Post-‘Samba’ Brazil More Likely to Win than to Entertain

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Brazil, in dispatching North Korea 2-1 on Tuesday, made clear that we should not expect to see “samba soccer” at World Cup 2010 — and not only because the players couldn’t possibly hear their fans’ traditional rhythm section above the drone of the vuvuzelas. Dunga’s team may have some supremely gifted players — none more so, on the day, than Robinho, who seems to be enjoying himself again after a couple of miserable years in Spain and England — but he’s not going to unleash them to wreak havoc with their individual skills. Instead, he’s relying largely on very disciplined possession game. These Brazilians are content to keep the ball and move it, and themselves around, patiently waiting for their opponents to present gaps through which to punch at lightning speed to set up shooting chances. Classic counter-attacking football, which was made a lot more difficult by the fact that the North Koreans largely refrained from attacking, keeping most of their men behind the ball and rarely pressing forward in the sort of numbers that leave gaps to be exploited in the quick break.

There were certainly a few flashes of brilliance from Robinho, and also Kaka, still struggling to find his form, who nutmegged players and ghosted past them in one or two thrilling high speed slalom runs. But the game mostly went according to the pattern Brazil have established under Dunga: Holding midfielders Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo screening the defense and playing the short passes out wide, an attacking midfield trident of Robinho, Kaka and Elano strung across the field behind lone striker Luis Fabiano, who was restricted to feeding on meager scraps by a stingy Korean defense — and full backs Maicon and Michel Bastos doing much of the attacking from the flanks. Indeed, there were long periods of the game when most of the attacks seemed to run through Maicon, who tended to slow down as the approached North Korea’s well-drilled and packed defense, rather than break behind. But it was in a moment when Maicon accelerated on the quick overlap that Elano played him in behind the defense, and he scored a cracker of a strike reminiscent of Dutchman Marco Van Basten’s legendary “impossible goal“. It needed something special to break open North Korea’s stubborn defense, and Maicon delivered. (Memo to Cote D’Ivoire: When you face Brazil on Sunday, make sure you get the ball to Gervinho on the left as much as possible, because the only thing that’s going to restrict Maicon from raiding up Brazil’s right is having to be on his guard against a pacy winger getting in behind him.)

Bastos, too, was heavily involved in a lot of the attacking play, and it may be a fair bet that either of the full backs could end up being the team’s top scorer. (Bastos often plays in midfield for his club, Lyon, and it will be interesting to see how he copes against a dedicated winger.) Robinho, though, may well have been Brazil’s man of the match, an endless source of skill and guile, and playing with more energy and drive than we’ve seen for some time. He had looked the man most likely to pick the North Korean lock through sheer close-quarters skill in the first half, and as North Korea were forced to come forward after Brazil had gone ahead, his slide-rule pass sliced open the DPRK defense and allowed Elano to side-foot home without breaking his stride.

There was a calm efficiency about Dunga’s Brazil, a confidence that the game can be put to bed by the odd goal late in the second half. They may not be nearly as entertaining as some of their more feted forebears, but this team plays like winners. That said, we saw in the North Korea game that they’re more comfortable against teams who are attacking them than those who are sitting back. And also that their rugged center backs, Lucio and Juan, may be up for any physical challenge, but they may be vulnerable to speedy opposition forwards running the ball at them.

Still, a very solid start. This Brazil is not going to attack for 90 minutes like the ’82 team did (the ’82 team were knocked out, after all), but they’re Brazilians, richly endowed with talent and technique. Robinho will provide some thrills, but Dunga’s system will provide the results. And everyone loves a winner.