A late Lionel Messi goal put an end to Mano Menezes' 100% record with the seleção this evening, as Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 in Doha. With just minutes remaining, the diminutive No.10 swapped passes with Ezequiel Lavezzi in the centre circle, skipped past a couple of half-hearted challenges, and planted a shot past Victor. It was a goal worthy of winning any match, and was the single moment of brilliance in a largely disappointing clash.
Menezes handed Ronaldinho a start in a central playmaking role, with Neymar on the left and Robinho...actually I have no idea where Robinho was meant to be playing. The former Santos ace turned in one of the most uninspiring performances I've ever seen, leaving Brazil effectively a man light in attack. Elias earnt a start in midfield, but also failed to impress, while Ramires, a man visibly lacking confidence following his recent downturn in form with Chelsea, looked a shadow of the player who starred against the USA. Defensively, Thiago Silva had a decent game, whilst David Luiz showed intelligence; frequently tracking Argentina's attackers into midfield, knowing that his colleagues could cope with lone frontman Gonzalo Higuaín.
Brazil, in fairness, started brightly; André Santos and Daniel Alves were typically effervescent down the wings, and Ronaldinho showed that his abilities to protect and pass the football have not deserted him yet. Neymar looked lively cutting in from his wing, but often chose to tumble in the box rather than pick out a cross. It would be two relative veterans who had the seleção's best chances; Alves hit the bar with a snapshot, and Ronaldinho's cheeky backheel brought a save from Sergio Romero. As the half wore on, though, Argentina began to boss possession, and some last-ditch defending was needed to thwart the likes of Angel di María and Messi.
The second half was even more disappointing from Brazil, who failed to create a clearcut chance. Douglas took the place of Ronaldinho, but the problem was one of formation, not of personnel; with no central striker to speak of (maybe Robinho was meant to fulfill that role, who knows), Brazil's forays down the wings and Ronaldinho's patient probing were somewhat aimless. Menezes eventually threw on young André, but inexplicably sacrificed Neymar, who had been causing Gabriel Heinze problems after switching to the right. The move made little difference to Brazil's play, and the game appeared to be limping towards a goalless draw until Messi's sensational strike.
So what lessons can we draw from this game? The first thing to note is that the performance highlighted the importance of Alexandre Pato to Menezes' system; while hardly a targetman in the traditional sense, Pato at least provided a focal point in attack for the likes of Neymar and Robinho to provide for. When Pato withdrew from the squad, Menezes probably should have turned to Nilmar or Hulk (both of which deserved call-ups in the first place) to fulfill this role. With only Neymar and Robinho in the starting XI, Menezes had to abandon the 4-2-1-3 which has served him so well in favour of a system with a diamond midfield and two forwards. The experiment, in my view, didn't really work.
Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, Menezes must think carefully about the set-up of his midfield. The partnership of Lucas and Ramires may have worked well against more modest opposition, but it failed to function this evening. Both are broadly 'box-to-box' midfielders; players valued primarily for their physical capabilities, rather than obviously attacking or defensive functions. Better, surely, would be to play one of the pair (Lucas, on current form) alongside a deep-lying regista - a player whose passing can start moves from deep, and who can control the tempo of a game. The obvious candidate, for me as for many in Brazil, is Hernanes. Menezes snubbed the Lazio midfielder, claiming that his advanced role at club level made him unsuitable to act as a withdrawn midfielder for the seleção. Mano do well to cast aside such politicking; Hernanes played for years in such a position with São Paulo, and cannot have lost the knack overnight.
Maybe such analysis is out of place after what is, after all, just a friendly. Maybe the return of Alexandre Pato and Paulo Henrique Ganso next year will put our minds at rest over Menezes' seleção legacy. But in the meantime, this result, and more importantly, this performance, will surely have given the former Corinthians boss plenty to think about. The honeymoon period is well and truly over; the hard work starts now for Menezes.