Colombia's wall braces for Neymar's free kick, which found the back of the net in a 1-0 Brazil win in last week's friendly.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
By James Young
September 10, 2014

Picking oneself off the ground and dusting oneself off is not an experience with which Brazil is terribly familiar. But after the 7-1 "Massacre at the Mineirão" on July 8, the Seleção, mired in a torturous process of self-doubt and navel-gazing, now finds itself in just such a painful rebuilding period two months later. The Dunga Redux revolution took its faltering first steps in Miami and New Jersey over the last few days – and as was to be expected so early in proceedings, left the manager with as many questions as answers.

First the good news. In Brazil’s straitened circumstances, two combative 1-0 victories over abrasive South American opponents Colombia and Ecuador are not to be sniffed at, especially as the former, arguably had a much happier time at the World Cup than the hosts (even though the Seleção dispatched the Cafeteros in the quarterfinals, the expectations for the two varied widely).

Given the coach’s boot camp mentality, Brazil will be pleased to return from the U.S. with its goal unbreached, especially after shipping 10 goals in its last two games against Germany and the Netherlands.

Miranda showed that a central defender who understands that his primary responsibility is defending can often be of more use than one befuddled by more heroic ambitions (hello, David Luiz), while Filipe Luis arguably brings greater solidity to the left side than Marcelo. Younger defenders such as Marquinhos and Danilo wobbled at times and will consider the experience part of their learning curve.

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All four will have had a better time than Maicon, sent home in mysterious circumstances after missing curfew in Miami by a mere 11 hours. Dunga, as the Roma defender should surely have known, is not a man to be trifled with.

But given Brazil’s rich heritage of balletic, flowing soccer (even if the jogo bonito has not been seen in these parts in many a year), the team’s long-term evolution is unlikely to be judged on its defensive merits. Even more so on this tour, given Ecuador’s attacking limitations, and once the sheer bruising physicality displayed by both sides in the Colombia bout (game hardly seems the right word) made that contest more The Wild Geese than Swan Lake.

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In the attacking sphere Brazil’s performances were a bit like the curate’s egg – good in parts. Dunga was clearly impressed by this summer’s world champions, and in some ways it was easy to see this Brazil team as a bug-ridden Germany beta, with the culling of the lumbering Fred up front and more focus on mobility and speed.

In that sense the most interesting call-up, perhaps, was the team’s nominal center forward here, Diego Tardelli of Atlético Mineiro, who started both games. Tardelli is already 29 and unlikely to be a long-term solution as Brazil builds toward a bid for World Cup redemption in 2018.

But while he provided only a minimal goal threat, his strength lies in his movement, and at various moments against Ecuador and Colombia this thoroughly modern attacker seemed to be playing any one of five positions – left wing-back, across the three attacking midfield slots and up front. Even though the team lacked penetration overall, the movement of Brazil’s forwards showed more variety than during the World Cup, both horizontally and vertically. As result Dunga’s side looked more compact, the yawning chasm at the heart of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s midfield more heavily populated.  

Unfortunately, however, increased zip and vigor, along with Neymar’s customary brilliance, might have been the only attacking bright spot for Brazil. In lots of ways it seemed that not much had changed from this summer, as many of the same old failings remained – a lack of real punch up front, passing and shape of questionable consistency, a bitty, fast-break style replacing genuine flow and cohesion.

A glass-half-full reading would argue that Germany wasn’t built in a day and Dunga has had little time to work with the team so far. More pessimistically, and probably realistically, is that the dearth of creative talent in the Brazilian game at the moment means the coach is faced with a chronic shortage of raw materials.

Willian looked lively in the first game against Colombia, and scored against Ecuador after a nicely worked free kick that bore the hallmarks of Drill Sergeant Dunga’s rigorous training sessions. But with Neymar less electrifying than usual in Tuesday night’s game on a bumpy surface at MetLife Stadium, both Willian and his club teammate Oscar often looked static and peripheral. Oscar, in particular, has yet to assume the dominant midfield role his talent suggests he is capable of. It may be that he never will, and must settle instead for a role as supporting actor to Neymar’s lead.

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Which is where the bareness of Brazil’s creative cupboard comes in. Attacking midfielders Everton Ribeiro and Ricardo Goulart of Cruzeiro in Brazil fit into the Tardelli category – vibrant and mobile but perhaps lacking a crispness to their touch and thought to trouble the toughest defenses. That Brazil played much of the second half against Ecuador with three Brasileirão players up front says something about the lack of top-class attacking options available to Dunga. It would have been nice to see more of Philippe Coutinho, restricted less than a half across both games, but neither Dunga nor Scolari before him seem to be entirely convinced of the Liverpool player’s merits.

There are few alternatives. Neymar’s former Santos sparring partner, Paulo Henrique Ganso, remains a louche but talented playmaker, and there are some, including 1970 World Cup winner Tostão, who have called for Dunga to build his side around the São Paulo schemer. But the languid Ganso does not seem like a very Dunga kind of player.

Further up front, the defection of the barnstorming Diego Costa to Spain remains an open sore - it is a sobering thought that Robinho, now back at Santos after warming the bench at Milan, was Brazil’s second choice striker on this trip.

Still, there’s always Neymar, not just Brazil’s best player by a country mile but now its captain too. The star was given a fearful kicking here, especially against Colombia, where both sides seemed intent on recreating the thuggery of that spiteful World Cup quarterfinal in Fortaleza. There were smiles from the captain at the beginning, with a bear hug for his nemesis Zuniga, then snarls shortly after as Willian hit a misplaced pass in his direction.

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Neymar certainly has the influence and respect among his teammates to wear the captain’s armband, but it remains to be seen if he has the requisite cool and authority – especially given the pressure already heaped upon his slender shoulders, and the fact that he spends so much of his time rolling on the turf after having his ankles bitten by an overly exuberant defender.

Tottering baby-steps then, from Brazil (even though, having called up 10 of Scolari’s World Cup 23, Dunga was hardly starting from scratch). While there are some reasons to be cheerful, it may be a while before the training wheels come off for the new Seleção.