A long, hard look at Dunga's Brazil
Going into the 2010 World Cup, Brazil's record over the last two seasons would appear to be beyond all argument - 25 games with 20 wins and just one defeat, and that at extreme altitude, with 61 goals scored and 15 conceded. Included in that run were historic World Cup qualifying wins away to Uruguay (4-0) and Argentina (3-1).
Surely, the form of future champions?
But also included were goalless draws at home to the likes of Venezuela and Bolivia. And what the statistics are unable to highlight are the long periods of laboured, pedestrian, uninspired football the team have at times served up.
Superb on the counter-attack, the truth is that Brazil have struggled to break down cautious opponents - as they struggled to break down North Korea in Johannesburg.
This left me with some grounds for concern going into the game. Having seen some of the North Korean players in youth tournaments - they performed well in Canada at the 2007 World Youth Cup - I was aware that they are not complete innocents.
Australia aside, the Asian teams have made a good start to the competition. And everyone has been having problems breaking down deep defences. We have had plenty of stalemates already in this World Cup. I had no desire to see another.
Brazilians lacked midfield spark
For a long time, though, that's the way it looked. In the first half the North Koreans moved the ball impressively in spells, while Brazil, as so often of late, lacked the slightest spark in midfield. Players were static and the ball was moved laterally. Again and again, Gilberto Silva gives passes which are slow and to the side, robbing the team of rhythm. Was it really necessary to keep both Silva and Felipe Melo in central midfield? Surely Brazil needed one member of its central midfield duo to start popping up in the opposing penalty area?
It would be interesting to know if Dunga is encouraged or frightened by what he has seen of the World Cup so far.
On the one hand, he will be aware that very few teams will attack them as Uruguay did in Montevideo or Argentina in Rosario, leaving them open to the rapid counter-attack. If they are to win the tournament, Brazil will have to endure plenty more battles against packed defences.
On the other hand, Dunga may take heart from the observation that, so far, almost everyone is struggling when put in this position. For everyone but the Germans, goals have been hard to come by. And if everyone is having the same problems as Brazil, at least Brazil can hope to possess a key differential - the occasional moment of pure individual magic to decide the destiny of a tight game.
Against the North Koreans it came from right back Maicon. For some time now he has been established as Brazil's deadlock breaker. Essentially, Ronaldinho was dropped from the team so that Elano could come in with the mixed function on the right of making an attacking contribution, but also being able to drop back to free Maicon for a forward charge.
Maicon hitting his stride
Maicon has learned to time his forward runs. He has the pace and power to keep reaching the opponent's bye-line. And he has the skill and audacity to do something constructive when he gets there. An aspect of his game that he has greatly improved is his shooting. Not all players are comfortable taking the responsibility of shooting at goal. This used to be Maicon's case. But it is a defect he has well and truly overcome.
Ri Myong-gok in the North Korea goal underestimated him. He came too far away from his near post, anticipating that the ball would be crossed, and was beaten by a shot that flashed by him in the position that he should have been occupying. But it took a wonderful piece of skill to expose the error.
Perhaps as pleasing as the goal was the fact that it rounded off a move where Brazil moved the ball with pace and purpose - a sweet relief after so much laboured pottering in the first half. Felipe Melo struck a cross-field pass that stretched the North Korean defence, and then both Maicon's overlap and Kaka's pass to him were timed to perfection.
This is the kind of combination play that Brazil will have to produce in order to get the best out of their highly gifted individuals. Despite the win, Brazil are under early pressure. Portugal and Ivory Coast have already drawn. If Brazil's games against these teams turn into stalemates, the group will be decided on goal difference - on the margin of victory over North Korea. The fact that Brazil only won by two goals to one leaves them needing to break the deadlock against Ivory Coast in Sunday.
About the Author
The son of a reasonably skilled amateur soccer player, Tim Vickery inherited the enthusiasm but none of the talent - and soon came to the conclusion that his best position was on the sidelines writing about the game. Tim did not make it out of his native England until the age of 23, but has since made up for lost time. He has been based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for over 15 years, and writes and broadcasts about South American soccer for, among others, the BBC, World Soccer magazine, and SI.com.