Menezes sets Brazil quest for old style
Battling 2-1 victory over Bosnia shows signs of coach's plan to reverse 20 years of negative tactics
Brazil's results and performances under coach Mano Menezes have been far from earth-shattering, yet Tuesday's 2-1 win over Bosnia showed that the team have undergone a profound transformation under his leadership.
The question remains as to whether the phlegmatic coach has enough time and the right players to complete the job of turning Brazil from a rough, counter-attacking outfit into a team capable of winning the 2014 World Cup on home soil in the style expected of them.
Menezes took over the five-times world champions following the 2010 World Cup, just as they realised that they had been going down the wrong path for two decades.
Once famous for their flowing, passing game, Brazil made a dramatic U-turn in the 1980s, when they began adopting a no-risk style based on physical prowess, widespread use of so-called tactical fouls and the idea of not letting the opposition play.
They did win the World Cup in both 1994 and 2002 and reached the final in 1998 but none of those teams played with the flair or imagination of their predecessors.
Teeth-clenching, rough-tackling destroyers populated the midfield at most Brazilian clubs and the national side, while speed-merchant full-backs and clinical strikers provided the attacking options. Physical prowess became fundamental as the northern European style was deemed the way forward.
Then Barcelona and Spain came along, winning everything by playing exactly the sort of short-passing game which had been deemed obsolete in Brazil. It was the rudest of awakenings in the South American country.
Spain's 2010 World Cup win coincided with arguably the most joyless team Brazil have ever fielded, and, despite all the talk of efficiency from coach Dunga, they went out in the quarter-finals. Menezes, who led Gremio and Corinthians, two of Brazil's biggest clubs, out of the second division during his club career, was given the job of knocking everything down and starting again.
There have been plenty of setbacks, notably defeats against Argentina, France and Germany, combined with a quarter-final exit against Paraguay in last year's Copa America, and Brazil have slumped to a modest seventh in the Fifa world rankings.
Yet, against Bosnia on Tuesday it was clear that Menezes is making progress in restoring Brazil's old identity. They dominated possession, took their game to feisty, defensive opponents and did not resort to tactical fouls in midfield.
Unfortunately, the final pass too often let them down with former Milan and Barcelona player Ronaldinho, given the playmaker role in midfield, often the guilty party.
Menezes said Brazil needed to be more patient in the build-up, prompting his only reference to Barcelona in the evening – surprising, given the influence the Catalan club have had on Brazil in recent times.
"I always tell the players that it is not always possible to produce a pass which puts somebody in front of goal, and it's not necessary," he said. "In fact, it's very difficult to do this. But if it's not possible, then it's absolutely fundamental that we don't lose the ball.
"Everybody praises Barcelona and their great merit is that, when it is not possible to find the killer pass, they don't try; instead they keep possession and wait for an opening.
"If you try and make a killer pass every time, this increases the number of mistakes and allows the opposition the chance to counter-attack."
Menezes now has to find the right players to carry out what is effectively a counter-revolution in Brazilian football. Ronaldinho, off the pace against Bosnia, is already one of the big talking points, especially as he will be 34 when the World Cup is played in Brazil.
The Mohican-haired forward Neymar, 20, is the big hope for 2014, although, overprotected in the Brazilian championship, he struggles against rough-tackling European sides and referees less inclined to give free-kicks for the slightest of touches.
"He struggled to adapt to the game, to understand how to play against opponents with those characteristics," Menezes acknowledged.
Ultimately, it could all hinge on the elegant, left-footed Paulo Henrique Ganso, whose touch, vision and eye for the pass have made him the sort of thinking midfield playmaker which Brazil has struggled to produce.
He clearly transformed the game after replacing Ronaldinho in the second half and Neymar benefited hugely from his presence. However, at 22, he has already been overhyped and plagued by injuries and still plays in the less demanding environment of Brazilian domestic football.
"He is winning back confidence, the confidence that we always had that he could be one of the great midfield creators that Brazilian football has produced in the last few years," Menezes insisted.
Placing Brazil's 2014 World Cup hopes on his shoulders, however, may be too much of a burden.
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