At halftime against Cameroon, with Brazil 2-1 up, Luiz Felipe Scolari replaced Tottenham Hotspurs midfielder Paulinho with Manchester City man Fernandinho. While many substitutions in this tournament have raised eyebrows, this one made plenty of sense: Paulinho's been in exceptionally poor form for the better part of a year at club level, and his weak performances have carried over to the Selecao, while Fernandinho won the Premier League as a key player for City.
Brazil began the second half with both more thrust and a sturdier core. Within minutes of coming on, Fernandinho provided the pass that led to Fred's goal, a stunning reverse ball to David Luiz on the left side of the box, and before the end of the match he'd found his way onto the scoresheet, finishing calmly past Charles Itandje to make it 4-1 in the 84th minute. That, as it turned out, was an important goal -- Mexico were closing the goal differential gap with a hammering of Croatia, and Fernandinho's effort helped ensure that the hosts would top Group A.
The 29-year-old won't ever be considered a long-term fix for Brazil's problems in central midfield, but he provided more in 45 minutes than Paulinho, 25, has in three starts. But the Selecao shouldn't be thinking about building for the future -- this is their tournament, their opportunity to overturn the shame of 1950, their best chance to win the World Cup in years. This is the future.
Which is kind of worrying, considering it features Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho in the double pivot, a weakness so obvious that even Cameroon managed to exploit it. The former is fine, a brief nod to the requirements of a primarily defensive holder in such an attack-minded team -- even if he's not actually great he more or less does the job he's asked to do. But Paulinho ... well, that's a problem.
The second central midfielder needs to be the main link between attack and defence. He needs to be moving the ball, winning possession and getting up the pitch to support the attack when required. Paulinho, of course, does all of this; his calling card is his nigh-on indefatigable engine. The problem is that once he's got to where he needs to be his tendency is towards making a big old mess of things. His passing is adequate but rarely ambitious. His defensive style leans towards running in circles. His shooting is dangerous, but only if you're in the crowd behind the goal.
Perhaps Scolari was right to give him time to see if he could shake off the horrors of his year in England, but it's clear by now that Paulinho is a major problem for this Brazil side, one that could and should be fixed. The manager has at his disposal three players who fit the energetic shuttler role, all based in Premier League, and it's not at all clear why Paulinho is getting chance after chance while Ramires and Fernandinho, the latter especially, have been confined to the bench.
Fernandinho's not a superstar, and adding him to the team doesn't turn Brazil from this strange, slow side we've seen over three games into the one we were all hoping for. But removing Paulinho from the equation? That just might do it.