Brazil and Dunga learning to play without Neymar is a sign of progress
Shortly after last year's World Cup, when coach Dunga and coordinator Gilmar Rinaldi took charge of Brazil, they had one big criticism to make of predecessor Luiz Felipe Scolari's 2014 campaign. Neymar, of course, was missing from the fateful semifinal against Germany. On the way to the match, Brazil's players and coach were all wearing a baseball cap with a message of support for their injured star written on it. Dunga and Rinaldi thought this was a clear mistake. Neymar was out, so forget him. The message of support should have been for Bernard, the young winger who was taking his place.
Twelve months later, Dunga had a chance to put his thought on the matter into practice. Once more a game against Colombia had taken Neymar out of a tournament -- this time, of course, because of his four-match suspension. How would Brazil react without their creative genius and attacking inspiration? There was plenty at stake in Sunday's match against Venezuela; a win, or even a draw, and Brazil would top the group, and go through to face Paraguay in the quarterfinals. Lose, though, and they would be out of the competition and heading home to be greeted by a volley of rotten tomatoes. This, then, was a psychological test, and also a technical one.
The first goal was clearly going to be vital. It is -- understandably enough -- often forgotten that Brazil began last year's World Cup semifinal with a bright first few minutes against Germany. Everything started going wrong after they conceded a silly goal from a corner -- it was at that point that the team fell apart.
This time it was Brazil who took an early lead with a soft goal from a corner, volleyed home by Thiago Silva. This, of course, made the whole scenario much more comfortable. Venezuela now needed two goals, and Brazil could do what they like best -- hang back around the halfway line, wait for the opportunity and then go at pace.
But there were also considerable Brazilian merits in that early goal. The corner came as a result of a well worked piece of football. It would be foolish indeed to argue that Brazil were a better team without Neymar -- the young man from Barcelona is an astonishingly gifted player. But, the lack of focus on him obliged the rest to think collectively.
There was no need for an inferiority complex from Brazil's attacking midfielders; Robinho is a former Real Madrid player, Philippe Coutinho has had another fine season for Liverpool and Willian is a Chelsea lynchpin.
Coutinho still does not look entirely at home in a Brazil shirt. Robinho, now he has recognised he will never be the best in the world, can knit the attack together with a give-and-go game. And Willian, an impressive lieutenant for Neymar in both the first two games, stepped up in style.
In the opening minutes the three of them were showing an interesting rotation of positions, complicating Venezuela's marking. Willian then undressed the Venezuelan defence with a long diagonal switch from the left, leaving Robinho one against one with his marker on the opposite flank. It was this pass that forced the corner, from which Thiago Silva belted home his volley. That intelligent and precise long pass, coupled with the rotation of attacking positions, is something that Brazil had perhaps been lacking before, when the concentration had all been on the bursts through the middle from Neymar.
Willian sealed the game in the second half, producing a wonderful dribble round Venezuela right back Roberto Rosales and squaring for Roberto Firmino's close-range volley. It proved a necessary cushion -- Venezuela's late rally produced a goal and almost an equaliser.
For all the nervy moments at the end, though, Brazil could be pleased with their evening's work, and not only because they proved they could win without Neymar.
During the course of the tournament Dunga appears to have made progress with his defence. The absence through injury of holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo was keenly felt in the opening game against Peru. Fernandinho is a player of lung power more than of defensive positional sense -- and in this context the rash charges of David Luiz were all the more problematic. Giant holes were appearing in the Brazilian rear-guard. Dunga saw sense, and dropped David Luiz for Thiago Silva -- left out in the cold since the World Cup because Dunga did not see him as an effective captain when the pressure was on last year (a point confirmed by the fact that, in Neymar's absence, the captaincy now passed to Miranda, a no nonsense centre-back enjoying a good campaign).
For the last half an hour against Venezuela, David Luiz was introduced to operate as the holding midfielder -- a role which has long seemed best suited to his considerable talents. David Luiz alongside Fernandinho is a central midfield duo that may well be used again -- not necessarily against Paraguay on Saturday, but certainly in a possible semifinal against Argentina. For a team which, without its great star, took the field on Sunday facing the possibility of a humiliating early elimination, the chance to look forward to such games is welcome news indeed.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.