Dunga needs to turn over a new leaf
If you decided to devote 90 minutes of your life to watching Brazil beat North Korea 2-1 in their debut match of the 2010 World Cup, chances are that you felt at least a bit disappointed when referee Viktor Kassai blew the final whistle.
At the end of the day, the Brazilians showed little of their magic, even though the committed North Koreans appeared every bit as naive as everyone expected.
However, a sizeable part of your disappointment could have easily been avoided, specifically the Brazilian magic bit. The indubitable strengths of this side shine against attacking, possession-oriented teams, while all their weaknesses become painfully blatant when opponents give up acres of space and wait for the five-time world champions to attack. Except for the event of an early Brazilian goal, Brazil vs North Korea was doomed to frustrate those expecting a jogo-bonito exhibition.
Brazil's difficulties in commanding matches from start to finish were already evident during the World Cup qualifiers in South America, and that was the case even when Kaka was in top form. The verde-amarelos drew no fewer than four home matches - all of them scoreless - against Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia and Argentina. Three of those four teams didn't make it to the World Cup finals, but they managed to spend 90 full minutes on Brazilian soil without conceding a single goal.
Dunga's side always felt much more comfortable in the role of visitors, as their emphatic wins over Uruguay (3-0), Argentina (3-1) and Chile (4-0) - all of whom qualified - prove. In all those cases, either early goals from the Brazilians or the approach of their hosts allowed Dunga's men to sit back, trust their well-synchronised defensive structure, and strike through set pieces and/or fast counter-attacks.
"Our football book only has one page," former Brazilian international Walter Casagrande warned back in October 2009, right after Brazil's goalless home draw against Venezuela. This result shocked most Brazilians supporters, as they half-jokingly like to say that football is only Venezuela's third-favourite sport (after baseball and basketball).
The offensive limitations of this side can be put into numbers using Tuesday night's match as a reference: the Brazilians shot on goal only ten times despite enjoying almost 75% of the possession against an unquestionably weak team, which demonstrates that the issue is not one of accuracy but of offensive flow. For all their dedication and effort, North Korea's defensive line was as well-mannered and respectful as they come - ten fouls, no cards! - which, judging by what we had seen a few hours earlier, won't be the case against the likes of Ivory Coast and Portugal.
"Kaka's poor form only aggravates a situation that was already there for everyone to see," World Cup winner Tostao said after the match was over. "Now it's too late to make adjustments, especially because the pieces aren't there," he added, implicitly reminding the general public of absentees Ronaldinho and Ganso, who are both watching the World Cup from the warmth of their respective homes.
Towards the end of the match, Dunga did introduce some variations to increase the offensive production of the team, although they all happened after Elano made it 2-0 and therefore didn't have any impact on the final score. First, Elano himself, a defensive-minded midfielder, gave way to Daniel Alves, a pure winger. Later on, Kaka, the link-up player between the midfield and the strikers, was replaced by forward Nilmar, which allowed Robinho to play Kaka's role behind both Nilmar and an unrecognisable Luis Fabiano.
However, Dunga's substitutions arrived a bit too late for Neto's liking, irritating the former Corinthians player and now TV commentator: "Changes were required at half-time. North Korea were attacking with only two players, but Dunga kept the full back-four plus three defensive midfielders for 75 minutes. What for?"
Despite his team's struggles to create chances, and notwithstanding the final scare after North Korea scored, Dunga looked composed in the post-match press conference. It had been yet another difficult week with the media due to the coach's decision to keep most training sessions behind closed doors, but the questions were almost as polite as North Korea's defenders.
Dunga explained that any side aiming to win the whole thing will have to be "efficient", and that "every debut is difficult because of the anxiety and the long spell since we started training". Flamengo legend Junior agrees: "The opening match in a World Cup is always hard, and they get even harder when your opponent plays that slow and unenthusiastic brand of football. Brazil will indeed get better against tougher competition."
And that has indeed been the case in previous World Cups. In 1998 and 2002, Brazil reached the final after poor opening displays against Scotland and Turkey respectively. But even if the team do grow as the tournament goes on, some concerns remain unaddressed. Their root cause, however, is well known: a single-page football book.