Will Brazil’s World Cup gamble on Thiago Silva pay off?
When all the talk about Brazil‘s 2022 World Cup squad had died down, one local journalist made a shrewd observation. If the most controversial aspect was the reserve right-back, he said, then there was not too much to argue about.
He was, of course, referring to 39-year-old Dani Alves. But Thiago Silva is not much younger — just a year and a few months — and, unlike Alves, the Chelsea centre-back is a probable starter for Brazil when their World Cup campaign kicks off against Serbia on Nov. 24.
This is something that would have been a surprise to the Brazil coaching staff four years ago. Coming out of Russia 2018, they had to plan for the future. Their project was to develop Real Madrid‘s Eder Militao as the long-term successor to Thiago Silva. There was no need for immediate change, but the transition would be handled gently over the course of the four-year cycle building up to Qatar.
Militao has made even better progress than they had expected. True, he can make the occasional mistake, but his extraordinary recovery speed often comes to the rescue and that pace comes in handy for a side that seek to press high up the field. Militao partnered Marquinhos — Brazil’s most important centre-back since Russia — in six of the World Cup qualifiers, including the trip to Argentina. In all of these games, Brazil did not concede a single goal.
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Militao, then, is ready for action. But Thiago Silva is still the likely starter. Brazil’s coaching staff have been amazed at his fitness, at his capacity to cover ground at pace if needed and, even more, by his ability to read the game and position himself in such a way that such sprints are rarely necessary. Thiago Silva may be 38, but he remains a likely member of Brazil’s first-choice line up for one final crack at winning the World Cup.
It is not a competition that has been kind to him. In 2010 he was a reserve; four years later he was the team captain and perhaps the promotion came too soon. The pressures of playing a World Cup on home soil were clearly immense and they appear to have been too much for the defender. He confessed before the tournament that he was having sleepless nights thinking of what was to come — not the most inspiring message to come from a team leader — and when the competition got tough, and Brazil’s second round match against Chile went to penalties, Thiago Silva produced one of the all-time worst examples of captaincy.
He should have been rallying the troops and, as a fine striker of a dead ball himself, preparing to step up to the spot to take a kick. Instead he sat on his own, squatting on a football, crying his eyes out. It is an image which, in hindsight, makes that astonishing 7-1 semifinal collapse against Germany much easier to understand. Thiago Silva was not present for that game, he was suspended after picking up a needless yellow card trying to stop the opposing goalkeeper from clearing the ball in the previous match against Colombia.
It did not work to his advantage when Brazil responded to the humiliation by reappointing Dunga as coach. A tough customer, Dunga had been Brazil’s World Cup-winning captain in 1994 and was appalled by the way that Thiago Silva had carried out his role. The centre-back was left on the bench, but managed to reclaim his place in time for the 2015 Copa America, where, once more, he did not cover himself in glory.
Brazil fell on penalties to Paraguay in the quarterfinal. The game had finished 1-1 and Paraguay’s goal came from a penalty — conceded by Thiago Silva in one of those inexplicable handball incidents which have been an occasional feature of his career. After that, Dunga put him back back on the bench and favoured the duo of the rugged Miranda and the classy young Marquinhos for the start of the World Cup qualifiers.
This was the centre-back partnership that coach Tite inherited when he took over in the second half of 2016, and he kept it together as Brazil powered their way through qualification to claim a place at Russia 2018. And then, on the eve of the tournament, the coach made a change. He came to the conclusion that he had to find a place for Thiago Silva; so Marquinhos was left on the bench.
In hindsight, the coach would almost certainly admit that he made a mistake. Not that Thiago Silva did anything wrong — he had a sound tournament — but it was asking for trouble to drop his quickest defender, and the team paid a price when they were surprised by Belgium in a fateful quarterfinal first half. Marquinhos has never been left out again and now Thiago Silva has to fight for the right to play alongside his former Paris Saint-Germain teammate.
But for all his undeniable defensive class, there is a gamble taking place ahead of Qatar 2022. Thiago Silva has excelled at Chelsea, operating in the middle of a back three, marshalling the defence from the middle, with centre-backs either side to reduce the space he has to cover. Thiago Silva is covering more ground, and at greater speed, for Chelsea than he does for Brazil. This is true, but it may not apply in the World Cup where Brazil play a 4-3-3 — or at least in the knockout stages, where the team’s defensive unit will be tested much more than it was during almost all of the qualifiers.
Has playing in the middle of a back three made Thiago Silva less proficient at covering the flank? Opponents will certainly test this, probing the space between him and the left back — where Argentina scored the goal that won last year’s Copa America and handed Brazil their last defeat. Will the team’s high press work as well with the 38-year-old? Or will he give himself an insurance policy by dropping a few yards deeper?
These are fascinating questions. One way or another, the truth will be revealed as Brazil look to end their 20-year wait to win a World Cup, and as Thiago Silva looks to banish his tournament demons and leave the international stage on a high.