Why the man who slipped Arsenal's net is Brazil's unsung star at the World Cup

There's more to the Selecao than flair and party tricks, says Paul Wilkes...

When you think of Brazilian football, the images conjure in your mind most probably feature the likes of Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Neymar – players with flair, trickery and imagination. However, every great Brazilian side has had a defensive midfielder to break up the play and do the simple things correctly. The likes of Dunga, Mauro Silva and Gilberto Silva have diligently done their thing in order to enable the more creative players to do theirs.

The Premier League has attracted more than its fair share of holding midfielders from the country, be they disciplined holders or energetic fire fighters. Manchester City's Fernadinho, Chelsea's Ramires, Liverpool's Lucas Leiva and Tottenham's Sandro are among the recent exports from the World Cup host nation.

Luiz Felipe Scolari's Brazil is a functional, but conservative unit. Their approach flies in the face of many Brazilian football cliches.

They arguably contain more star players in defensive positions than they do in attacking ones, and their performance against Croatia in the tournament's opening game showed a resilience that hasn't been previously seen during Scolari's second spell in charge.

The two goalscorers, Neymar and Oscar, naturally took the plaudits, but the self-restraint of Luiz Gustavo enabled Brazil to maintain some defensive shape. This was particularly evident when playing against a Croatian midfield which essentially contained three No.10s, albeit all performing different roles.

Gustavo sat in front of the back four and denied Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic room to counter attack. That led to Croatia quickly deciding that their best chances would come from wide areas and in behind the full-backs, with Dani Alves targeted in particular.

The competition to be Scolari's defensive midfielder is among the fiercest in international football, and therefore Gustavo's decision to leave Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich last summer has certainly proved to be the correct one.

His choice of destination was a little surprising to some, but there were a number of exonerating circumstances which led to him joining Wolfsburg and not Arsenal, despite the London side reportedly tabling a higher bid. There is a link between the two German clubs due to their association with Audi, while the player's agent has a close working relationship with the Wolves. As is often the case in these situations, they were also willing to pay a higher wage and guarantee him regular first team football.

Arsenal certainly could have done with someone of his ilk; Mathieu Flamini initially impressed on his return, but the north Londoners were so desperate for a defensive midfield player that anybody would have been welcomed with open arms.

Gustavo signed a five-year deal upon arriving at the Volkswagen Arena and helped his new side finish in the Europa League places. He started 29 Bundesliga matches, compared with 16 the previous term.

His primary job is to break up the opposition's attacks and give the ball to his more technically gifted team-mates, but Gustavo offers more than your average midfield destroyer. He not only finished last season as one of the top 10 tacklers in Germany, but also as one of the top 20 for interceptions and pass completion, while no other player at Wolfsburg completed as many passes as the Brazilian.

That all-round capability of stopping teams in attacking transitions was evident against the Croats. His passing wasn't adventurous, but it was effective, as he only misplaced two in the 90 minutes.

His interceptions and ball recoveries were the highest of anyone in the game, while he made three headed clearances.

When Brazil have possession, both Marcelo and Dani Alves like to push high up the pitch and provide the width, which means that centre-backs David Luiz and Thiago Silva split to cover the wide defensive areas. It's Gustavo's assignment to drop into the space vacated by the two Paris Saint-Germain defenders.

The holder's tactical discipline is to be admired, although the same can't often be said for his temperament. It's normal for a player with his characteristics to concede fouls and pick up bookings, but his total of three red cards was the highest in the Bundesliga last term.

As the competition progresses, the nobbled Luka Modric may not be the only one left to rue Gustavo's clumsy tackle with three minutes remaining of Thursday's match. In a tournament environment such as this, he's likely to accumulate yellow cards and could risk missing an important game at some point. If Brazil are to win the World Cup on home soil, Gustavo keeping his discipline will be key.


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