In the last two weeks, the soccer blogosphere has been rife with news of the firing of Mano Menezes, now former coach of the Brazilian national team, and the subsequent appointment of Luiz Felipe Scolari. Many were quick to criticize the CBF’s decision to fire Menezes just days after he won the Superclasico against arch-rival Argentina for the second year running. 2002 World Cup champion Ronaldo, 1970 World Cup champion Tostao and journalist Lucas Sposito all differentially criticized the CBF’s decision to fire Menezes, almost unilaterally from the position that the team had started to blossom and that, with 19 months to go before the World Cup, the timing was not right to prohibit Menezes from realizing his vision for the national team.
Nevertheless, the CBF’s decision to fire Menezes and replace him with Scolari is, without any question, the correct choice for the Brazilian national team. On one hand, Mano’s contributions to the team are undeniable and significant. Few coaches in Brazil have Mano’s eye for new, promising players that can be transformed into world class superstars through powerful mentoring and experience in the national spotlight. It was Mano who vaulted Oscar to the position of international prominence in world football even though it deserves mention that Oscar had already drawn some attention by virtue of his hat-trick in the U-20 World Cup final. And it was Mano who insisted that the current squad be built around Neymar while gifting national team experience to the likes of Lucas Moura, Rafael, Dede, Fernandinho, Hulk and Leandro Castan.
But Mano’s cardinal weakness lay in his inability to get his team to conform to a game plan in the heat of the battle. Nowhere was this more evident than in his constant use of deceit to shuffle the starting lineup hours before a game, and surprise the opponent with a new player and formation. The most glaring example of this was in the 2012 Olympic final against Mexico, when Mano decided to leave Hulk out of the starting lineup in favor of Alex Sandro in an attacking midfield position. The move was intended to surprise Mexico, but instead, El Tri took advantage of the weakness on the right flank and scored their opening goal within seconds of kickoff.
Similarly, in the recent friendly against Colombia, Mano opted for Thiago Neves as a substitute for the injured Hulk in an entirely incoherent substitution of a striker with a playmaker. The result emaciated the Brazilian attack, with the most threatening opportunities on goal resulting from Neymar going one on one against the Colombian defense. Mano’s repeated use of surprise in announcing starting lineups amounted to an admission of a weakness in terms of the team’s ability to execute its designated game plan. Everyone knows how Spain plays, for example, but this doesn’t prevent them from winning.
Scolari, on the other hand, is a drill sergeant and an expert at getting teams to play according to a designated plan. We do not yet know what formation or team Scolari will use, though it is highly likely he will reinstate the role of the holding midfielder in the form of Lucas Leiva or someone analogous. Scolari’s appointment is also likely to reorient the squad back to Ronaldinho as opposed to Neymar, although it remains to be seen what the implications of Ronaldinho’s recall will be for Kaka. Regardless, Scolari will almost certainly instill a strong game plan into the national team that is likely to bring the team success in the short term, and aesthetic power and flamboyance only in the long term. Scolari and technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira will err on the side of caution when it comes to playing the beautiful game by focusing on winning first, and the beautiful game second. The current Brazilian national team is bursting with talent and experience in almost every position. What has been lacking so far is the determination and vision to get the players to play in a consistent way such that the team can grind out key victories and thereby organically acquire the confidence to play the attacking, fluid football that almost all Brazilian football fans want to see.