As Brazil coach Tite prepares to name his 23-man World Cup squad on Monday, reserve right-back looked like being one of his more difficult decisions – not because of an embarrassment of riches, but because it seemed to be a position where there was little quality cover for the undoubted first choice, Daniel Alves. Then came the knee injury which has forced Alves out of the World Cup.
This is a sad end to the international career of a player who has accumulated so many titles, but who has never managed to get close to a World Cup winner’s medal. Russia 2018 was set to be his campaign. In 2010 he played in midfield. Four years later he lost his place during the course of Brazil’s ill-fated campaign.
But since Tite took charge the right-back has thrived. A defensive line placed higher up the field and a team based on controlled possession has given him the chance to reproduce the kind of football that has proved so eye-catching and effective for Sevilla, Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.
A senior figure in the camp, he was one of Brazil’s dressing room leaders, and in the revolving captaincy that Tite has introduced, he was a frequent recipient of the armband. He may even have been dreaming of leading the team to World Cup glory on July 15. At the age of 35, the chance will not come again.
So how do Brazil replace him? Alves only missed one of the 18 rounds of World Cup qualification, the home match against Paraguay in March of last year. On that occasion the position was filled by Fagner of Corinthians, who had been seen as the most likely reserve. In Tite’s six call-ups for qualification matches, Fagner was present for all but the last one. But few really imagined him as a viable first choice. And he has also been out of action recently with an injury problem.
Danilo of Manchester City has been the other man in contention. He made the squad for the final rounds of qualification and the friendlies in November. An Under-20 World Cup winner in 2011, he was seen as the most likely long-term bet following the last World Cup. But a move to Real Madrid did not work out, and he has not seen a great deal of Premier League action this season.
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Some were expecting him to be named as back up to Alves – but this was mostly based on his capacity to play in midfield as well. Such versatility is often considered useful in the last few squad places. Now, though, things have changed. Brazil need a specialist.
The door could open for Rafinha of Bayern Munich. Long overlooked by Brazil, he even flirted with the idea of making himself available for the German national team. Tite had a look at him in a tour to Australia last June, where Brazil played friendlies against Argentina and the hosts. Rafinha has not been back since, but could prove to be the best alternative now that Alves has fallen by the wayside.
How will the forced change effect the team? This is a fascinating question, since Brazil’s pair of attacking full-backs – the other being Marcelo on the left – were seen going into the World Cup both as a huge strength and as a potential weakness.
There are few better, more dynamic and constructive attacking full-backs in the world game than Alves and Marcelo. They add all sorts of options to the team in possession. But they leave space behind them, and neither is an exceptional defender. The question was left hanging: against a top possession-based side – Spain, say, or Germany, or one with the attacking power of France – might the Brazilian defence be vulnerable down the flanks?
In this sense, the loss of one great attacking full-back might even help Tite achieve a more effective balance to his side. If on the right the new full-back interprets his role more cautiously, then Marcelo on the left is more able to roam, since the defensive midfielders can slot across to cover the vacant space.
An example from history comes from 1970. Shortly before the tournament the talented but temperamental left-back Marco Antonio was replaced by Everaldo, uninspired but steady. As a consequence, right-back Carlos Alberto had more freedom to charge down the flank, and sealed Brazil’s win in the final with one of the most memorable goals in World Cup history.