attack and was consistently threatening from set pieces. But for long stretches of the game it could look very labored. Talent came in flashes, because possession of the ball and dictation of the game's rhythm were not objectives. How could they be with a converted centre back like Gilberto Silva giving such slow and limited service from the middle of midfield? It was if the belief had taken hold that some innate contradiction existed between playing well and winning.
In my last column for this website I wrote that the appointment of Menezes could contain "some good news for the purists. His interpretation is likely to be different from that of Dunga. The new man is unlikely to produce a team which only works on the counter attack, where the balance of the central midfielders is tipped towards defense ... He is likely to work from a basis of the 4-2-3-1 formation -- used by the most attractive European teams in the World Cup. His side will not be dependent on its full backs for attacking width. They will take up more defensive duties, freeing the central midfielders to play a more expansive role.
"He should, then, come up with a team which is more fluid, and less predictable, than some recent Brazil sides who have employed a rigid demarcation between creators and destroyers."
This helps explain the virtues of the Brazil performance against the U.S. In the opening minutes the Brazilians were stifled by U.S. marking. Once they had worked the variation of the long diagonal pass to open up the field, they dominated the game with ease. This was a possession-based Brazil, working midfield triangles, creating two-against-one situations down the flanks, sucking in the defense and switching the play, with constructive contributions throughout the side while maintaining a balance between attack and defense.
Their task was surely helped by the U.S. insistence upon a 4-4-2 system. Brazil's 4-2-3-1 gave it the extra man in midfield -- usually it was Robinho, who floated infield and orchestrated the play intelligently, starting fires that the U.S. was unable to put out. Newcomers such as Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso got most of the attention afterwards, but Robinho, captaining the side, was the main man.
This in itself might be sufficient to raise doubts about the occasion. Robinho has a long history of flattering to deceive, coming on like a world beater only to disappear when the going gets tough. But the big story from New Jersey was not him, or any of the other individual performances -- Brazil, after all, has always been able to count on dazzling talent.
The story is that Brazil is going with a collective philosophy of play more in line with the historical essence of its soccer, a fluid game that has won it so many admirers all over the world. There will probably be reverses and setbacks along the way -- the ever phlegmatic Mano Menezes seems well aware of it, and was anxious not to show signs of jubilation after getting off to such a promising start. But, with all the restrictions noted above, Brazil's display on Tuesday was enough to leave a little glint in the eye of soccer purists everywhere.