Statistics don’t win football matches, per se, but they do tell you a lot about what takes place on and off the pitch.
Since manager Tite took over in June 2016, Brazil have played 19 games. Daniel Alves missed only five of them, and three of those matches were friendlies in which only domestic-based players took part; he was suspended for Paraguay’s visit to Sao Paulo for the South American qualifiers on March 2017, and sat on the bench earlier this year during a friendly against Japan four days before Brazil faced England at Wembley.
Of the 14 remaining games, Alves failed to last the full 90 minutes in just one of them: The PSG man was replaced after 83 minutes in Brazil’s recent 3-0 win over Russia. More than settle arguments about Alves’ dominance on the right flank for the Selecao, these numbers highlight the size of the problem Tite faces now that he’s been deprived of the 35-year-old Alves, thanks to a knee injury, for a likely World Cup hurrah.
A crucial cog in Tite’s tactics, Alves is also one of the leaders of the team and one of the most experienced players at his disposal, having won everything in football everywhere apart from the World Cup and the Bahia State League. His absence would be a blow in any circumstance, but what the numbers also reveal is Alves’ reign in that position: For the first time since Mexico 1986, Brazil will arrive at a World Cup with nothing but understudies in one of their most feted positions.
Older readers will quickly point out that the aforementioned tournament marked the incredible story of Josimar, who made it on the pitch after Spain 1982 stalwart Leandro withdrew from the team on the way to the airport and reserve Edson was downed by a thigh injury during Brazil’s second group stage. (Check out Josimar’s screamers against Northern Ireland and Poland on YouTube, by the way.) But please make sure you see him let Michel Platini escape and slot in an equalizer in the Selecao‘s ill-fated quarterfinal against France.
Full-backs are part of the soul of the Brazilian football school. Two of them, the late great Carlos Alberto and Cafu (1970 and 2002), actually lifted the World Cup, an honour that Alves would have the chance to emulate had it not been for the injury in the French Cup final. Jorginho’s Beckham-esque cross in 1994 found Romario’s head for a crucial winner against Sweden in the semifinals while Djalma Santos bossed the aisle in the 1958 and 1962 title campaigns.
Even in failed campaigns like 2010, the position was well-served — at that tournament, Maicon arrived at the competition as an integral part of Jose Mourinho’s feared Inter Milan squad and put Alves on the bench. Strange days indeed: even the Russian Federation announced the name of Brazil-born Mario Fernandez in their provisional World Cup squad. Yes, a right-back.
But is the current drought a phenomenon only affecting Brazil, where football articles invariably quote club managers desperately seeking solutions? Statistics website Transfermarkt, for instance, has a list of the most valuable players in the world. The first right-back to show up is Real Madrid’s Dani Carvajal, in 47th place…
It is true that PSG’s Alves is hardly a spring chicken and that his critics nicknamed him “Alves Avenue” thanks to some defensive fragility that Croatia exploited very well in the 2014 World Cup, when they stunned the World Cup hosts with an early goal in a nervy tournament opener. Also, in his last 20 games for Brazil, Alves registered just a single assist. Nevertheless, he still seemed yards ahead of the competition and under Tite looked a much better defender than ever.
Fagner was the closest to being considered a contender having clocked 272 minutes for the national team, more than double the time the other two right-backs of the Tite era, Bayern Munich’s Rafinha and Manchester City’s Danilo, spent together on the pitch. He also worked under Tite at Corinthians and played an integral part in winning the 2015 league title. However, a thigh injury has kept him out of action since April 29 and Fagner won’t be match-ready until the end of the month.
Danilo’s case wasn’t helped by the fact Pep Guardiola preferred to have Kyle Walker on the right at Man City and more often deployed the former Real Madrid player as centre-back or a left-back. At least he’s got versatility on his side.
Both players were named to the World Cup squad. Ironically, Rafinha missed out for being more of a “classic” Brazilian right-back since becoming an established name at Bayern Munich, spending more time on the sides of the pitch than the short passing and triangulation game Tite fancies.
What is certain is that whoever lines up in Rostov on June 17, when the Selecao faces Switzerland in their first group game at Russia 2018, will have huge boots to fill.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.