Apologies for the lateness of this article. I’ll post a dedicated match thread for the Mexico game tomorrow.
The following are six random “thoughts” about Brazil’s opening game vs Croatia:
1) Brazil betrayed by early nerves. In my last post, I wrote how I wanted to see Brazil come out of the gate with the same aggression and mentality they showed in the Confederations Cup. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened. Brazil started slowly, passing the ball around the back at a crawling tempo that played right into Croatia’s hands. Both Thiago Silva and David Luiz were guilty of holding onto the ball for too long at times, while Dani Alves and Marcelo were effectively nullified, with Olic and Perisic blocking their forward movement and constantly threatening to spring behind them whenever Croatia was in possession. Meanwhile, Brazil’s midfield duo, Gustavo and Paulinho, showed once again that they possess neither the technique nor the imagination to make plays within a congested midfield.
For that reason, I expected Croatia to enjoy a great deal of possession, but for the majority of the match, they were content to give Brazil time on the ball within their own half, knowing that with the fullbacks stymied, Brazil just didn’t have any deep-lying players who could hurt them. Croatia did attempt to ensure that whenever Brazil’s players received the ball past the halfway line, they did so under extreme pressure. It hardly helped that Oscar in particular was guilty of some awful touches early on, but he wasn’t the only one.
Why was Brazil so poor? Some it was undoubtedly due to nerves, and indeed, Thiago Silva later admitted this to be the case. Instead of coming out aggressively, Brazil began cautiously, clearly hoping to avoid making a mistake that would subject themselves to counter-attacks. Ironically, this very approach contributed to Croatia’s effectiveness on the counter. Instead of putting immediate pressure on Croatia’s defense, all their plodding timidity served to do was allow Croatia to execute their own game plan.
2) Croatia target space behind the fullbacks. As far as Croatia’s preferred channels of attack, this was no surprise. But the Croats should be lauded for executing their plan with so much drive and intent early in the match.
Whenever any team starts at a slow tempo, it immediately creates an opportunity for their opponent to play at a faster one. That’s important, because a team’s pace of play cuts both ways. It’s very hard to play at one speed with the ball, and at another speed without the ball. If Team A is slow to circulate the ball, it’s almost a guarantee that they will be slow to react to what Team B does with it. Such was the case here. Whenever Croatia won possession, they immediately tried to spring into the space behind Alves and Marcelo and then cross into the box. Paulinho and Gustavo were both slow to react to this and relied too much on feeble stabs at the ball as it went by. Brazil’s backline were little better, and looked sluggish and uncertain whenever it came time to deal with Croatia’s crosses. Thiago Silva especially was caught out on several occasions, and Brazil came dangerously close to conceding as early as the 8th minute when Olic missed a header at the far post.
Of course, Brazil’s tempo alone is not to blame. Equally important is the issue of space. It’s the age-old problem: reliance on attacking fullbacks means leaving yourself open to counterattacks in the space the fullbacks leave behind. This problem is the single most important reason that Brazil has fielded increasingly combative and defensive double-pivots, in order to provide cover for the fullbacks. Solving one problem, however, tends to simply create another problem. I’ve written frequently how fielding a purely-defensive double-pivot means that Brazil relies too much on their fullbacks to get forward; how it all but forces Brazil to rely more heavily on counter-attacks (which is different than being a counter-attacking team, but that’s an article for another time); and how it makes building from the back slow and onerous. I feel very strongly that Brazil should retain the double-pivot, but one built on compromise between the 1970 and 1994 temas, in that it should consist of an out-and-out destroyer as well as a deep-lying playmaker with solid defensive ability. That’s why I want Fernandinho to start so badly. It’s why I see Oscar’s long-term future with Brazil actually taking place in a more withdrawn position than as a traditional #10.
The issue I have with the Gustavo-Paulinho pairing is that it’s neither a purely defensive pivot, nor a proper hybrid. Gustavo is a wonderful player, one of the most essential on the team, but his skills are neither augmented norbalanced out by Paulinho. For all his qualities, Paulinho is simply not skilled enough in any particular area other than making runs into the box. His passing and movement aren’t consistently good enough, nor is he a truly great defender. The result is a scenario like the one Brazil had to endure on Thursday: a midfield unable to consistently penetrate Croatia’s packed defense, but also unable to consistently cover for the fullbacks.
Please note that I don’t want to make it seem like I’m blaming everything on Paulinho. He didn’t really do anything wrong, and he certainly wasn’t the worst player out there. But aside from a few aforementioned runs into the box, he doesn’t really contributeanything, either. He’s just there. He’s quite good at popping up every now and again with a real moment of genius, but when it comes to consistently setting the tempo, style, and tenor of the game, whether offensively or defensively, Paulinho is just not that kind of player.
Of course, our midfield is only part of the problem. Special attention must be paid to Marcelo and Dani Alves.
There are generally three ways to compensate for the inherent problem of fielding two attacking fullbacks. The first is a purely defensive double-pivot, as previously stated. The second is to adopt a three-man defensive system, like the one Scolari used in 2002. (I will be forever disappointed that Scolari never once tried this system with the current crop of players.) The third is for your fullbacks to use just a little more discretion when deciding whether to join the attack.
Both Marcelo and Dani Alves can be very poor at this. Even more so, they are poor when it comes to positioning themselves in advanced positions. It’s one thing to join the attack, but it’s something totally different to leave your flank completely open. When Marcelo and Dani Alves move up, they too often seek to function mainly as wide midfielders, parking themselves amidst the attackers while simultaneously looking to venture inside whenever they see fit. They become auxiliary attackers rather than overlapping ones. That can help as far as maintaining possession, but it doesn’t often end up providing real attacking thrust (Marcelo’s mazy dribbles can be an exception) and, again, it leaves space for the opponent to get in behind.
Sometimes, the fullbacks can lose their heads and move out of position so completely, it’s all but impossible to recover. This is exactly what Dani Alves did in advance of the own-goal, as seen here:
The good news is that both players seemed to use more discretion as the match went on…but it’s also true that Brazil’s attack looked even more anemic as a result. (Brazil could have combatted this by simply increasing their pace of play, but they failed to even try.) It’s a conundrum, and one that can only be solved by a change in formation, a change in personnel, or simply by more tactical awareness demonstrated by all concerned. I would suspect that the former is out of the question and the second unlikely. In order for Brazil to win this World Cup, Marcelo and Dani Alves are simply going to have to perform better and smarter.
3) Scolari uses a 4-4-2
I said a change of formation would be unlikely, and by that I meant a change resulting in three central defenders. Because Scolari did change his usual formation, departing from his customary 4-2-3-1 in favor of a 4-4-2 with Hulk and Oscar on the wings.
As stated in previous articles, the 4-4-2 is nothing new for Scolari. Actually, it was one of the first formations he used back in 2013, and he’s returned to it intermittently. The formation has a few inherent advantages, most notably that it puts Neymar in a more central position closer to goal (although the Barcelona man essentially plays a free-role wherever Scolari puts him.) I also feel that it helps Brazil maintain possession a little better than the 4-2-3-1 does, mainly because in a 4-2-3-1, the line of 3 tends to push higher up the pitch and wait for the ball to be played to their feet, while in the 4-4-2, Oscar and Hulk both play closer to the halfway line and help with circulation.
Leading up to the tournament, a number of analysts all expressed doubt as to whether Oscar could function in such a formation, since it moves him out to the right wing, a position where he theoretically lacks pace. Actually, some of Oscar’s best performances came in that exact position. As mentioned in a previous article, Oscar was far and away Brazil’s best player before the Confederations Cup, and during that time he played frequently on the right wing. (Think both England friendlies and the Russia friendly.) While it’s true that Oscar is not the paciest player, he does have a surprisingly quick first step which he can use to his advantage. In fact, this was a major reason for his dominance over Vrsaljko. While he probably wouldn’t win a straight-up sprint against the Croatian left-back, he was frequently quicker off the jump, allowing him to get past his marker and cross into the box.
Actually, the player who really struggles in a 4-4-2 is Hulk. Hulk can play on the left, but there’s a difference between being a left winger and a left-sided midfielder. Hulk was required to fill the latter role against Croatia, ostensibly for defensive purposes, and as a result, he suffered. Playing as a left-sided midfielder basically robs him of both his favorite move (The Arjen Robben Special), but more importantly, it takes him far away from goal and forces him to concentrate on ball retention and circulation, which are emphatically not his strengths. That was the main reason, in my opinion, that Hulk looked so underwhelming against Croatia. It should be remembered that Hulk has played well for Brazil going all the way back to November of last year, and I expect that once he resumes his usual position, he’ll perform better. If not, it should be no trouble to drop him in favor of Willian, Bernard, or even Ramires so that he can function as a super-sub…a role that even his most hardened detractors would admit he excels at. This is assuming, of course, that he’s healthy.
The remaining question is whether the 4-4-2 is a permanentswitch or just a temporary one. I would guess it to be the latter, as Scolari seemed to be most concerned with blocking the Croatian fullbacks from making forward runs. Against Mexico, I will be surprised if we see anything other than the 4-2-3-1.
4) The backline must do better at defending crosses
Not much to say about this one, really, except that the entire back line, from Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo, to even Julio Cesar, must do a better job of contesting aerial balls. Each had at least one shaky moment when they either hesitated, misjudged the flight of the ball, or positioned themselves poorly. (I hate to pick on Dani Alves again, but his positioning on just such a cross should have resulted in a goal for Olic early on.)
5) Brazil’s young stars stepped up
It was extremely heartening to see Neymar and Oscar step up to lead the team, especially with its veterans struggling. While one might expect no less, given that the two are the unquestioned “stars” of the side, good performances were far from guaranteed. After all, both are still 22, and playing in their first World Cup game, with an enormous amount of pressure on their shoulders. Better players than they have flopped under similar circumstances. But both stepped up.
Neymar, of course, can and probably will play better. He needs to be more aggressive on the ball, and his second half against Croatia was strangely passive. Both his goals had an element of fortune to them, and, those strikes aside, he never really had another chance to score. Still, when Brazil needed him most, he answered the call.
Oscar was simply phenomenal. It was his best match since the France friendly of last year…maybe his best match ever in a yellow shirt. He was active, lively, quick, imaginative, and tough in equal measure. In many ways, he was both the best attacker and the best defender on the team, leading or coming in second in both dribbles, key passes, goals, tackles, and interceptions per WhoScored.com.
Three things that stood out most about Oscar. The first is that he managed to perform so well after a sloppy beginning. After about fifteen minutes, I wrote in my notebook that “Oscar is taking too long to decide what to do” and “Oscar doesn’t have it today.” It takes tremendous psychological strength to pull yourself up from such a beginning to dominate the game the way he did.
The second thing that stood out was how active Oscar looked. I’ve written before that you can tell when Oscar is feeling confident by how lively and active his footwork is. This was certainly on display against Croatia.
Finally, Oscar’s strength on the ball was simply outstanding. He simply would not be outmuscled. Time and time again, I thought he would turn the ball over, only to remain on his feet just a second longer than expected. The build-up to Neymar’s first goal is the perfect example of this.
All-in-all, a remarkable performance, even more so given the fact that many were calling for him to be dropped before the game.
6) Brazil fall behind…and then recover
Going into the tournament, one of the major questions on everybody’s lips was, “What happens if Brazil concede first?”
Marcelo’s own-goal answered that question, at least to a degree. Brazil didn’t fall apart, they didn’t start pointing fingers or losing their cool. I didn’t even see a single accusing look. Instead, surrendering the goal buoyed them into their best stretch of the game.
Of course, it’s one thing to fall behind early on. Falling behind in the 70th minute is a separate animal altogether. Falling behind in the 70th minute of a knockout round may still be too much for this team to handle. But in many ways, Marcelo’s own goal was exactly what Brazil needed. It forced them to answer a very tough question about themselves, and that’s an experience they can rely on for the remainder of the tournament.
 It should be noted that I have major doubts as to the accuracy of WhoScored’s statistics, but in Oscar’s case, they feel reasonable.