Jack Lang assesses Brazil's Under-20 World Cup-winning squad, and examines how they may fit into the future plans of Mano Menezes.
Like countless tournaments before it, the U20 World Cup was eventually settled in fortuitous fashion. With a penalty shootout looming, Internacional midfielder Oscar saw his hopeful cross from the right loop into the far corner, handing Brazil a 3-2 victory over perennial foes Portugal. It was the seleção’s fifth title at this level; only Argentina have amassed more.
The significance of the tournament, of course, is not confined to the trophy cabinet; the competition provides youngsters with a chance to assert themselves on the world stage, and the audience with an instructive glimpse into the future. For Brazil, however, victory in Colombia could be more important still. With the senior side stuttering under the stewardship of Mano Menezes, and worries over the hosting of World Cup 2014 ever multiplying, Brazil’s youngsters have gone some way to replacing the recent doom and gloom with a cautious optimism.
Coached by the affable Ney Franco, the U20 side have thrilled spectators over the last month with their attacking verve; Brazil racked up no fewer than 18 goals over the course of their seven games. Using a traditional Brazilian 4-2-2-2 formation, the seleção took every opportunity to overload their opponents in attack; fullbacks Danilo and Gabriel Silva motored forward with glorious frequency, whilst even Casemiro – nominally a defensive midfielder within Franco’s system – looked to get into goalscoring positions.
This explosive attacking style proved more than a match for the likes of Austria, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. Brazil’s occasional lack of patience, however, was exposed – if only briefly – against the Iberian nations; both Spain and Portugal posed problems with their measured, possession-based approach. The tendency of Brazil sides to only come to life in patches is surely something that must be addressed – both at youth and at senior level – if Brazil are to regain the lustre of old.
This minor deficiency, however, turned out not to be critical in Colombia; Brazil’s superior individual talent eventually did enough to pull them over the finish line. Six performers in particular stood out. Danilo, who usually plays in central midfield for club side Santos, was excellent at right back, building on his promising displays in the South American Youth Championship. Further forward, São Paulo duo Henrique and Willian José also enjoyed fine tournaments. The pair formed an enormously potent attacking partnership; the former’s hustle and bustle complimented Willian’s more leggy style perfectly. On the rare occasion that Brazil’s starting strikers drew a blank in attack, they were helped out by supersub Dudu – a ludicrously lively dribbler who plies his trade in Belo Horizonte with Cruzeiro.
Behind the strikers, the competition marked the emergence of one prodigious talent, and the re-emergence of another. Oscar – who has been touted as a future craque ever since his emergence from the São Paulo youth system – reproduced his thrilling club form, and grew in stature over the course of the campaign. An elegant, two-footed schemer, he seems destined to attract covetous glances from Europe. Alongside him was Philippe Coutinho, a man who has already begun his adventure in the old continent. Having seen his star dip over the past six months, the playmaker was visibly motivated in Colombia, and turned in a series of busy displays.
The performances of these young players will provide Mano Menezes with plenty of food for thought over the coming months. Indeed, despite his travails with the full seleção, it is Menezes who deserves some credit for the talent pool at his disposal. Upon assuming the reigns of the seleção, the 49-year-old insisted upon a more joined-up approach to the country’s youth teams; players were to see the U20 side as a real stepping stone on the way to the senior side, not merely as a glorified shop window. To promote this idea, Menezes even travelled with the squad to the South American Youth Championship earlier this year, witnessing Franco’s approach first-hand.
This philosophy has already started to pay off; both Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso have made the step up to the full Brazil side in recent months, whilst Danilo received his first call-up last week. If Menezes can capture the verve and youthful abandon that Ney Franco has instilled in the Brazil U20 side, it would go some way to bringing his waning public back onside. For now, at least, the future appears ripe with possibility.
Jack is a freelance football writer covering all things Brazil. As well as being a regular contributor to IBWM, he maintains the excellent Snap, Kaka, and Pop! and Games Against Nature blogs; and can be found on Twitter @snap_kaka_pop.