Brazil’s World Cup campaign starts on Sunday, and at this point everything is pretty much set in stone. We know the tactics Tite will use, we know the players he’s picked, and we know how those players tend to play for Brazil. It’s hard to predict what’ll happen in a tournament as volatile for the World Cup. So I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to take a journey back in time, to this same moment on the eve of our past two World Cups. Where were we then? What did our prospects look like compared to now? In particular, how did the players we had back then stack up to the ones we do today?

That last question is the focus of this piece. I’m going to go through this year’s squad and compare it, position-by-position (roughly), to the squads we brought to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups—considering not just the players selected, but their form and fitness at the time. The goal of all this is simple: to demonstrate that, in terms of personnel, this is the best  World Cup squad we’ve had since the golden age of 1994-2006 ended.

Let’s start at the back.

First-Choice Goalkeeper

I don’t quite buy the hype (yet) that Alisson is among the top five goalkeepers in the world or whatever, but he’s certainly world-class, and he’s just come off a very successful campaign with Roma where they reached the Champions League semis. No Brazilian goalie has led a team that deep in the Champions League, or been truly world-class, since Júlio César in 2010.

How does that compare to past World Cups? Well, I don’t think Alisson is ahead of 2010 Júlio César, who was legitimately listed among the top two or three goalies in the world at the time. Alisson’s pretty close, though, and if he struggles (as César did in crucial moments in 2010 and 2014, remember), his replacement is the best we’ve had in over a decade. Plus, if there’s some doubt about Alisson’s shot-stopping and command of his area in the wake of his conceding seven goals against Liverpool (even though there’s very little he could have done about any of them), there’s no doubt that he’s better with the ball at his feet than any starting goalkeeper I can remember, and the positive impact that has on the team’s ability to play out of dangerous situations and build attacks from the back cannot be overstated.Júlio César may have been the better shot-stopper (if not necessarily better at commanding his area, as the quarterfinal against the Netherlands proved), but Alisson’s ability on the ball comes close to negating that advantage.

Anyone’s better than 2014 Júlio César, though. He came to the World Cup from Toronto FC, on loan after struggling for game time at fucking Queens Park Rangers, and it showed. Without doing anything truly egregious, he could have done better on several of Brazil’s goals in the tournament, and I still maintain that, all else being equal, if he’d switched places with Manuel Neuer in the 7-1 loss to Germany, we’d still have been in the game at the 60th minute.

Ranking: 

  1. 2010
  2. 2018
  3. 2014

Reserve Goalies

Ederson’s inclusion alone makes this the strongest goalkeeper lineup we’ve brought to the World Cup in a long time. For the first time since at least the 2006 edition, we have two genuinely world-class keepers available for selection. Cássio, the third choice, is at best only somewhat better than Jefferson and Victor in ’14, or Heurelho Gomes and Alexandre Doni in ’10, but as a complete roster of goalkeepers, this is miles ahead of where we’ve been for at least a decade. I don’t need to spend more than a couple sentences here. 2018 wins this one by a mile.

Ranking: 

  1. 2018
  2. 2014
  3. 2010

Right-Backs

No question here: Danilo and Fagner are miles behind Dani Alves and Maicon in this position—at least their 2010 versions, when they were arguably the two best right-backs in the world. The same duo in 2014, on the other hand? That’s less certain. 2014 saw Dani Alves at his arguable worst, before he turned back the years for Barcelona’s Treble-winning 2015 season. It came as no surprise to anybody here on the blog that he proved so bad in the tournament that Luiz Felipe Scolari benched him after three games for Maicon. What was a surprise, sadly, was that Maicon was no better. His advancing years caught up to him in a big way—it was quickly evident that he no longer had the stamina to run up and down the flank for 90 minutes, and he was half a step behind opposing plays he would have snuffed out when he was younger.

In that sense, the knee injury keeping Alves out of this World Cup might be a blessing in disguise. Danilo and Fagner are still in their physical prime, and Danilo has already demonstrated that he’s more capable of supplying overlapping runs and crosses for Brazil than the 35-year-old Alves ever was. But I’m going to back out of making such a bold proclamation as “they’re better than 2014 Alves and Maicon”. They may be in better physical shape, but Danilo and Fagner have nothing on Alves and Maicon’s experience, intelligence, and skill. Danilo’s flashes of brilliance haven’t been consistent enough to overcome that. And if there’s any place where this year’s team could see it all come undone, it’s right-back.

Ranking: 

  1. 2010
  2. 2014
  3. 2018

Center-Backs

No question: whether we’re talking about the starting duo (Lúcio and Juan) or the depth on the bench (Thiago Silva and Luisão), we’ve still yet to match the central defense we brought to South Africa. Not that this year’s lineup is bad—in fact, I think it’s pretty close in terms of individual quality, particularly in that this year’s foursome is almost certainly superior on the ball—but that ironclad Lúcio-Juan partnership, starting for the second World Cup in a row, was so solid and experienced that even Silva’s club partnership with Marquinhos pales in comparison.

That said, we’re miles better in this department now than in 2014. Age has diminished Thiago Silva slightly over the last four years, sure, but four years ago Luiz Felipe Scolari bafflingly declined to back him up with either Marquinhos or Miranda. Instead, he chose the skilled but often calamitous David Luiz as his starting partner, and on the bench brought Dante, whose spell at Bayern Munich masked his defensive frailties, and Henrique, a completely unremarkable journeyman the coach knew from his time at Palmeiras.

Ranking: 

  1. 2010
  2. 2018
  3. 2014

Left-Backs

Our fullback dilemma now is a mirror of the one we had in 2010. Now we have a thoroughly uninspiring group of right-backs and two world-class left backs; then we had a thoroughly uninspiring selection of left-backs and two world-class right backs.  This was partly Dunga’s fault, and partly out of his control: he opted not to select Marcelo, who had been a regular starter for Real Madrid for three years at that point, and couldn’t select the injured Filipe Luís. Instead, he opted to use Michel Bastos, a very talented winger, as a makeshift option in the position, and backed him up with 2006 World Cup veteran Gilberto, who was at 34 well past his prime.

A more direct comparison is between 2014 and now. The starter, once again, is Marcelo. In terms of form, the current version is undeniably better, but he comes into the tournament after three Champions League wins in a row, and the associated game fatigue. On the plus side, he hasn’t played in any international tournament in this World Cup cycle, which means he’s had three solid summers of rest keeping him fresh. Considering the 2014 Marcelo had spent the two prior summers playing in Confederations Cup and the Olympics, and that Real Madrid’s match schedule was hardly any less grueling then than it is now (they’ve now reached at least the semifinals of eight successive Champions League seasons), the current version might be in better shape (we have Dunga, who in omitting him from the Copa Américas of 2015-16 gave him two summers off, to thank for that, of all people). 2014 Marcelo was also struggling to recover his form after a late-season thigh injury, and only came off the bench in the Champions League final. I wouldn’t be surprised if that shakiness impacted him in the tournament itself. With Marcelo now full of confidence and probably more fully fit, I think we’re in substantially better shape in this department now.

Worst case scenario, if fatigue does bite Marcelo, we have Filipe Luís this time, who should have gone to the World Cup last time but for some reason Luiz Felipe Scolari decided to take the aging Maxwell instead. In a yellow shirt, Luís has proven pretty equally capable to Marcelo, who struggles to be as effective going forward when Neymar is occupying his usual zone on the left.

Ranking: 

  1. 2018
  2. 2014
  3. 2010

Midfield Anchor

This is an easy category: Casemiro is easily better than the previous starters in this role. He’s a quicker, more capable passer of the ball than Luiz Gustavo or Gilberto Silva, and is not a red card waiting to happen like Felipe Melo.

What’s interesting is that for the second straight World Cup we’re going in with Fernandinho as the backup here, rather than a second genuinely defensive midfielder. And for the second straight World Cup, it seems like Fernandinho is on his way to becoming a starter for a player in a more advanced position, and will deputize in defensive midfield if the starter is out of commission. That, uh, didn’t work too well in 2014.

Meanwhile, in 2010 we had Dunga starting two destroyer types from the get-go. More depth in the position, sure. But also less creativity. Especially when Felipe Melo would rather stamp on ankles than play the ball forward.

I’m still giving this to 2018 based on the quality of our starter in this role. Casemiro is better not just at breaking up plays, but as serving as a hugely influential deep-lying playmaker, than his recent predecessors. Indeed, he’s arguably the best in the world in this position right now, which you couldn’t say about Luiz Gustavo, Gilberto Silva, or Felipe Melo. I’m concerned once again about the lack of a true backup, since Casemiro’s likely to get a suspension at some point for yellow-card accumulation, but Fernandinho in his place is still better than the lurch the 2010 squad found themselves in when Felipe Melo got sent off for stepping on Arjen Robben.

Ranking: 

  1. 2018
  2. 2010
  3. 2014

The Paulinho

For the second straight World Cup, The Paulinho goes in as an unequivocal starter despite our complaints. More concerningly, his trajectory leading up to the World Cup has been similar both times:

  • He started the year before the World Cup playing for a non-European club in a league on a calendar-year schedule.
  • Impressive performances for club and country (a great game against Spain in the Confederations Cup final, a hat trick against Uruguay) earned him a big-money summer move to a European club.
  • He started fairly well with his new club, scoring a few goals before drying up over the winter, and only late in the season finding the net again.
  • Despite his performances wavering and his ability to contribute beyond scoring goals in question, he remained an unequivocal starter for Brazil right up until the World Cup.
  • He came into the World Cup having had, as a result of his transfer the year before, neither a proper summer break nor a proper winter break for eighteen months.

To make this stat more ominous: He’s coming into this World Cup having played more games for Barcelona than he did for Tottenham, including playing through a foot  injury reports initially warned could keep him out for a month. As perhaps a slight plus, he’s actually played about 300 fewer minutes for Barça than he did in his first Spurs season (I’d forgotten just how consistently he started for them in his first season). Still, he barely got a proper rest all season, and his form has undeniably dipped since the injury. If he has another bad World Cup and loses his starting spot to Fernandinho after three games, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

2010 didn’t have The Paulinho, so obviously it loses. Or maybe wins. Probably the closest analogue in that squad would be Ramires, who I think I’d probably take were I forced to choose between them. But—and we’ll get to this soon—2010 also didn’t have much in the way of a genuinely more skilled option to come off the bench if one of their unskilled midfielders wasn’t performing.

Ranking: 

  1. 2018
  2. 2014

The Midfield Creator

Weirdly, the three players who serve as starters in this role—Coutinho, Oscar, and Elano—all do so (or have done so, since it seems like Coutinho might be about to permanently secure a place more centrally) from the right side of midfield. Elano and Oscar are midfielders, but not really playmakers—hardworking in defense, good passers without often demonstrating the ability to singlehandedly unlock the defense. Elano was excellent from set pieces, Oscar was a better dribbler, but both were the most creative players in their respective midfields, with much of the invention left to the fullbacks and the front three. And then you have Coutinho, who is a world-class dribbler and passer with one of the best long shots in the game, splitting his time between the wing  and the center. But he’s only in this ranking for convenience. He fits much better into a more attacking category I’ve listed later. Renato Augusto is a more accurate comparison, but he’s not likely to start. And that’s a big change. That the midfielder ahead of the two volantes is an attacking midfielder, as opposed to a central midfielder, is significant. It’s a welcome attacking shift, but considering how little defending The Paulinho does, it might prove too much of one against teams that try and harry us in midfield.

On paper, though, 2018 wipes the floor here.

Ranking: 

  1. 2018
  2. 2014
  3. 2010

The Midfield Bench

My memory of Dunga’s side gets a little hazy when we talk about the midfield. It’s hard to remember much about late-career Gilberto Silva, or about fringe players like Josué. (I totally forgot 2002 World Cup winner Kléberson was even in the 2010 squad until I started writing this article.) Then again, the only reason I remember anything about Hernanes or Ramires in 2014 is that they were more recent. The midfield bench tends to boast limited, unremarkable, or past-it players like these. This time around, we have Renato Augusto, who might be all three—but we also have Fred. I’m still not fully sold on him, but he might very well be the most talented, versatile midfielder to sit on Brazil’s bench in any of the past three World Cups. His dribbling and passing abilities well exceed what Ramires brought, and the Hernanes of 2014 was a far cry from the player who, three years earlier, had looked like a future world beater.

Renato Augusto, meanwhile, is hardly a great player, but he’s extremely intelligent, knows how to control the tempo with his passing and cover vulnerable spaces off the ball, and is decent enough as a goalscorer. He can offer some utility off the bench, if we need someone to help provide a little more defensive cover without compromising the possession game.

There’s also Fernandinho, of course, who I feel like has rarely played quite as well for his country as his club form suggests he should. Simply due to his age, he’s regressed a bit since 2014, though he’s still excelled at the heart of Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking  Manchester City team. As in ’14, he should probably be starting (or, well, someone should probably be starting) in The Paulinho’s place. I’m just worried that whenever he (or maybe Fred) replaces our lord and savior in the starting lineup, 2014 will repeat itself again in that he’ll have been incorporated too late to really change how the team played. (Of course, that may have also been because the team crumbled in the face of better, more tactically sophisticated teams in the knockout rounds, while Neymar’s injuries thrust a much greater creative workload on his unprepared teammates.)

Ranking: 

  1. 2018
  2. 2014
  3. 2010

The Creative Line

Broadly, the last three World Cup squads can be said to have had a pair or line of skilled attacking players expected to combine and feed the striker. Kaká and Robinho, Neymar and Hulk, and now Neymar, Coutinho, and Willian. One wears the number 10 shirt and is the attacking center of the team, the other(s) provides some combination of dribbling skill, combination play, and goalscoring acumen.

So how do these three cycles stack up? Well, let’s start with the latter player, the support guy. Robinho, Hulk, Coutinho/Willian. Hulk barely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the others. Did you know he never scored in a non-friendly match for Brazil? Despite going to a World Cup, a Confederations Cup and a Copa América? ‘Nuff said there. Robinho, on the other hand, consistently delivered in a Brazil shirt. But I’m going to make a bold (or maybe not?) statement here: 2018 Coutinho is better than 2010 Robinho. Robinho was probably more naturally gifted, and Coutinho has yet to match his contributions for the Seleção. But Coutinho brings so much more to the table with his passing, vision, and shooting ability. He is the sort of multifaceted creative force Dunga’s team desperately lacked, and I expect that will make a big difference this month.

Willian changes the calculus: he’s an extra winger in 2018’s starting lineup where the two previous teams preferred to use a holding midfielder in a deeper right-sided role. He doesn’t really have a clear analogue as a result. Or maybe it’s Coutinho who doesn’t? This is where the differences in systems and tactics come into play over and beyond differences in personnel, but diving into that would put this article over my STRICT 5,000-word limit. Willian’s certainly better (especially in a yellow shirt) than Hulk was, and he offers an attacking dimension on the right wing beyond what Oscar or Elano offers. On the other hand, both those guys brought plenty on their own and enjoyed really good tournaments from an attacking perspective. And plus, would you take Willian over Robinho? Probably not, right? But: he’s one of the very best Brazilian attackers right now, coming off a career year with Chelsea during which he made several spectacular contributions for the Seleção. Certainly he’s far better than he was when he made the bench in 2014. And considering how bereft the 2010 side was of attacking talent beyond the starting trio of Kaká, Robinho, and Luís Fabiano, particularly on the wings, I think it’s safe to say that they would have been substantially better had they had a player of Willian’s caliber—perhaps even the actual, 21-year-old Willian of the time—available on the bench.

On to the number 10s. Neymar in 2018 is unequivocally a better player than Neymar in 2014. Is he better than Kaká? That’s the wrong question. What matters more is that in all three World Cups, our number 10 came into the tournament with some compromise to his physical condition. 2018 Neymar is only just returning to the field after spending three months out with a broken foot.  2014 Neymar came in shortly after a knock to his foot had kept him out for a month, which was compounded by him rolling his ankle in training and then being beaten up by Chile in the tournament itself. He started that tournament well below his explosive best, and then was reduced almost to limping on the pitch by the time Juan Zuñiga broke his back in the quarterfinal. Kaká had it even worse: he came into 2010 carrying a longstanding, career-threatening knee injury for which he had surgery immediately after the tournament (Brazil’s team doctor even suggested that maybe he shouldn’t have been playing), and he’d recently suffered a hernia, a condition with a chronic threat of recurrence. That he played as well as he did—which was substantially below his best—was a minor miracle.

In other words, our number 10s have recently come into the World Cup in very, very bad shape. (Arguably, this can go back to 2006 as well, where both Ronaldo and Ronaldinho were on the physical decline and well below their world-beating form of a few years prior.) This time around, however, there’s a potential silver lining: Neymar should now be fully injury-free. (Metatarsal fractures like his can cause lingering issues for months after the bone heals, but let’s ignore that for now.) If he is indeed injury free, he’s already a giant leap ahead of 2014 Neymar and Kaká. And if we really want to look on the bright side… remember how Ronaldo came into the 2002 World Cup having just recovered from a torrid three-year battle with knee injuries? Remember how, because he had missed all but the end of his club season, he was fresh and in prime physical condition while everyone else was exhausted from having played 40-50 games? Remember how that turned out? Yeah, you do.

Of course, the snag here is that Ronaldo returned to the pitch in time for a solid month and a half of club play before the tournament, whereas last week’s friendly against Croatia was Neymar’s first game since February. Still, two (fantastic) goals in two games since his return? A very good sign.

Ranking: 

  1. 2018
  2. 2010
  3. 2014

The Creative Bench

This was nonexistent in 2010. The closest thing to an inventive or skillful attacking player on the bench (other than Dani Alves, whom Dunga never used as an attacking substitute that I recall) was Júlio Baptista, a big, physical second striker who wasn’t exactly the “create something out of nothing” type”. Otherwise, you had Nilmar and Grafite, both strikers, and nobody with a whit of pace or dribbling ability. It’s kind of remarkable, when you think about it. Dunga went with about four different striker types and an equal number of volantes, rather than include even one properly game-changing attacking player on the bench.

2014 did much better in this regard, with then-golden boy Bernard and recent Chelsea signing Willian backing up Neymar and Hulk. (Coutinho, who was more than good enough to go, was nowhere to be found, of course.) Bernard, unfortunately, was still adjusting to his move to Shakhtar the summer before, and was well off the form that had won him his Seleção place to begin with. Willian was performing better, but was only integrated into the team after the Confederations Cup, too late for him to entrench himself as an alternative option when Neymar was injured. The result was that the off-song Bernard took Neymar’s place against Germany, to absolutely no effect. Hernanes, similarly, was well off from his previous highs, and didn’t do much of note at the tournament.

Whether 2018 beats 2014 depends on whether you feel like fudging Fred, Fernandinho, and Renato Augusto—none of whom are attacking midfielders—into this category. Without them, Taison and Douglas Costa, as a duo, exceed Willian and Bernard, if primarily for their relative form. Taison hit his stride late in Shakhtar’s season after a long dry spell, with five goals in his last eight club games; Douglas Costa was arguably Juventus’ best player, period, in 2017-18. Being able to count on two super-fast, skilled (well, Costa in particular) wingers off the bench is great—but we don’t have a genuine playmaker to bring in if things go bad, and that’s where 2014’s inclusion of Hernanes wins some props. On the other hand, we have more options in midfield who can provide some level of creativity and incision than 2014.

So it’s close, but I’m going to give this to the 2018 squad.

Ranking: 

  1. 2018
  2. 2014

The Strikers

This year’s striking duo of Gabriel Jesus and Firmino may well be the best, on average, that we’ve brought to a World Cup since Ronaldo and Adriano. Unfortunately, that’s not saying a lot—not to mention 2010 Luís Fabiano still has them both covered. (We’ve yet to see Jesus or Firmino do this, or this, or this.) But this is the first time we’ve had two strikers of such quality at our disposal at a World Cup for a long time. Fabiano, if you’ll remember, was backed up by Nilmar, a quick forward but only once even a 20-goals-per-season player, and Grafite, a relative nobody brought in late in his career on the back of one exceptional season for Wolfsburg. I wouldn’t take Jesus or Firmino ahead of Fabiano, but I’d gladly take either one ahead of Nilmar or Grafite. I still have doubts over both of them, but if whoever’s starting (likely Jesus) can’t deliver, we can replace him with a player of equal talent—and different strengths—off the bench.

Once again, 2014 comes out as the bottom of a category by a mile, but it’s important to remember that both Fred and Jô had been, however briefly, at least decent in the year prior. Fred scored nine goals for Brazil in 2013, many of them outstanding; Jô scored five, and for a brief moment even managed to convince some of us (*raises hand*) that he deserved to start. That is, that they were the two strikers Scolari took to the World Cup wasn’t entirely insane. But that intervening year ravaged them harder than just about anybody else. After the Confederations Cup triumph, Fred promptly missed four months with a hamstring injury, injured himself again shortly after his return, and didn’t really reclaim his form until a good two months after the World Cup, leaving him with one of the worst returns for a starting striker in Brazil’s World Cup history. Jô entered the World Cup two months in to what was to become a year-long goalless drought. None of that’s an excuse—it just reminds us what made them so unutterably awful. Other than a goalless drought (and a knee injury from which he appears to have fully recovered) for Jesus over the winter, both of our strikers this time come in off quite good and prolific club seasons.

Ranking: 

  1. 2010
  2. 2018
  3. 2014

The Summary

I chopped up the squad into twelve categories, and by my judgment, this current team has the edge in eight of them. (Seven, if you don’t want to count The Paulinho as his own category. Even though a man of his might by default is.) The 2010 side shades it in the remaining categories, primarily in the defense, but by and large 2018 stays fairly close in these areas, whereas Dunga’s side almost completely lacked options in many of the areas where this squad is strongest. That’s where 2018 really pulls ahead: where it’s not excellent, it’s at least good (except maybe at right-back), and often has more depth and versatility in case the starting option goes wrong. Where Dunga’s squad wasn’t excellent, it was dire.

Looked at piece-by-piece, the 2014 side was really, really bad, at least by Brazil standards—it doesn’t come on top of a single one of these categories, in my estimation. But the reason it was so bad is as much due to the regression of key players as to the lack of quality of those players in the first place. Fred has never been a very mobile or versatile striker, but we most certainly did not see this Fred at the World Cup. Paulinho isn’t technically brilliant (we know that all too well) but he was miles off at the World Cup from his outstanding performance against Spain a year earlier.

In many cases, it seems like the past two teams peaked a year early with the Confederations Cup win. Players who excelled got big-money moves that unsettled them (see: Kaká, Bernard, Paulinho) or simply couldn’t sustain their good form from the year prior (David Luiz, 2014 Maicon, Júlio Baptista). And across the board, both sides were full of players who just weren’t very good once the Confederations Cup swagger wore off. We haven’t shaken off these demons, not completely. A lot of our best players are worse than they were in 2014 by simple virtue of their advancing years, and the presence of players like Fagner and Cássio in the squad and Rodriguinho on the reserves list reminds us that a Brazilian coach has once again favored unremarkable domestic league players over better options (albeit less egregiously than in years past). Plus, the lack of quality at right-back (though I continue to enjoy my time as the sole resident of Danilo Will Come Good Island) risks being an Achilles’ heel in the way 2010’s dearth of creative players on the bench or 2014’s mental fragility proved to be.

But there’s one ace up this team’s sleeve I’ve barely touched on. It’s been a while since we’ve had so many players, particularly in attack, come into the World Cup off of really good seasons. In particular, three players—Neymar, Coutinho, and Firmino—scored at least 20 club goals in 2017-18, and Gabriel Jesus joins their ranks if you add international goals to the tally. The only player in this group in 2009-10 was Luís Fabiano (who scraped in with 21 club goals), and in 2013-14 it was Hulk with 22 (though Neymar joins him if you count international goals). To them you might add Douglas Costa and Willian, coming in off their best-ever club seasons; Casemiro and Marcelo, now three-time consecutive Champions League winners; and Fred, Alisson, and Ederson, fresh off of breakout seasons in Europe. For once, our star players aren’t limping, backing into, or otherwise scraping their way into the World Cup.

And this isn’t even talking about the coaches! Which I would do, except I’m past 4900 words and I need to sign this off and also I’ve talked about that stuff before. Long story short: this squad is good. It’s the best we’ve had since 2006, and it’ll likely be better in practice than that unbalanced mess was. Strap yourselves in, folks. This World Cup’s gonna be a wild ride.