2013 has ended, and Brazil has wrapped up an extremely successful year – a year that saw the complete revitalization of our World Cup ambitions.
We all know how it didn’t start this way. Scolari replaced Menezes, a move long-overdue but by no means guaranteed to work. Superficially, the change seemed negative, with Brazil only winning two of its first seven matches. Closer observation, however, showed that progress was being made. For one thing, the quality of the opposition had greatly increased, giving us a more realistic look at where the team actually stood. Second, certain players who had too-long been left out in the cold were at last making their way back into the fold. Though not all of these players have retained their spots, it showed that Scolari would be a bit more sensible with his player selection than Menezes had been. Third, and most importantly, you could see that Brazil were slowly and surely beginning to adopt an actual, consistent philosophy, one that addressed many of their weaknesses. We’ll take a closer look at this last point in just a bit.
Still, none of that was translating into meaningful wins. Until France. Until the Maracana.
On the eve of the Confederations Cup, Brazil hosted Les Bleus, and while it won’t go down as a classic performance, Brazil’s 3-0 win was their first against top-level competition since 2009. Unless someone ever does an exhaustive, officially-authorized biography of the 2011-2014 Brazilian National Team (Give me a call, CBF! I’m available!) we’ll never know exactly how important that win was to the players’ collective psyche. What we do know is that it opened a floodgate of goals and victories. Since that time, Brazil have recorded 11 wins and 1 loss, while scoring 32 goals and conceding only 6. It’s easily the best 12-game stretch since early 2010, when Brazil scored 19 goals with a 6-1-1 record that ended only when Holland unceremoniously dumped us out of the World Cup.
In this series, I’ll look at exactly what Brazil did well at last year and what they need to improve on from a tactical point of view. But first, let’s consider what the year 2013 actually means.
The Year Before a World Cup – Fool’s Gold?
It bears repeating that this year has revitalized our dream of winning the World Cup. Before Scolari, the collective optimist viewpoint seemed to be “Hey, it could happen!” The realist viewpoint was, “Let’s just try and get to the quarterfinals.” Of course, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Brazil would fail to win. Brazil will always be Brazil, and hosting a World Cup usually grants the host certain natural advantages. Stranger things have happened. But the point is that if you were going to make a list of favorites, no reasonable observer would have put Brazil on the list.
Now, the exact opposite is true. Brazil would make anyone’s short list. If you look around the landscape of world football, you’d be hard-pressed to find any other country with the form and the pedigree that Brazil has. (And if history teaches us anything, it’s that both are fairly critical. After all, even first-time winners like France and Spain had won international hardware before.)
But… (and there’s always a but)
We’ve been here before. The last two World Cup cycles have seen Brazil enjoy a dominant penultimate year before the tournament. The last two cycles have seen Brazil win the Confederations Cup. And the last two cycles have ended with a Brazilian defeat in the quarterfinals.
I wholeheartedly reject any superstitious notions like, “You can’t win the World Cup if you already won the Confederations Cup.” Maxims like that are silly – they’re always right, until they’re wrong. I don’t think Brazil’s victories in 2005 and 2009 had anything to do with their defeats a year later. You could make the argument that Brazil went into 2006 with a bad case of overconfidence, and you’d be right – but Brazil’s starting XI in ’06 was also drastically different than that of a year earlier, and their two best players, Ronaldinho and Adriano, flopped abysmally in the World Cup. For both men, it wasn’t a brief blip in form brought on by overconfidence, but actually the start of a long slide into relative mediocrity.
Similarly, I don’t think 2009 negatively affected 2010. A far bigger problem was the slew of injuries that took place before and during the World Cup. Kaka and Fabiano were playing hurt, while Elano fell victim to a pair of Ivory Coast studs. A lack of depth at certain key positions and a few moments of brainlessness completed the problem.
No, the real lesson of 2005, 2009, and now 2013, is that a lot can go wrong between now and June, and there’s still a lot more work to be done. In the 5th part of this series, we’ll look at what exactly some of that work might be. But for now, let’s start off our 2013 recap by looking at where we started from and how we got to where we are today.
2013 Recap – The Pre-Confederations Cup Matches, England through Russia
Brazil vs England, 2/6/2013
Goodwill and curiosity mingled together was the story before the start of this one, what with all the subplots taking place. Scolari’s first match back. The recall (again) of Ronaldinho. Other recalls: Fabiano, Fred, Adriano, Julio Cesar, and Hernanes, all who had been given look-ins under Mano but discarded for one reason or another. Perhaps most exciting were the new faces: Filipe Luis, Miranda, and Dante especially.
How they lined up:
I had written back in January how Scolari wasn’t a manager with a “favored” formation, but one who would experiment and tinker until he found one he liked. The tinkering started right off the bat, with Scolari opening up the match with a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation.
Brazil actually started the game on the front foot, thanks mainly to a few strong runs by Neymar and Fabiano, and even better passing out of deep positions by Oscar. But no clear-cut chances were created, and within minutes, England began to grow into and eventually dominate the match, mostly due to a midfield that was both simultaneously harder working and more technical than Brazil’s.
Still, Brazil could have and should have taken the lead early on. Oscar was really doing well, at the heart of every thrust into England’s final third. On one play in particular, he set up Fabiano for a good chance. The shot was blocked, but Oscar then teed up Ronaldinho, whose cross from the side of the box met Jack Wilshere’s hand. The penalty was harsh but also legal, and Ronaldinho stepped up to take. We all know what happened next.
What I Learned on Second Viewing: After Joe Hart saved both Dinho’s penalty and the follow-up, Neymar had the chance to tap home. Initially, I thought Neymar had been tackled from behind before he could get a foot on the ball. So it looked on most of the replays…except one. After re-watching the play from multiple angles, I can now all but confirm that Neymar somehow actually MISSED the ball BEFORE being tackled. Because you could only see it from one angle, this fact went unnoticed by just about everyone, something which undoubtedly saved Neymar from a lot of grief. But I’m fairly certain it was actually the worst miss of his career.
The rest of the half was all England. An unfortunate fact was becoming clear: Scolari only had about a day with his new squad, and the lack of practice time was showing. Uncertain marking on set pieces, misplaced passes, simultaneous and redundant runs made by multiple players, and more, all showed that the team was unfamiliar with their new coach and with each other. Perhaps most damning was the lack of discipline when it came to positioning. Whenever Brazil had the ball, too many players would push up at the same time, clumping together in knotted groups in the middle of the pitch. Without the ball, everyone would cede ground while dropping deep. Mano Menezes may have enjoyed this style of football, but so did Roy Hodgson.
England win the Battle of Midfield:
For the most part, Scolari’s tenure has seen a marked improvement in our midfield’s ability to maintain possession. Some of the improvement, it must be said, can be traced back to the end of the Mano era, but Scolari deserves credit as well. This is partly due to player selection – whenever Hernanes is fielded, for example, our possession tends to go up – but it’s mainly due to Scolari imparting a style based off pressing and energy. One of Brazil’s best attributes in 2013 was that even when they lost the ball, they would quickly be able to get it back, greatly helping with possession.
But none of that was apparent yet, and Brazil’s midfield was given an absolutely torrid time against Jack Wilshere and company. The only exception was Oscar, the only player who ever really looked to press. But he was given little support by either Ramires or Paulinho. I hope their admirers on this site will bear with me for a minute, because I’m about to level some pretty harsh criticism on them. Just remember that I’m well aware that their play in this match is not indicative of their play later on in the year. But on this occasion, both were very, very poor.
Their biggest problem was their spacing and their energy level. Both players were guilty of leaving far too much space in between them, with the likes of Wilshere and Rooney exploited on many instances and to devastating effect. Paulinho was especially poor in defense, and spent most of his time jogging lackadaisically. Perhaps he was just simply not used to the pace of the match. After all, his previous international appearances were against the likes of Japan and Iraq.
Their spacing problems were compounded by the fact that both insisted on dropping back whenever England had the ball, rather than pressing or even marking aggressively. This allowed England the time and space to build and grow in confidence.
All of this meant both players were partly culpable for England’s first goal, Paulinho much more so than Ramires. The two were split again with Rooney passing to Wilshere, who threaded a good ball into Walcott. Julio Cesar was able to parry away his shot, but then disaster struck. Inexcusably, neither Paulinho nor Ramires (mostly Paulinho) tracked Rooney’s follow-up run and were beaten to the ball despite being closer to it. The Manchester man was just hungrier and more alert than his opponents.
Oscar did his best bring Brazil level, with an especially inspired run in the 27th minute. He started by controlling the ball well with his chest, then raced down the right-flank, sending in an absolutely perfect cross to the far post for an onrushing Neymar. For the second time that night, Neymar missed a tap-in. I believe he felt he had less time than he did, so instead of simply redirecting the ball over the line, he slid in with his studs up, sending the ball up over the bar.
Second Half – Fred Makes an Immediate Impact
Off went Ronaldinho and Fabiano. The former would have a last hurrah in the spring, but the latter likely saw his day as a national team player come to an end. Fabiano has had a fabulous career for the Selecão, a career marked by goals both clinical and clutch, but the man replacing him has now claimed the storied #9 role for his very own.
Scolari made at least one, perhaps two tactical changes at the half. First, he switched to a 4-2-3-1, with Oscar moving into the center, Neymar dropping back to the left flank, and Lucas stationed on the right. It’s also possible that Scolari issued instructions to start pressing, because this time Fred, Neymar and Paulinho joined Oscar in keeping England pinned in their own half. England seemed shocked by the change, and it was the easiest thing in the world for an alert Lucas to steal in and nick the ball off Gary Cahill. He slid the ball over to Fred, who slammed home a fantastic finish from the edge of the box. The score was 1-1, and Brazil were back in it.
For a brief, glorious period, the momentum seemed to be back with Brazil, with Oscar winning the ball a minute later and passing to Fred. Unfortunately, this time Fred’s finish could only clip the bar.
It was a letdown that seemed to bring Brazil back down to Earth. Thereafter, their pressing came only in brief spurts rather than in the form of anything sustained. Meanwhile, Ramires, Paulinho, Neymar and Lucas kept giving up the ball, and no one in yellow seemed to have the confidence to play out of their own half, repeatedly resorting to aimless long balls.
Scolari had seen enough, and turned once again to his bench. But instead of bringing on Hernanes, he brought on Arouca. The change doomed Brazil to ignominious defeat.
It started when Walcott skinned Adriano for the umpteenth time. His resulting cross was cut out, and the ball came to Arouca. For reasons known only to him, he attempted an idiotic backpass to Paulinho when there was no need to do so. Again, Rooney reacted quicker than anyone. He rushed in to intercept the pass; Frank Lampard collected the ball and scored.
The rest of the match was a study in how much Brazil has changed since this match. We’ve already covered the pressing issue. Another issue, equally important, was Scolari’s decision to build-up primarily down the wings. The exact opposite was true against England, with Brazil insisting on trying to ram penetrating passes down the center to no effect. Fred was especially guilty of this, but Neymar was also guilty of repeatedly ignoring wider options. Only Filipe Luis, on for the manhandled Adriano, showed any determination to stay wide, and though he overlapped like a madman (something he would do almost to a fault against Italy), he was mostly ignored and let down by his teammates.
In the end, Brazil had been thoroughly outclassed, and England deserved their 2-1 victory. An inauspicious start for Scolari.
How Brazil Improved
They didn’t. This was an awful performance, and only Oscar and Julio Cesar truly acquitted themselves well.
How Brazil Still Needed to Improve
Pressing, using width, playing out of the back, and energy have all become hallmarks of this team. None of them were on display here.
Top of the Match:
Flop of the Match:
Neymar missed two tap-ins, so it really has to be him. Paulinho and Ronaldinho were close seconds.
Julio Cesar. The score would have been more lopsided were it not for him.
BRAZIL VS ITALY, 3/21/2013
For his second friendly, Scolari trotted out a starting XI slightly similar to the lineup that finished the game against England. Filipe Luis got the nod at left-back, while Hernanes and Fernando replaced Paulinho and Ramires. Up front, Fred was rewarded for his fine goal against the Three Lions with his first start since the friendly against Costa Rica two years earlier.
While Brazil could only muster up a 2-2 draw after giving up a 2 goal advantage, there was a lot of excitement on this blog after the game originally took place. Re-watching the match, I realized that while Brazil’s performance was not as good as I remembered, the excitement it prompted was perfectly justified. Why? Because this was the first time in well over a year that Brazil stood toe to toe with a highly ranked, technically gifted European side, especially in the midfield. More significantly, this match was the first time Brazil displayed tactics similar to what served them so well in the Confederations Cup. In a sense, the Italy match serves as an evolutionary point in the team’s development. Though it would be awhile before Scolari’s innovations paid off, this was the moment where the Selecão’s fortunes began to change.
How They Lined Up
Scolari must have liked what he saw from the 4-2-3-1 formation, because he kept it against Italy. This is notable, because although Scolari would tinker with a 4-4-2 at odd intervals throughout the year, the 4-2-3-1 has become his basic formation.
Picture a 4-2-3-1 in your mind. You’d probably imagine that Neymar would be on the left wing, Hulk on the right, with Oscar in the center. On the contrary, Oscar and Hulk switched flanks throughout the match, while Neymar stayed mostly in the center. It was the first sign that perhaps Scolari thought of Neymar as his true #10 long before Neymar requested a number change. All three players had excellent moments punctuated by clumsy mistakes: the under-hit pass there, the heavy touch there, etc.
Pressing, Movement, and Pace of Play
From the start, Brazil played with a noticeably greater intensity than what they displayed in February. The match began at a frenetic tempo from both teams. Both countries pressed high up the pitch, aiming to win the ball early, then break at speed. Hernanes, Fernando, Oscar, Hulk and Neymar were moving with a kind of nervous energy, looking to get behind the Italian defense. There was no standing around, no waiting for the ball.
Italy had a similar mindset, and within two minutes, both Hulk and Giaccherini had shots on target. Neymar and Balotelli got in on the act, too, forcing both Julio Cesar and Buffon to parry away shots from distance. The tension was high: before ten minutes had past, Hulk and Neymar were barking at each other whenever the other looked to shoot instead of pass.
Full-backs push up
Scolari’s philosophy, both in 2002 and now, has always been predicated on attacking up the flanks. It was an art largely lost under Mano Menezes, but it came back to the fore against Italy, with most of the meaningful attacks either coming from wings or on the counter. Both Dani Alves and Filipe Luis ventured up the pitch whenever the opportunity presented itself. If the opportunity didn’t present itself, they got forward anyway. Filipe Luis’ desire to get forward was especially noticeable. Both on this site and elsewhere, many people seem to think of him as being a primarily defensive fullback. By this I take it to mean that, since he pays attention to his defensive duties more than, say, Marcelo does, he doesn’t really get forward. Nothing could be further from the truth, whether for Atletico Madrid or for Brazil. Actually, in this match, Filipe went forward rather too much, perhaps overly anxious to prove his attacking credentials. Regardless, he left a surprising amount of space behind him, and on more than one occasion had to race back to recover.
Dani Alves, of course, doesn’t have to show his attacking credentials to anyone. He, too, looked to get forward, but unlike Filipe, also sought to cut into the center. It’s a tale as old as time with him, but aside from a few decent interchanges with Hulk, he never managed to contribute anything meaningful. To be blunt, it’s amazing to me that Dani Alves still has a place on the team, let alone an automatic starting berth. Whether it’s leaving acres of space behind him, his utter wastefulness when it comes to crossing, or the amount of mishit passes he manages to squeeze into one match, Dani’s ineptitude reached new lows in 2013. He’s a far cry from the player he was a few years ago.
In any case, Brazil’s sudden embrace of width paid dividends. Brazil’s first goal came about when Neymar changed the point of attack by crossing to Hulk, who had switched to the left flank. Hulk’s attempted pass to Fred was cut out, but the ball rebounded to the onrushing Filipe Luis, who crossed into the box. The cross took a deflection and fell neatly to Fred, who coolly squeezed a volley past the near post. It was one of the first times Fred’s name had even been mentioned, but it was decisive – something that would become a theme throughout 2013.
Lack of Cohesion and Too Much Space Leads to Box to Box Action
The goal was deserved in the sense that it wasn’t strictly against the run of play, but Italy probably had had the better chances up to that point. Most of their best work came down the left, but really every time they recovered the ball, they looked to target the space left vacant by Brazil’s fullbacks, especially the space between Dani Alves and David Luiz. I’ve commented several times that I feel Luiz has a bad habit of retreating from a dribbler rather than closing down on him, and he displayed this habit several times in the first half, allowing Balotelli multiple warm-up shots from a position close to the one he would later score from.
In this sense, the midfield pairing of Hernanes and Fernando didn’t help either – especially Fernando, as it was his responsibility to cover for Dani Alves whenever the right-back got forward. Neither Fernando or Hernanes are natural holding midfielders, of course. Fernando’s problem was mostly due to positioning and hesitation; Hernanes problem came mainly from mistimed tackles and a tendency toward flat-footedness.
Altogether, there were just too many open spaces for Italy to exploit. Ironically, however, it was these same two players who were also responsible for ensuring Italy didn’t have an inordinate number of opportunities to exploit those spaces. Hernanes and Fernando are far more technical players than Paulinho and Ramires, so they helped ensure that Brazil retained a sizeable share of possession.
A special shout-out must go to Hernanes, who, despite being slightly miscast, had a phenomenal game. His passing skills and vision are truly first class. Throughout the match, he was constantly finding teammates in open space, and routinely made passes Paulinho, Ramires, and Luiz Gustavo rarely even attempt. His ability to launch half-counters by utilizing multiple angles was very effective.
But the man who started the move for the 2nd goal was another midfielder – Oscar. It was a goal that demonstrated his two finest qualities: willingness to defend, and composure on the ball. In the 42nd minute, Oscar had tracked all the way back to what was basically the right-back’s position. Sticking his leg out to deflect de Sciglio’s cross, he then raced forward as the ball fell to Neymar. Neymar’s incisive run into the center of the pitch occupied the attentions of three different Italians, while Oscar easily outpaced de Sciglio. Neymar slid a glorious reverse through-ball onto the feet of Oscar, who coolly finished with the outside of his right boot into the same corner Fred had used.
Brazil Lose the Initiative – and the Lead – In the 2nd Half
I said before that this match was where we began to see the squad developing into what Scolari envisioned for them, mainly in terms of pressing and use of width. But the team was still very raw and undisciplined at consistently applying these concepts, especially in regards to pressing. Throughout the first 50 minutes or so, Brazil’s pressing was spirited but rather disorganized. Some players pressed while others didn’t; some players pressed too hard when the situation didn’t call for it, and not hard enough when the situation did. Again, huge swathes of space were being left open. Legs were also beginning to tire, and this allowed Italy to grow in dominance.
Still, the situation seemed pretty even until the 54th minute, when Stephen El-Shaarway managed to win a dubious corner. His delivery was fairly poor, but Brazil was unable to deal with it. Dani Alves’ diving header missed completely, allowing de Rossi to beat Dante to the ball. Julio Cesar had no chance of saving, and Italy was back in the match.
The Italians leveled just two minutes later, following some pretty nifty passing by Brazil, who were playing their way out of the back in glorious fashion, something you rarely saw under Mano. Hernanes, Filipe Luis, Dani Alves, and David Luiz were all displaying a really top-notch pass and move game. But an awful touch (from Oscar of all people) undid everything. The giveaway occurred around the halfway line, and Balotelli was the beneficiary.
After rewatching this match, I stand by my assertion that what happened next was 100% David Luiz’s fault. When Balotelli received the ball, it was with his back to goal, with Luiz nearby. They were both still a long way from goal, no other Italians were anywhere near enough to be a threat, and Luiz still had Dante in support. All Luiz had to do was immediately close down on Balotelli – the odds were completely in his favor. Even if Mario evaded the challenge, he still would have had a lot more work to do.
Instead, Luiz immediately, and I do mean immediately, began backpedaling. I’m at a complete loss to explain his reasoning. If you watch it again, it looks for all the world as if Balotelli is chasing David Luiz. Even if Luiz elected not to challenge so far out of position, he should have closed down far sooner than he did. Instead, he gave up what basically amounted to a training ground shot.
In any event, Oscar and Hernanes couldn’t arrive in time to help. Balotelli had all the space he needed to pick out his target with a fabulous strike. Julio Cesar had been equal to the task in the first half, but not this time. Italy were level, and Brazil had no one to blame but themselves.
Both teams had several other chances to score, but failed to do so. The game ended in a draw, a fair result, though each side had good reasons to feel disappointed.
How Brazil Improved
We’ve really already covered this. The change from the England friendly to the Italy friendly was profound. Brazil played with much more energy and purpose. Their pass-and-move game, basically nonexistent against England, was for the most part exemplary. And they demonstrated a kind of proto-pressing. All in all, a much more promising performance than against England.
How Brazil Still Needed to Improve
These developments were still in their infancy, and Brazil badly needed to improve their cohesion and discipline. Couple that with the need for a legitimate holding midfielder, and you have a team showing signs of a new signature style, but one still lacking in substance.
Top of the Match
Hard to say. Oscar was probably Brazil’s best player, but also guilty of giving away the ball that led to England’s first goal. Fred scored, but was otherwise a nonentity. Neymar played well, but giving him Man of the Match seems a stretch. In the end, I’ll give it to Oscar, with Neymar and Hernanes both worthy of plaudits.
Flop of the Match
David Luiz is a candidate, but then again, so was Dante, who failed to properly mark de Rossi for the 2nd goal. But these were one-time events. The worst player on the pitch was Dani Alves.
We’ll give this one to Julio Cesar again. Despite conceding two goals, neither were his fault. Indeed, he made several excellent stops that prevented Brazil from losing the game.
BRAZIL VS RUSSIA, 3/25/2013
On first viewing, I thought this match was a real step backward for Brazil. The excitement I felt after the Italy match had largely evaporated. The fluidity, energy, and attacking thrust the team showed against Italy seemed nonexistent against the Russians, and I wondered if the developments from two days earlier were merely a mirage.
I no longer feel that way.
On the contrary, I actually think that Brazil largely played better against Russia than they did against Italy. Aside from the goal they conceded, Brazil actually made fewer mistakes against Russia than they did against Italy.
The difference between the two matches is contextual. Italy played an open, attacking style that resembled Brazil’s in many respects. Russia, on the other hand, trotted out the most disciplined, airtight defense Brazil would see in 2013. The result was a game that Brazil for the most part dominated but could never conquer.
How They Lined Up
Scolari made several changes. Marcelo came in for Filipe Luis, while Thiago Silva returned to replace Dante and Kaka came in for Hulk. The 4-2-3-1 remained in place, however Neymar shifted back out to the left, while Oscar took residence on the right-wing, leaving the center for Kaka. Hernanes and Fernando retained their places in the midfield, and Fred kept his spot up front as the center forward.
Russia Come Out with Guns Blazing
I mentioned that Brazil dominated most of the game against Russia. The exception was the first fifteen minutes or so. Whereas the previous match saw both Brazil and Italy trading haymakers, with neither side willing to cede the initiative to the other, Brazil started this game very much on the back foot. Russia showed more energy, more movement, and more concentration, forming very nice passing triangles that had Brazil chasing the ball, effectively rendering their pressing impotent. Again, the space behind the full-backs seemed to be targeted, with Marcelo especially a mess on defense. The Russian Vassily bypassed him with ease, forcing Hernanes to come to the rescue on multiple occasions. Actually, Hernanes’ last-ditch defending was superb throughout the first half, though a true holding midfielder would undoubtedly focus on preventing last-ditch defending from ever having to happen. On another instance, Dani Alves almost headed in an own-goal, to the surprise of absolutely no one.
Brazil were able to weather the Siberian storm (the official missed a handball in the box by Fernando), and by the 15th minute started to reclaim the majority of possession. Again, Oscar was the key man. Stationed nominally on the right-wing, his pass-and-move game was at the heart of almost every attack. Thanks mostly to his influence, Brazil began building more heavily down the right, sending in multiple crosses. Most were dealt with easily, but Neymar and Fred both missed gilt-edged chances to score on either side of the half.
More chances would probably have been created were Dani Alves not so inept. This time, his problem was his tendency to telegraph passes. Here’s his tell: first, he looks at his intended target. Then, he stops. Finally, hepasses. A blind man could read his intention, and as a result, his passes were too often blocked, cleared, or even intercepted altogether. A woeful display.
Another problem of Dani’s was his predilection for making things too complicated. In this regard, he was joined by his BFF Neymar. The two Blaugrana teammates constantly ignored their teammates in space, opting for elaborate attempts to break down the entire Russian wall via cutting into the center. The result was almost always a loss of possession.
The three players having most success with the ball at their feet were the aforementioned Oscar, Hernanes, and Marcelo. In this case, though, they used their dribbling skills to bypass their initial marker to free up the chance to pass, and most of Brazil’s more successful buildups came through them.
So why do I think Brazil actually played well in this match? Mostly because you could see they were trying to do the right thing. The formula was clear: win possession quickly, move the ball around at a rapid, no-nonsense pace, switching the point of attack from flank to flank, and try to create one-twos with each other. It’s these concepts that helped us drub the likes of Spain, Australia, and Honduras, among others. So, Neymar and Alves aside, Scolari clearly had the team playing with the correct mindset.
But two things prevented them from reaping the rewards. The first was the same problem that plagued them against England, and to a lesser extent, Italy. Their execution and understanding just wasn’t where it needed to be yet. More importantly, Russia defended with extraordinary unity and discipline. By creating a line of four and a line of five, with little space between them, they were able to simultaneously sit deep with half their defense, while the other half acted more aggressively. As a result, all of Brazil’s one-twos took place too far from goal. Every time Neymar or Kaka received the ball, two Russians immediately converged on them. Most impressively, Fabio Capello’s side kept a relentless watch on any runs made off the ball, tracking the runner from start to finish. It was a masterfull defensive display, and the primary reason Brazil struggled to score. This really was a match defined more by the strength of the Russian defense than by the frailties of the Brazilian attack.
2nd Half – Brazil Improve, but so do Russia
Scolari must have told the team to stick to the game plan, because the only deviation when the two sides came out of the tunnel was Neymar switching from left to right. Otherwise, Brazil continued to dominate possession and pass the ball around beautifully. Oscar, Hernanes, and Marcelo continued to run the show, while Kaka finally began to get in on the act as well. But Russia read everything Brazil tried to create. Most impressive was their renewed determination to close down on the dribbler. If a player hung on to the ball for more than a second, they were forced to retreat. More and more, Neymar and Alves were being marked out of the match. As I wrote in my notebook on first viewing, “Neymar and Alves are where attacks go to die.” Otherwise, the Oscar/Hernanes/Marcelo/Kaka quartet continued to pass with real class, but with two of their most technical players muted, and Fred utterly useless at contributing anything, everything they tried to achieve was soon smothered.
The brightest moment was in the 55th minute. Kaka finally achieved what Neymar and Alves had consistently failed to do – a brilliant, slaloming run through four Russians before playing a lovely one-two on the edge of the box with Oscar to beat a fifth. It was an excellent play, but again, the Russians were equal to the task – only just. A sixth Russian arrived to nick the ball off Kaka before he could squeeze off a shot from close range.
At this point, the match looked destined for a 0-0 draw. Russia had had barely a sniff at goal all half, and though their tackles were starting to look a little tired, Brazil were beginning to look a little short of ideas. Scolari turned to his bench, with Hulk coming on for Oscar and Diego Costa (on loan from Spain) replacing Kaka. Brazil had switched to a 4-4-2. It was their third formation in as many matches.
Hulk’s impact wasn’t quite as immediate as I remembered, mainly because he didn’t see much of the ball at first. Shortly after he came on, Russia scored on one of their few meaningful attacks. A run past Alves led to the initial chance. Multiple shots were blocked but never cleared, allowing Victor Faizilin to finally strike home.
Hulk’s influence began almost immediately after – in fact, his second real touch of the ball was a great drive down the left and an even better cut-back to Marcelo. His energy, pace, and directness was clearly what Brazil needed. Stationed on the left, Scolari had clearly instructed him to remain as deliberately wide as possible, and Hulk proceeded to do exactly that, attacking down the left flank with real ambition.
As a result, Hulk was absolutely integral to Fred’s goal in the 89th minute. David Luiz started the move, driving forward and passing to Oscar. Oscar passed back to Marcelo, who found Hulk. Hulk was in a non-threatening position with his back to goal, but a stellar first touch set him free. That first touch was what salvaged the match. The sight of Hulk in space prompted the first Russian breakdown of the night. Three defenders converged on him, completely overlooking the fact that Marcelo had continued his run. Spinning to his right, he dribbled toward the box, then slipped a pass through to Marcelo, whose only marker had reacted too late and fallen behind.
Then Fred did what Fred does. Despite being a complete nonentity for the entire match, he instantly recognized the opportunity to score. Marcelo squared the ball across the face of goal, and Fred tapped home. A brilliant play by Hulk, a genius run by Marcelo, and a savvy move by Fred resulted in a classic samba goal.
Special plaudits must go to Scolari for the equalizer. Less than a minute before, Scolari motioned furiously for Marcelo to stay wide, as he had previously been drifting too far into the center. Scolari’s emphasis on width has been one of his most important contributions throughout the year, and it certainly paid dividends against Russia.
How Brazil Improved
Again, Brazil played this game with the right mindset. While it wasn’t the finest example of their pressing game, or their abilities in the final third, they demonstrated a greater commitment to speedily transitioning the ball from defense to attack, a better use of width, and better control of the midfield than under Mano.
How Brazil Still Needed to Improve
The team was still desperately short of sharpness in the final third – something that wouldn’t truly be rectified until Neymar’s explosion in the Confederations’ Cup. That last bit of quality, someone who consistently could both deliver and drive the ball into the box, was in many respects the final piece of the puzzle, as we’ll come to see.
Besides that, Brazil continued to display vulnerability when defending down the flanks, with both Dani Alves and Marcelo culpable. Better defending from them was needed, but it was clear that, despite the fluidity of the Hernanes/Fernando pairing, an out-and-out defensive midfielder was needed to cover for when the fullbacks got forward. Fortunately, just such a player was waiting in the wings, and his introduction would prove to be a valuable tonic for one of Brazil’s most historic and long-lasting conundrums.
Man of the Match
Has to be Oscar again, third time in a row. The only player who could consistently create anything, he peppered the Russian box with accurate crosses that his teammates were unable to capitalize on.
Flop of the Match
Dani Alves. But Neymar didn’t cover himself in glory, either. Fred saved himself from a place on this list by scoring a tap-in at the death.
Hulk’s introduction changed the tenure of the match for Brazil, and it’s Exhibit A in my claim that he’s best as a super-sub off the bench.
Three matches, three goals, and not a victory among them was a poor initial return on Brazil’s investment in Scolari, but his initial run of games were all about laying a new (old) foundation for the Selecão. While the results suggested a step back rather than a step forward, re-watching these matches has proven to me that Scolari had a plan from early on. His and the team’s dedication to patiently implementing that plan would be key in the revival of their World Cup ambitions.