With the exception of the World Cup itself, there’s no selection I look forward to more than a new manager’s very first. Full as it is of false leads, dead ends, and head-scratchers, the first call-up sets the tone for the next World Cup cycle. The names each manger chooses will change often over the next four years, sometimes dramatically, but the underlying thought-process behind them usually remains the same.

Take Dunga, for example. During his last term, Dunga established from the beginning that he was the kind of man who wanted to turn over stones to see what he could find. Time and time again, he continuously eschewed obvious choices for less obvious ones, routinely looking further afield than most of his predecessors had done. Those who made an instant impact, who played as if they had something to prove, who exemplified the same desperate intensity his own career had been famous for, were the ones he relied on.

A look back at his very first selection yields some interesting insights:

Brazil vs Norway, August 16, 2006

Starting lineup:

Brazil 2006 vs Norway

The likes of Lucio, Juan, and Gilberto Silva were mainstays from the 2006 team, while Robinho was the new golden boy. All four were expected call-ups who quickly solidified their places in the team.

After that came the surprises.

Elano was a young up-and-comer who quickly caught Dunga’s eye and would become an important piece, but there were several other young midfielders at the time who were even more widely heralded. A former member of a star-studded Santos team, Elano had been plying his trade in the Ukraine for two years by then and was hardly at the forefront of public demand. His presence established that Dunga was perfectly willing to look beyond the Big Three – England, Spain, and Italy – for recruits. (The less successful Daniel Carvalho is another example of this. He was playing for CSKA Moscow at the time.) Gomes and Gilberto, who were both major surprises to my memory, bounced in and out of the team for years, but by the time the World Cup came around, Dunga went back to the beginning and brought them both.

On the bench that day were Maicon, Dudu, Alex, Vagner Love, and Julio Baptista. All had seen little but spot-duty during the previous regime; each quickly endeared himself to Dunga and would become a regular. (Dudu and Love were seen by many as especially bizarre choices.)  Maicon and Julio Baptista, of course, would both make the plane to South Africa.

The point is that Dunga’s early call-ups set a pattern: you didn’t have to be a star, playing in a star-clustered league, to get Dunga’s attention. Furthermore, once you had Dunga’s attention, it would be difficult indeed for you to lose it.

***

Let’s return to the present. Dunga has been reinstated and his first selection just announced. Will Dunga make it all the way to 2018? Will this call-up be as similarly instructive as his first? It’s anyone’s guess.

For those few of you who haven’t seen it yet, here it is:

Goalkeepers: Jefferson (Botafogo), Rafael Cabral (Napoli)

Center-backs: David Luiz (PSG), Marquinhos (PSG), Gil (Corinthians), Miranda (Atletico Madrid)

Right-backs: Maicon (Roma), Danilo (Porto)

Left-backs: Filipe Luis (Chelsea), Alex Sandro (Porto)

Midfielders: Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Elias (Corinthians), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Ramires (Chelsea), Everton Ribeiro (Cruzeiro), Ricardo Goulart (Cruzeiro), Willian (Chelsea), Oscar (Chelsea), Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool)

Forwards: Neymar (FC Barcelona), Diego Tardelli (Atletico Mineiro), Hulk (Zenit St-Petersburg)

So what we do make of it all?

Well, for starters…I like it.

There’s one name I completely disagree with. Two names I personally wouldn’t have called, but I understand Dunga’s reasoning. And finally, one that prompts no real emotion whatsoever.

For the most part, I think Dunga’s selection is very intriguing, and, if I may be allowed to use the word, perspicacious. Picking Miranda and Filipe Luis shows he is aware of Scolari’s mistake. Selecting Alex Sandro and Danilo, though I’m no big fan of the latter, demonstrates an awareness of who Brazil’s most promising full-backs are. Choosing Gustavo and Fernandinho shows he hasn’t been unduly blinded by the Germany match. Each has qualities and skillsets the team needs. Choosing Ribeiro and Goulart demonstrates familiarity with the Brasileirão.

In other words, this list shows a solid awareness and understanding of the wide world of Brazilian football. A perfect list? Definitely not…but it’s a good start.

Let’s go through each player one by one, then turn to the team as a whole:

Goalkeepers

Jefferson: The one name on here that prompts no emotion from me whatsoever. I think he’s decent. I would have preferred Diego Alves. Not a lot more to be said.

Rafael Cabral: Now this, on the other hand, makes me sit up and take notice. Rafael has long been a favorite on this site, but ever since an injury kept him out of the Olympics, he seems to have dropped off the National Team radar. Now at Napoli, Rafael acquitted himself well during his first taste of Champions League action last season. He’s quick, has good size, and is a fantastic reflex-keeper…the best young Brazilian between the sticks today, in my opinion. If he hadn’t gotten injured in 2012, he would have started the Olympics and may well have been enough to help Brazil win the gold; I always felt Rafael would have saved Mexico’s first goal.

As an aside, isn’t that a fantastic “what-if”? What if Brazil had won gold? Does Mano not lose his job? Does Brazil still make the semifinals of the World Cup? If they don’t, does that mean they avoid the 7-1 drubbing to Germany? Is that a good or bad thing? Would Scolari only now be named the Brazil coach instead of Dunga?

My head hurts.

Anyway, a great pick, and a sign that Dunga has been paying attention these last few years. We’re off to a good start.

Center-backs

David Luiz – This surprised me a little bit. Dunga had some unkind words for David Luiz – in fairness, who didn’t? – and I expected our floppy-haired hero/villain to be left out in the cold for a few months before his inevitable return sometime next year. Plainly, Dunga is a more forgiving man than he lets on. As a defender, we know exactly what we’re going to get with David Luiz: a warrior’s heart and a coma patient’s cerebral cortex. Personally, I think DL’s future lies as a deep-lying playmaker.

Miranda – Two months too late, but better late than never. Whether Miranda will still be around in 2018 is an open question – he’ll be one of a number of center-backs in their early thirties. But he should definitely be in consideration for the Copa America, and I expect him to start against Colombia. Let’s hope he has a better result than the last time he featured under Dunga, when he was largely blamed for a 2-1 defeat to Bolivia back in 2009.

Marquinhos – Another small surprise, as he had previously been called up for the U-23 team by Gallo. That said, this is really a no brainer. Marquinhos is still raw and hasn’t been able to nail down a consistent starting spot for PSG yet, but he’s shown real flashes of brilliance, especially while at Roma. He’s a wonderful athlete and should be a mainstay for years to come.

Gil – The player I know the least about. He has a good reputation at Corinthians, and while I’ve only seen him a handful of times, he always looked solid enough. Still, at age 27, there’s not much room to grow, and I don’t see him sticking with the team for long. Too many other options are either more talented or more experienced. An inoffensive choice, if a little bit of a waste.

Right-backs

Danilo – As previously stated, I’m no great fan of Danilo. He’s always been fantastic going forward, whether at Santos, Porto, or for Brazil. But this same quality has also made him extremelyprone to defensive lapses. Positional acumen was never his strong suit; the knowledge about when to get forward is his constant weakness. Two seasons at Porto have cured these deficits only slightly, at least from what I have seen.

Still, he’s only 23, so there’s room for improvement. And with Rafinha injured, Rafael’s career at a stand-still, and Fabinho on the Olympic team, Danilo’s selection was obvious, expected, and perfectly acceptable. At the very least, Neymar won’t have to be too sad at losing his buddy, Dani Alves.

Maicon – Disclaimer: I am a Maicon homer. I love watching him play, and I never italicize that word unless I really mean it. That said, I think Maicon had a good World Cup. Not a great one, certainly not on par with four years ago. But he kept his flank relatively quiet, which is more than either Alves or Marcelo can say, and his overlapping runs continue to be a weapon.

There’s almost no chance Maicon will be around in 2018, but he can still play a role in the Copa America if he remains healthy, and it’s important to have some veteran leadership in the team. Really, there’s no better mentor for Danilo.

More than anything, though, I’m happy with Maicon’s selection simply because it means the end (maybe?) of Dani Alves. Alves was a very good player for a very long time, but his game has slipped badly, both physically and mentally. He’s coasted on his reputation for too long, so I’ll take his exclusion as a sign that Dunga realizes this.

The honor of playing right-back for Brazil is one of the most prestigious in all of international football. From Djalma Santos to Carlos Alberto to Cafu, the position has cemented the status of many a legend. Maicon and Dani Alves aren’t quite at that level, but both filled the role admirably for almost a decade. Only one of them deserves to continue for a little while longer, though, and it’s to Dunga’s credit that he seems to recognize which one that is.[1]

Side note: Since the World Cup, I’ve given more thought to the full-back position than any other, and am in the process of re-shaping my opinion on what the future holds for it. Look for an article on the subject sometime in spring of 2017.[2]

Left-back

Filipe Luis – As an all-around left-back, he’s one of the two or three best in the world. As a defensive left-back, he’s number one. Scolari shouldn’t have left him off; it would have been a crime for Dunga to do so.

Alex Sandro – Filipe will be 33 when the next World Cup comes around. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, because there have been some great World Cup performances by full-backs in their thirties.[3] Still, if Filipe Luis is no longer at the top of his game by 2018, Alex Sandro is probably the frontrunner for the job.

Sandro likes to get forward, but I’ve always felt he shows a bit more discretion about when to do so than Danilo. He’s a lung-buster of a player, and even when he does get caught out of position, can usually recover in time. I’m a bit more enthusiastic about him than Danilo, but the prospect of having both flanks manned by club teammates is enticing.

Midfield

Luis Gustavo – A shaky World Cup, and a disastrous performance against Germany where he provided almost no defensive cover at all…which is essentially his entire job. But you simply cannot judge a player based on one game, no matter how important that game was. At the end of the day, it’s important to formulate your opinions based on a player’s entire body of work. In Gustavo’s case, that body of work is rock solid. His arrival on the scene was a major turning point for Scolari’s Brazil.

As anxious as I am for Brazil to reclaim its status as a premier passing team, which Gustavo doesn’t really help with, we can’t ignore the lessons of the 1990’s. To be a winning team, one must be defensively organized, and if Brazil is to continue the tradition of attacking fullbacks – which Dunga was a big an advocate of– you must have someone in the midfield that can provide defensive cover.

Long-term, I’d prefer to see Fernando Reges in this position. Fernando brings a little less steel but a little more subtlety, and he has a greater range of passing. But Gustavo is too good at what he does to be dropped, and I’m happy that Dunga sees his worth.

Fernandinho – A horrible, horrible match against Germany, but would Brazil have even gotten that far without him? Probably not. For starters, his introduction against Cameroon solidified Group A. (Remember, if Brazil had failed to top the group, they probably would have lost to Holland in the next round.)

Against Colombia, Fernandinho put in a masterful performance. Some commentators have accused him of being too rough on golden boy James Rodriguez (who himself was no saint), but for the first seventy minutes, he shadowed and shackled the Colombian wunderkind better than anyone else in the tournament. And his passing was simply first class – no one else on the team was as quick, accurate, and proactive with the ball as Fernandinho.

Fernandinho forward passes vs Colombia

This is a graphic, courtesy of the 4-4-2 website, of all of Fernandinho’s forward passes against Colombia.  24 successful forward passes out of 26.  No one else on the entire team came close to matching this except Thiago Silva, who completed 19 out of 22.  In fact, Fernandinho made more forward passes than Paulinho made total passes.

Again, one bad performance should not and cannot overshadow a tremendous body of work. Fernandinho is simply too good, and too valuable, to be dropped.

Dunga has said many things since his return, most of it just filler. But one thing he said really stuck with me, and that’s when he emphasized the importance of movement. I am simply desperate for Brazil to show better movement, a chronic problem that’s plagued Brazil (with brief periods of remission) for over 20 years. If Dunga is serious about making movement a priority, the Seleção is going to need all the Fernandinhos it can get.

Oscar – At this point, the dazzling promise Oscar showed in 2012 and early 2013 is probably going to go unfulfilled. Whether it’s the wear and tear of the Premier League or that he simply peaked too early, Oscar just can’t seem to find any consistency. Once upon a time, Oscar looked like the very definition of the modern #10 – mobile, versatile, rugged, and above all, active. Those days are gone and it seems naïve to assume they’ll come back.

However, that doesn’t mean Oscar isn’t valuable. To quote our own Dario, “We simply need to readjust our expectations.”

My expectations are that Oscar is not the answer for the #10 role, but has all the qualities needed to be a fantastic central midfielder. His passing, particularly his ability to switch the point of attack, is more suited for a deeper position. He’s capable of making secondary runs into the box. And if there’s one thing England has done for him, it’s made him into an outstanding tackler. In fact, Oscar led the World Cup in total tackles, outpacing Gustavo by 30-17. (Fernandinho also had 17.) Among all players, only Javier Mascherano came close with 22.

To have a player like Oscar, someone with defensive ability balanced alongside good movement and two-footed passing, is fortunate indeed. The idea of a midfield band comprised of Fernando Reges, Fernandinho, and Oscar, with either Coutinho or Roberto Firmino just ahead, is absolutely salivating. It would contain movement, passing, and defensive strength all in one.

For heaven’s sake, make it happen, Dunga.

Elias – The one player whose selection I absolutely do not agree with. It’s not that Elias is awful. It’s just that he’s not a Seleção-quality player. You need to bring some particular skill-set to the table if you are going to contribute to the national team, and Elias is merely a competent journeyman who doesn’t excel at any one thing. He’s inoffensive, doesn’t make mistakes…and won’t do anything that can’t be performed at a higher level by someone else. That’s the problem with wasting roster space on someone like Elias – it means there’s no room for others who actually have the ability to influence the game in some way.

Coutinho – There’s still more questions than answers about Coutinho at this point. Is he consistent enough to be a star? Is his wayward shooting a major problem or merely a minor annoyance? Can he fit into Dunga’s system, assuming Dunga’s system remains the same?

Only one thing is certain: he unquestionably has the skills that Brazil needs. His passing in the final third is already world class, and his weighted through-balls are godly. Just as important, his time in England has made him a bit more rugged, a bit more physical without robbing him of his attacking prowess. This last point may be the most important. If he can convince Dunga that he’s more than happy to stick a boot in and help in defense, he has an excellent chance of being a star for this team.

Everton Ribeiro – With the exception of Coutinho, I’m more curious to see how Ribeiro does than any of Dunga’s other call-ups. He’ll likely be competing with Coutinho for a starting spot against Colombia and Ecuador.

Voted the best player in the Brasileirão last season, Ribeiro isn’t the central playmaker that Coutinho is. Whereas Coutinho is all about exquisitely threaded passes, Ribeiro is more of the pass-and-move, pass-and-move type. I’m no expert, but my experience with Ribeiro is that likes to take out one defender with a dribble or feint, pass to a teammate, continue his run, receive the return pass in or around the box, and then either shoot or set up one of the forwards.

Ribeiro actually reminds me of Ronaldinho in a sense – with the massive caveat that the two are not in the same universe as far as quality. Ronaldinho was never a purely central playmaker either. With Dinho, he was always cutting in from the left, brushing past defenders with his blistering pace or better-than-PlayStation dribbling before shooting or setting up a teammate. Ronaldinho wasn’t a playmaker in the traditional sense, pulling the strings in the midfield. He made plays by virtue of the fact that he could do anything and everything. Try to prevent him from dribbling past you and he’d pull off a no-look pass. Block all the passing channels and he’d hit a screamer into the back of the net. Try to man-mark him and he’d end up leaving you in the dust.

Ribeiro is nowhere near that level (and he plays more on the right wing than the left), but in terms of style, you get the idea.

I’m intrigued by Ribeiro and happy he was called up, but there are some major question marks about him. First, can he play at the pace of the international game? Many, many playmakers who made names for themselves in the open spaces and slow tempos of the Brasileirão found their transition to the national team a far bigger jump than anticipated. Ribeiro isn’t lightning quick, and while he has good improvisational skills, he often lingers far too long on the ball.

Second, Dunga has stressed that he expects everyone to help in defense. Ribeiro hasn’t really been forced to do that at Cruzeiro, so there’s another major adjustment he’ll be forced to make.

Ribeiro has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few seasons, and his growth may not yet be over. But for the moment, I see Coutinho and Roberto Firmino as more likely to star for the Seleção.

Ramires – I wouldn’t have called Ramires, but I can understand Dunga’s reasoning for doing so. While many have criticized Dunga for being too defensive – sometimes unfairly – his latest selection actually contains more silk than steel. But you have to have someone in there to do the dirty work.

Ramires needs no analysis at this point; everyone knows him well and has their own opinions. The fact of the matter is that Dunga trusts Ramires, and rightfully so, for Ramires was a key player during his last go-around. I expect the “Blue Kenyan” will enjoy many more call-ups in the months to come.

Forwards

Neymar – Cut your hair, Neymar. Stop crying, Neymar. Take your hat off, Neymar. You’re not a crack yet, Neymar.

Now come and save us, Neymar.

Look, Dunga can say what he likes about Neymar’s fashion sense and media mongering. When push comes to shove, Neymar is the best Brazilian footballer in the world, and Dunga knows it.

So it begs the question: why was Neymar even called up for these friendlies, anyway? If anyone deserves a rest, it’s him. Dunga gave Kaka and Ronaldinho a pass in 2006 (not to mention the Copa America in 2007), and neither were as good for Brazil then as Neymar is now. Neymar is going to play a lot of football for club and country over the next few years, so the risk of burnout is high.[4] Why hasten the process by making him play yet more friendlies?

Hulk – I’ve been wrong about many things in life, so I don’t mind admitting I was dreadfully wrong about Hulk. I always thought he would put it together, that he would find a way to translate his club form to the national team. Unfortunately, while his heart is willing, his feet just aren’t skilled enough for the quicker pace of international play. Nor are his nerves strong enough for the added pressure of playing for his country.

That said, I still think he would make a great super-sub.

Dunga has always spoken fondly of Hulk, so his inclusion is no surprise. Hulk will do many things that Dunga loves, like track back, help in defense, and play his heart out. One silver lining is that I expect Dunga to feature Hulk as a striker rather than a winger, in the way he once sought to use Adriano. Hit Hulk on the counter with plenty of space around him and he might be yet be successful.

But he’ll never be a star.

Ricardo Goulart – I’m listing him as a forward because I see him more as a second striker in the Nilmar mold than anything else. Nilmar played well under Dunga. Deceptively quick and good in the air, the ex-Internacional man had a keen sense for where to be, always ghosting into open spaces to tuck away a shot or snap in a header. Goulart has many of those same qualities.

I think there’s a place on the reserves bench for Goulart if he can seize this opportunity.

Diego Tardelli – Another player I personally wouldn’t have called, though again, I can see why Dunga did so.

Diego made several appearances under Dunga last time around, and while he never scored, Dunga must have liked what he saw. (Remember, he named Diego to the backup squad for the 2010 World Cup.)

Diego is not a traditional center-forward. There’s little to no hold-up play in his game, which is more about hanging on the shoulder of the last defender and making runs into the box. His speed and finishing ability are probably his two strongest assets.

While you could see Diego and Coutinho enjoying a fruitful partnership, it’s harder to picture him and Neymar fitting in together. Then too, Diego is about to hit thirty. He just doesn’t seem like a long-term option.

That said, he is one of Brazil’s best pure goal-scorers, so it’s no surprise to me that Dunga is giving him this chance.

***

So there you have it. Dunga’s first roster. There are some names I don’t agree with, but only Elias leaves me shaking my head. It’s a good start.

Whom did Dunga miss out on? I’ve already mentioned Fernando Reges. Roberto Firmino is probably the most disappointing exclusion, but his absence isn’t yet what you’d call egregious. (If he keeps up his level of play and still doesn’t get a call-up for the next round of friendlies? Then I might start to complain.) I personally would have liked to see Leandro Castan instead of Gil, and Douglas Costa instead of Ramires, but these are comparatively minor omissions.

This is my preferred Starting XI:

Dunga First XI

A nice combination of attacking talent, technique, and defensive balance. My only worry is that it’s very narrow.

***

Very quickly, there are three interesting takeaways from this squad as a whole:

1)      Unlike the Norway side mentioned above, this team features a lot fewer head-scratchers than in 2006. There may be names you flat out don’t agree with, but with the possible exceptions of Elias and Gil, this group strikes me as far less controversial.

2)      There is no proper center-forward. Dunga rarely went without one last time around, although he did experiment with Robinho/Nilmar combinations on occasion. Dunga has hinted at exploring the concept of the false nine, but I think the more likely reason is that he really does want to emphasize…

3)      Movement. One thing you can say about this group is that it’s a very mobile squad. Everyone from the back-line up to the forwards – with the possible exceptions of Elias and Gustavo – are adept at moving off the ball. This could be why Dunga has called up several speedy forwards (Diego Tardelli, Hulk, Goulart) and no static ones. He really does want to make movement a priority.

Of course, player selection alone isn’t enough to guarantee good off-ball movement. The manger must, must, MUST emphasize it continually. Training sessions must be devoted to it. Halftime speeches must center on it. Video sessions, chalk talks, even shouted instructions from the touchline must all feature the word: move!

But if genuine, consistent movement is achieved, the benefits would be…glorious.[5]

***

So what do you think? Sound off below!


 

[1] I already have crow ready in the refrigerator for when Dani Alves rejoins the team in February.

[2] I kid. Sort of.

[3] Cafu was 32 for the 2002 World Cup. At the same tournament, Paolo Maldini was still solid at age 34.

[4] I often wonder if this explains Ronaldinho’s sudden decline. We often forget just how much football he played between ’03 and ’06. Maybe the World Cup simply came at the worst possible time.

[5] Movement (and by extension, passing, for neither do any good without the other) is the primary topic of my next article, the one I’ve been working on for over a month.