Brazil autopsyThis is the first article in a series I’m calling “The Great Brazilian Autopsy.”  In each article, we are going to dissect the corpse that is the Brazilian Men’s National Team, less to determine cause of death and more to determine what can be done to revive the body.

There are many things that could be said about Brazil’s humiliating exit from the Copa America at the hands (literally) of Peru.  Many of those things have already been said in the comments section on this site.  Others will be discussed in the coming days.[1]

But before the tournament began, I wrote about how on this occasion, team success did not matter.  The only thing that mattered was the success of certain individuals who could – and should – play a large role in Brazil’s future.

Here were the five individuals I was most concerned about:

  • Philippe Coutinho
  • Lucas Lima
  • Casemiro
  • Willian
  • Gabigol

In reverse order, let’s dissect how those individuals performed.

Gabigol

Here’s what I wrote about him before the tournament:

Gabigol should have the absolute least amount of pressure of anyone on the team.  He’s nineteen.  He doesn’t need to be Brazil’s savior yet; he doesn’t even need to be a starter.

So why do I include him on this list?  Because he is likely to see playing time now, which means we’ll have an opportunity to see what he’s made of.  Does he have the technique to play at this level?  Does he have the pace?  Does he have the stamina? 

While Gabigol played well enough to earn a starting berth in the final match, he certainly wasn’t Brazil’s savior.  So what was he?

For the most part, all Gabigol needed to do was not screw up.  By that criteria, his tournament was a success.  At no point did he look like he didn’t belong, or that he was overwhelmed by the occasion.  His movement throughout was very good.  He made frequent runs into space.  He peeled out wide on counter-attacks.  And while he didn’t function much as a creator, he was at least adroit enough to drop deep and offer himself up for periodic combinations in the midfield.

His most impressive moment, to me, came in the middle of the first half against Peru.  Receiving the ball with his back to goal, he quickly controlled, turned, and fired a shot at the far post.  He didn’t quite get enough power on it, but if he had, it would have been a certain goal.  In the end, Peru’s goalkeeper got down to make an excellent fingertip save.

The way he executed that move showed calmness, intelligence, and maturity.  If he can develop that part of his game, I think he’ll become a fine center forward in time.

Unfortunately, Gabigol didn’t show much in the way of running at defenders.  In fact, the one thing I was disappointed in was his lack of pace.  He never looked likely to outstrip his marker.  Given the fact that he’s only 19, I was expecting a bit more in this area.

Ultimately, while the Copa America was hardly Gabigol’s coming-out party, neither was he a flop.  In my opinion, either he or Roberto Firmino should be Brazil’s first choice center forward for the foreseeable future.[2]  (I personally prefer Gabigol.)  He hasn’t really earned the spot yet, but who has?  The fact of the matter is that there is no one else out there who is a no-brainer for the position.  Players like Raffael at Monchengladbach probably deserve a look, but with Gabigol, you have a young, talented, hard-working player who will only get better.  Since there’s no one ahead of him who is necessarily more deserving, let’s graduate him to the senior team with the understanding that he is not expected to become a goal-scoring machine right away.  All he has to do is keep working hard.[3]

Willian

A year from now, no one will remember what Willian did in this tournament.  And that’s the problem.

Here’s what I wrote about him prior to the competition:

Willian is a very good player.  He’s a good dribbler, a good passer, a hard-worker.  But can he be more than that?  For Chelsea, it seemed for a few months like he could.  But he tailed off significantly towards the end of the season, and his ludicrous streak of set-piece goals was probably something of a fluke.  With Neymar out and Douglas Costa hurt, Willian has another chance to prove he’s something more than just a good player.  He has another opportunity to become a talisman.

Sadly, Willian did not seize his chance.  A bright first half against Ecuador seemed promising, but the rest of his tournament was completely unremarkable.  While he didn’t necessarily do anything wrong (save miss a gilt-edged chance in the first half against Peru after an outstanding set-up by Filipe Luis), he didn’t contribute anything of note either.

The verdict is out: Willian is what he is, and no more.  A good player, a competent player, a well-rounded player.  But not a star.  There are worse crimes.  My opinion on Willian’s future?  Keep him as a candidate for the starting RW spot, but allow either Lucas Moura or Douglas Costa to start on the RW for the next round of qualifying.

Casemiro

The single biggest positive of this tournament was Casemiro’s play.

Here’s what I wrote last week:

If Casemiro is nothing but a destroyer, well…that might make him the hero Brazil deserves, but not the one it needs right now.  I don’t expect him to start spraying passes around the pitch; don’t expect him to be Gerson or Pirlo or even Dunga.  But he has to offer something more than what Gustavo does, or Gilberto Silva before.  I want to see him look comfortable on the ball, want to see him distribute quickly and effectively.  I want to know he’s not just a robber of possession, but a keeper of it.

Success!  Two games is an extremely small sample size, so it would be foolish to draw any firm conclusions.  But Casemiro’s play during those two games was exactly what you’d want.  He shielded the back four effectively just as you’d expect.  More importantly, his passing was quick, proactive, and probing.  Honestly, I was thrilled with what I saw from him in this regard.  I’ll have an entire article devoted to Casemiro coming up later this week (seriously, dammit, I will), but for now, it’s enough to say that it will be a crime against humanity if Casemiro doesn’t start in the next round of qualifiers.

Lucas Lima

Sadly, the joy I felt watching Casemiro play was in short supply with Lucas Lima.

Forget his header against Haiti.  As I’ve said numerous times before, I don’t give a shit about what a midfielder does in the final third if he can’t contribute in the middle.  The name of the position is midfielder after all.  It’s why I was never enamored with Paulinho.  It’s why I didn’t get excited when Renato Augusto scored against Peru or Uruguay.

I mean, sure, it’s nice when a midfielder can score.  It’s a good weapon to have when a midfielder is capable of making dangerous secondary runs into the box.  But a shit cake is still a shit cake no matter how good the frosting looks.

I’m getting a little worked up, so let me take a quick breath.

(Watches videos of Falcao, another midfielder who scored lots of goals and made secondary runs into the box but also dominated the midfield itself.)

Alright, I’m back.  Before the tournament, Lucas Lima was the one player I was most excited to watch.  Unfortunately, Dunga gave him a scandalously short outing against Ecuador, and his cameo against Haiti came after the match had already turned into a rout.  So the only meaningful time he got was against Peru.

Unfortunately, Lucas didn’t make the most of that time.

Here’s what I wrote ten days ago:

He is always looking to get the ball forward, always looking for teammates in pockets of space, and the result is that Brazil’s tempo immediately increases whenever he’s on the pitch.

So what am I looking for?  Whether he can reproduce the type of game he has showed for Santos – and here and there for Brazil – on a consistent basis, against top opposition, in a high-pressure, physical setting.

Sadly, he couldn’t reproduce that type of game.  As I’ve said before, I’m always skeptical about how domestic-based players will perform at international level.  My concern with Lucas is that he would struggle when forced to play at a higher tempo with reduced space.

And struggle Lucas did.  From the opening whistle, he had trouble adapting to the pace of the game.  The play often surged around him, leaving him isolated, uninvolved.  Whenever he did get the ball, he often had to drop very deep to do so, and it seemed to affect his confidence.  A long time went by before he started attempting the penetrating passes Santos’ fans are so used to seeing, and by that time he looked physically frustrated whenever the camera zoomed in on his face.  He did grow into the game a little bit in the second half, but it was too little, too late.

Lucas has played almost fifteen times for the Seleção by now, and by my calculation, every single one of his good performances came as a substitute.  Perhaps that’s what he is right now: a game-changer off the bench, a high-impact substitute.  Perhaps he needs time in Europe before he’s truly ready to assume a true #10 role with the team.

One thing is certain, however: I do not want Lucas dropped.  My reservations aside, Brazil needs more players like Lucas, not less.

Brazil has to stop prioritizing short-term results over long-term development.  For that reason, players like Lucas, Coutinho, and Casemiro should be kept on regardless of whether they are instant contributors.  They need to be cultivated and groomed, not because of what they currently are, but because of what they could be.  So for now, keep Lucas Lima on the team…and tell him to get his ass over to Europe.

Philippe Coutinho

Make no mistake, this tournament was a step forward for Coutinho.  Unfortunately, I was hoping for a somewhat bigger leap.

Again, we’re ignoring the goals he scored against Haiti.  It was a brilliant hat trick, certainly.  But it wasn’t the strikes themselves I cared about, but the assertiveness to attempt them.

Liverpool fans want only one thing out of Coutinho: consistency.  What I want is something different: assertiveness.  With Neymar, Kaka, and Douglas Costa out, there’s simply no one else on the team with Coutinho’s talent or pedigree except perhaps Willian.  But Coutinho has to show it.  He has to step up, take charge,  be willing to take risks.  He can’t simply “fit in”, can’t hold the door open for others to go through.  Players like Willian and Dani Alves will try to assert themselves as the leaders of the team, but when it’s the 55th minute and Brazil needs a goal and the opposition is pressing hard, Coutinho has to be one to drop back and demand the ball.

Coutinho did this…and then he didn’t.  He did it in the opening half against Ecuador, then tailed off in the second.  He certainly did it in the opening half against Haiti, then tailed off in the second (until the very end.)  I don’t think he did it quite as much as I wanted in the opening half against Peru, but he still had a busy, intelligent half.  And then, once again, he tailed off.  When the 55th minute came and Brazil needed a goal, Coutinho didn’t drop back and demand the ball.  Instead, he flitted around the periphery.

Back in 2015, I had wrote that two areas of his game Coutinho needed to address were his stamina (even then, he had a tendency to fade down the stretch) and his ability to play in reduced space against physical, athletic opposition.  Frankly, he hasn’t done enough to alleviate either concern yet.  Against Peru, you could see that he struggled to outpace his marker or shrug off defenders leaning on his shoulder.  His skills are unquestioned, but his lack of athleticism is a real issue.  If he can’t find some way to get around it, he runs a major risk of being the next in a long line of Brazilian might-have-beens.

Again, Coutinho is young (he just turned 24) and he is talented and Brazil need him.  I think he did just enough in this tournament to secure a starting spot moving forward.  But he didn’t emerge as a star.

But maybe that’s alright.  Neymar is Brazil’s star, now and for the foreseeable future.  But he needs skilled sidekicks, which is a role Coutinho should be perfectly qualified for.  Frankly, ever since Luis Suarez left Liverpool, I’ve felt Coutinho has been miscast by Scousers.  To paraphrase Bill Simmons, Coutinho is a second banana masquerading as a first banana.  That’s true for Liverpool and it’s definitely true for Brazil.  But again, Brazil has a first banana.  It needs its second and third and fourth bananas to be better than they have been…and it needs all its bananas working together on the same tree.

That was a weird sentence.

***

From a team perspective, the 2016 Copa America was an unmitigated disaster.  From a player perspective, the tournament was a little bit of a mixed bag, probably sliding more to the negative end of the scale.

The hope at this point is that Brazil will fire Dunga and hire a new manager with a more concrete, modern, and expansive philosophy.  A manager who knows how to get the best out of players like Coutinho, Lucas Lima, Casemiro, and Gabigol.  Maybe that’s Tite, maybe it’s someone else.[4]  But one thing is certain:

Brazil has promising individuals.  Now it just needs to find a way to get the best out of them.

Watch this space.


[1] The other articles in this series will be (not necessarily in this order):

  • The Great Brazilian Autopsy: Coaching Pathology
  • The Great Brazilian Autopsy: Anatomy of an Attack
  • The Great Brazilian Autopsy: Anatomy of a Formation
  • The Great Brazilian Autopsy: Deep-lying Forensics

[2] If I were the Seleção’s manager, I personally wouldn’t give up on the “Neymar as false 9” experiment.  But I have little hope that either Dunga or his possible successors understand how to make this tactic work, so it’s probably best that Neymar returns to the left.

[3] One other point in Gabigol’s favor: he was the only one on Brazil who showed a consistent desire to press.  This was more likely due to youthful exuberance than tactical instruction (no one else on Brazil pressed the ball), and his work-rate should be rewarded.

[4] My position is clear: make Jorge Sampaoli dictator of the Seleção and then get the hell out of his way.