Lined up behind them are some of Planet Football’s most valuable defenders, in the shape of Daniel Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Marcelo. Further upfield are hugely talented youngsters such as Oscar, Lucas and Neymar, nor must we forget much-coveted forward Hulk and target man Fred – an overwhelming fans’ favourite at Fluminense, one of Brazil’s biggest clubs.
Nestled in between all those big-name performers are two central midfielders who, without enjoying the fame and headliner status of their fellow Brazil starters, both have an equally vital, if lower-key, role to play in the success of A Seleção Brasileira. Indeed, in a side packed with attacking talent, as well as two full-backs used to piling forward at will, Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho have the fundamental task of plugging the gaps and screening the backline.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari puts a great emphasis on that very mission, however, and his chosen midfield duo did their utmost to repay Felipão’s faith in Brazil’s opening FIFA Confederations Cup 2013 clash against Japan – rigorously carrying out his tactical instructions and bringing balance and authority to the centre of the park.
“Felipão’s been talking to us a lot about getting that balance right,” said Paulinho, when speaking to FIFA.com. “He insists that first and foremost we have to defend really well, to provide back-up for the defensive line,” added the Corinthians man, a player typically concise in interview and who, for the moment at least, remains better-known in Brazil than abroad.
And though defensive solidity is the main priority with the national team, at club level with O Timão in recent years Paulinho has also caught the eye thanks to the exquisite timing of his runs into goalscoring positions. Quick, leggy and a cool finisher, Paulinho is always a threat in and around the opposing box and, though Scolari has not forbidden his forward raids, he has to pick his moments carefully.
“Paulinho is free to go forward when it’s right for the team for him to go,” explained Felipão. “At club level, very often, the full-back on his side overlaps significantly less. But in this team we’ve got a player [in Dani Alves] who goes forward an awful lot, so he [Paulinho] needs to cover for him, which is something he knows how to do. Here with A Seleção things are different, he needs to be able to adapt to the characteristics of the players around him.”
These lessons appear to have sunk in. In the 3-0 win against the Asian champions, Paulinho did his bit to ensure the team kept a clean sheet as well as popping up in the area to fire Brazil’s second goal. “Am I allowed to attack? Whenever I’m given enough license, I’ll always look to go forward,” said the Corintiano stalwart. “What’s more, [by doing that] I got an important goal today.”
Ready and willing
Luiz Gustavo’s duties are somewhat less complex than his team-mate’s and involve him playing a much more defensive role, an important one to which he is well accustomed.
“In terms of our opening match he was one of our best performers,” said Scolari of the Bayern Munich man. “He’s been making the most of all the conversations we’ve been having. He brings a lot of balance to the team and he’s been schooled in Germany, where they’re pretty demanding. That makes it much easier when we demand something of him.”
In conversation with FIFA.com back in May, just a few days before Bayern’s UEFA Champions League triumph, the midfielder from Sao Paulo state spoke about the impact of his switching from humble Brazilian outfits Corinthians Alagoas and CRB to Hoffenheim, the Bundesliga club he joined back in 2007.
“You’re always asked to give more and more in training,” he explained. “You have to work every day in search of improvement, making the most of the time you have available. That helps you to adapt to any style.”
Such was Gustavo’s progress at Hoffenheim that he earned himself a move to mighty Bayern in 2011, which explains why he enjoys a much higher profile overseas than at home, in contrast to his midfield sidekick Paulinho. That might change following his seamless transition to the national side, however.
While his role there is not too dissimilar to the one he performs for his club, the ease with which he has slotted into the Brazil midfield has been impressive, considering he had only played a few minutes under Scolari, in a March friendly against Italy, before making the squad for the FIFA Confederations Cup.
A starter in the warm-up match against England at the Maracana, a game in which he teamed up for the first time with Paulinho, who grabbed his side’s second in a 2-2 draw, his brief is to patrol the space in front of Brazil’s penalty box.
“Every coach has a philosophy that they want to get across,” he said. “You have to see what they want on the pitch and then go out and try and do what they say. You have to be ready.”
Reserved they may be, but there is no question the midfield duo have kicked on since getting acquainted against England, as have A Seleção as a whole. Should they continue to progress side by side at their current rate, it will not be long before they start getting the same kind of acclaim that Brazil’s more feted stars are accustomed to receiving.