Are Luiz Felipe Scolari's Brazil on Track Ahead of 2014 World Cup?
The simple answer to the question above is no. Brazil have played three games under the 2002 World Cup winning coach and have failed to secure even a single victory among them. However, that is not to say that recent fixtures have been in vain.
Ties with England, Italy and Russia were never going to be easy. England's last competitive defeat in regulation time came at the 2010 World Cup, Italy were runners up at last year's European Championship and Russia, under Fabio Capello, have become a stubborn unit that are currently breezing through World Cup qualifying.
Moreover, all three teams are a much more settled group than the one which Scolari has inherited and is now attempting to shape into a winning unit.
After testing a 4-3-3 style formation against England, with the intention of making Ronaldinho central to his plans, Scolari has since switched to a formation verging on 4-4-2 for the latter two friendlies.
The logic is sound. Offer wide midfielders to cover Brazil's occasionally suspect full-backs and then play Neymar off Fred in attack. The system is heavily reliant on Neymar dropping deeper and influencing games. His young star, though, is currently experiencing his worst run of form since early-2011.
Against Italy, when the Azzurri were looking to attack Scolari's side, the formation allowed Brazil to offer a threat on the counter attack. Two incisive attacking moves saw the Selecao sweep into a 2-0 lead, but they were unable to resist the formidable Italian forward line after the break.
Russia, though, were far less forward-thinking than the Italians and Brazil struggled desperately without creating much in the way of clear opportunity.
In the early stages, Russia also dominated the midfield areas as Brazil's formation left them a man short in central midfield.
The Selecao eventually came to grips with the challenge, but were never able to assert the type of dominance over their opponents they would hope to achieve. Defensively, they never looked like maintaining a clean sheet either.
Scolari has shown understanding of the task ahead. He has made bold selection calls and, thus far, the likes of Fred, Dante and Fernando have shown that they have plenty to offer at this level.
Some of the experienced campaigners brought back, though, have done their 2014 chances more harm than good. Both Ronaldinho and Luis Fabiano will have opportunities to redeem themselves later this month in home-based fixtures with both Bolivia and Chile, for Kaka that chance may not come again.
The coming fixtures will provide an opportunity for some untested players to shine, with Atlético Mineiro's Bernard heading the queue of those surely destined for the main international side. They can, though, prove a distraction from what are the real long-term aims and challenges of the side.
Ahead of the Confederations Cup, then, Scolari has two likely tactical options: stick with his 4-4-2 setup, or make a change to incorporate a third central midfielder. Oscar could then be moved forward to link with Neymar, with Fred leading the line in a variation on 4-3-1-2 or, if Scolari prefers, 3-4-1-2.
As a known fan of utilising a three-man backline, as he did to such success during the 2002 World Cup, it is an option that observers are waiting to see Scolari utilise this time around. In David Luiz, he once more has the perfect player to occupy the more advanced centre back role that Edmilson played to such great effect just over a decade ago.
Regardless of their lack of experience, it is clear that Oscar and Neymar must be the central creative forces of this side. With Fred ahead of them, Dani Alves and Marcelo on the flanks and a packed midfield, they would not be short of learned support.
That brings us to the midfield, which would be given an extra player to their ranks in either formation. Brazil, though, surely need to play with an out-and-out defensive midfielder if they are to play a four-man back line. At present, Tottenham's Sandro and Liverpool's Lucas Leiva are the standout candidates.
Combine Lucas with the passing talents of Lazio's Hernanes at the base of the midfield and Brazil would have a combative core, with plenty of ability to retain possession. The missing member of the unit, then, is the runner or shuttling midfielder.
Who is the most important player to Brazil ahead of the 2014 World Cup?
Again, Scolari has too top class candidates for this role. Chelsea's Ramires has won almost everything in the European game and would offer positional flexibility if necessary. Corinthians' Paulinho, meanwhile, would be more of a goal threat if that was felt to be lacking.
The core of Scolari's team looks to be fairly clear in his mind ahead of 2014. Julio Cesar, Thiago Silva, Hernanes, Oscar, Neymar and Fred—these are the central players Brazil must look to in order to obtain success.
Find the right balance and personnel to complete the team and, with home advantage on their side, Brazil could go far in the competition.
For all Scolari's faults, he is no idiot. He will have seen the team's struggle for dominance in midfield areas and, no doubt, is already working on a solution of his own to their problems.
The Confederations Cup will be a good testing ground. Brazil will face a generally high level of opponent and will need to play extremely well to succeed. Do so, though, and confidence will come flooding back to the side ahead of next summer's event.
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