Brazil show Argentina way forward
Taking on Scotland at the Emirates was more than just another friendly for Brazil, more than the chance to return to winning ways after two defeats, and even more than a warm up for July's Copa America.
The game got to grips with one of the fundamental issues facing the five-time world champions as they prepare for triumph number six in front of their own fans in 2014.
"We need to learn to play against defensive sides," said Mano Menezes last July in his first press conference as coach of Brazil.
"If teams stay back we get irritated - but the opposition has every right to play defensively."
Menezes is weaning his team off what had become an excessive dependence on the counter-attack.
In the World Cup almost everyone will sit back and try to frustrate Brazil - hence the importance of trying out strategies to beat the likes of Scotland.
Brazil's Leandro Damiao has an effort stopped by Scotland goalkeeper Allan McGregor of Scotland. Pic: Getty
One of them - unveiled last month against France but curtailed after Hernanes' first-half red card - was high pressure marking, attempting to win possession deep in the opposition half.
At one point this nearly turned a goal-kick for Scotland into a goal for Brazil, and several times Menezes' men won the ball in dangerous positions.
With his team compact in Scotland's half, the virtues of Menezes' 4-2-3-1 formation started to appear.
The holding midfielder Lucas Leiva was able to pop up in attack as an occasional element of surprise.
There was also a constant quest to create two against one situations down the flanks, with Jadson and Daniel Alves down the right and, especially, with Andre Santos and Neymar down the left - the route of the latter's gloriously taken opening goal.
And, for the first time since the World Cup, there was a genuine old fashioned number nine. Absent through injury this time, Alexandre Pato scored in all three of Menezes' first games in charge. But for all his talent, it is debatable whether he is ideally suited to the central striker's role in a 4-2-3-1. He is more of a fluid runner than a penalty area presence.
The same is not true of Leandro Damiao, the 21-year-old who made his debut against Scotland. As recently as December, he was a substitute for Internacional in the Club World Cup.
Damiao's rise has been meteoric. He was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet against the Scots, provided a threat in the air and helped create space for Neymar.
It is way too early to know whether Damiao will be the long-term owner of the number nine shirt. What seems clear, though, is that a player of his type - which could still be World Cup striker Luis Fabiano should his return to Sao Paulo be a success - will always be in the thoughts of Menezes when he puts his team together.
But if Brazil are moving towards fielding an old style centre forward, Argentina are going in the opposite direction.
A 79,000 crowd was at the Meadowlands Stadium to see Messi - photo: Reuters.
Against the United States on Saturday, as in last month's meeting with Portugal, coach Sergio Batista selected his side without a target man.
Instead, in an imitation of the role he has been playing for Barcelona, Lionel Messi is being employed in a 4-3-3 formation as a false number nine, with freedom to roam between midfield and attack.
Either side of Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel Di Maria open up the field with their speedy flank play. Behind him, Ever Banega is the key link - the Xavi of Batista's South American Barcelona.
For the first 45 minutes against the US, Argentina were worthy of the comparison. They played some scintillating stuff, with Messi exchanging passes at breathtaking pace and angles with Banega and Lavezzi.
The US defended doggedly, but were held in a stranglehold, and were fortunate to be just one goal down at the interval. It was embarrassingly one sided.
But the final score was 1-1. Batista's men could not maintain their pressing for the full 90 minutes, and with more aggressive intent the US managed to carry the game into the Argentina half - at which point some long-standing defensive weaknesses were shown up.
Poor defending in the air and sub-standard goalkeeping helped the US equalise. It would have been greatly against the run of play, but the US could even have snatched a winner.
Batista must surely be reflecting on how such first-half superiority could not be turned into more goals. Does he need to rethink the balance of his attack?
A penalty-area specialist would surely have capitalised on those periods of Argentina domination when the ball kept flashing across the face of the goal. And indeed, the currently injured Gonzalo Higuain remains an important option.
Going back to a target man, though, would interfere with Batista's imitation of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, since it would reduce the space available for Messi to cut through the middle.
But there is a figure in the Barcelona attack that Batista's side are not currently replicating. David Villa is not a traditional centre forward. He does much of his best work cutting in from the flanks. But he is a penalty-area operator - much more so than ether Lavezzi or Di Maria.
There is an obvious candidate to carry out the Villa role for Argentina - Sergio Aguero, a surprising omission from the current squad. Diego Maradona's son-in-law has the speed to work wide and the restricted space skills to be effective in the penalty area.
Aguero has not played for his country since coming off the bench to score against Spain last September. But the Atletico Madrid striker could have an important part to play in Argentina's Barcelona imitation.
Comments on the piece in the space below. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) Any idea what's happened to the Argentine defender Marcos Angeleri signed by Sunderland. I see he's only made a couple of appearances for the first team so far, after being picked by Maradona for the national side I had hoped for him to shine in the Premier League.
He was on the bench for Argentina against the US, called up after Pablo Zabaleta was forced out, and he may even play against Costa Rica on Tuesday. What concerned me, though, when he signed for Sunderland was his fitness. His biggest asset was his pace - that and versatility, because he started as a sweeper and then became a right back, so he could use that pace for defensive cover and to bomb forward.
But he suffered a serious knee injury, and so far he's offered no evidence of being the player he was before. Had he been fit, I'm sure Maradona would have taken him to the World Cup. The fact that he was left out was a cause of concern, a warning flag that he had not made a full recovery.
Q) I was wondering what seems to have been the motivation for Luis Fabiano's move back to Brazil. It seems especially unusual when you consider he had just signed a new contract with Sevilla, and he was being linked to big clubs (Man Utd, Spurs, etc) over the summer.
Bobby Smith Baker
A) After a very unhappy time early in his career with Rennes in France he said that he never wanted to know about northern Europe again! He's going back, I imagine, because Brazilian clubs are paying top money now, and with some big names returning the standard should be higher than for years. He had a happy spell with Sao Paulo in the past, and the club's medical facilities are top class. And if he's still keen, starring at home is a great way to win an international recall - as the column above argues, Brazil seem to have decided that they need a player of his type.