They say you shouldn’t ever write a letter, drive a car, go to bed after a fight with your spouse, or write a blog post when angry. Fortunately, I am not angry. While it’s true that I am currently typing this solely with my left hand after tying my right to the armrest of my chair (it wanted to type something very, very different), I can say with the utmost sincerity that I am utterly calm.
Sorry about that. Order resumed. Brazil drew 0-0 with Mexico in a flaccid, frustrating, and altogether foul performance. (My right hand really wants to type words beginning with the letter F right now. I’m trying to forestall it.)
Anyway, onto serious matters. There’s no need for 5,000-word treatises here. The plain and simple truth is this:
Brazil will not win the World Cup playing like this.
“Like this” meaning:
- Slow, ultra-conservative passing alternated with impatient balls launched up to the center forward
- Clumped up, muddled spacing where two players literally stand in front of each other, each hoping the ball will be played to their feet
- Nonexistent movement off the ball, both in the midfield and in the box
- No width
- Unidentifiable objectives coupled with a complete lack of identity or philosophy.
I feel like it’s 2011 again. This is what I get for that “ra ra” article I wrote on eve of the Croatia match. But that’s just simply how things are going right now. Back then, this team had no identity. It was just Neymar and 10 other players fighting for scraps. Whenever Brazil played a match, they never seemed to be looking to target a particular weakness, exploit a particular advantage, or play with any direction whatsoever. Were Brazil a quick, gung-ho attacking team? A slow, methodical, possession-based team? A sit-deep-and-counter team? Who knows?
Under Scolari, we had an identity. We would press hard to win the ball back as quickly as possible, then pass to whichever attacking player was in space in order to take advantage of 1v1 opportunities. While many other goals were scored in a multitude of fashions, this was the basic formula the team could always return to. This is what opened up the game, allowing Brazil to explore and express themselves in a way that may not always have been high on flair, but was always high on confidence. So far in this World Cup, we seem to have once again lost our identity. I honestly don’t know what the game plan was out there, and I’d love it if others could tell me.
Perhaps I am being too harsh; after all, Brazil did come out of the gate looking physical, if not particularly inspired, and for the first 35 minutes Mexico could barely hold onto the ball as a result. But there was little else going on other than that; the few times anything truly threatening happened, it was usually due to Neymar. In the second half, things got worse. Neymar still looked bright on the ball (but again, oddly passive for long stretches, which has me wondering if he’s just not truly fit), but any semblance of pressing stopped, giving Mexico the time and space to grow in confidence. With more and more pressure being placed on the defense, holes began to appear around the field. Filling those holes took so much time and energy that whenever Brazil did have the ball, they could do little other than clear it, blast it up-field to Fred (we’ll get to him) or rely on the fullbacks to try and dribble forward. We weren’t even really launching counterattacks, not really. What kind of a team are we trying to be? Does this question even have an answer?
Brazil can’t win the World Cup playing like this. The only recourse, obviously, is to play better. Simple enough…but impossible unless changes are made. Because Brazil will continue to play like this unless changes are made. The reason Brazil plays “like this” is probably due to many factors, but at the heart of the matter is this: they are playing undermanned. There are guaranteed starters on this team who, let us be frank, are not good enough. No one needs me to name names; I’m going to name them anyway.
Fred, age 30, 6-foot-1, born in Minas Gerais. A superb finisher who has no other abilities as a footballer. None. It’s all fine and good to say “he lacked service,” but when he denies himself the very chance to get service by either standing stock still in the box (his lack of movement in the final third was absolutely shocking), while denying his teammates chances by repeatedly displaying heavy touches and misplaced passes, it’s not good enough. It would be one thing if he simply worked hard, but he doesn’t. So he must be dropped. That actually might be a good thing for him. He was similarly awful against Japan and Mexico last year, and then came to life when Jo started scoring. If he is to be revived, then let him be revived by threat of replacement. As bad as Jo was when he came on (and he was indeed bad) he still was more visible, more active, more anything than Fred.
Paulinho, age 25, 6-feet, born in Sao Paulo. An athletic specimen of a player who can really do damage in the box. He has no other real skills as a midfielder. None. Watch his play very carefully and see just how many passes he will not attempt, either because he hasn’t the vision, technique, or the confidence in himself to pull it off. He’s slow on the ball and he’s slow off it, serving only to muddle the team’s build-up rather than contributing anything to it. He’s capable of the odd mazy run or defense-splitting pass, but at this level, most players are. It’s not good enough. I still believe he would have value as a squad player, someone who can come off the bench to help preserve a lead, or even to chase a game when we need to flood the box on set pieces. But aside from his one great skill, he’s simply just a better version of Romulo or Elias. A limited player who, in happier times, would barely scratch the fringes of the national team.
Dani Alves, age 31, 5-foot-8, born in Juazeiro. Let’s be clear, Dani Alves is not to blame for this match. He didn’t really do anything wrong, not that I saw. But at this stage of his career, he is living off brand-value and name recognition only. Put him back in Seville and he probably doesn’t even make the team. So why do I include him here? Because if we are going to rely on our attacking fullbacks to be the primary engine drivers of the team, he’s simply not enough. His dribbling remains impressive…but only in areas where it does little good. He contributes no penetration, poor accuracy on crosses, almost never overlaps, and isn’t a good enough defender to make up for it.
Several other players need to improve, but these are the primary culprits, and replacing them, in my opinion, would do the most good for the team.
It’s worth taking a second to discuss a few positives. While I remain befuddled that Neymar isn’t demanding the ball more, he still looks very sharp whenever he’s on it. I was also pleased with the play of Thiago Silva and Julio Cesar today. The former was utterly authoritative for the majority of the match, and Cesar’s command of the box looked more confident as well. Finally, for all the team’s woe, they still might have won were it not for an outstanding goalkeeping display by Ochoa.
The next few days are very possibly going to shape Scolari’s legacy with the national team. He’ll always be a World Cup winner, but he has a chance to cement himself as the greatest international manager of all time. If he makes the changes that should be painfully obvious to anyone, he may yet do it. If he does not make those changes, then it is either because he is less competent than I believed, or more likely because he is simply too stubborn. If the latter happens, then Brazil will almost certainly lose this tournament. It may be in the Round of 16, it may be in the quarterfinals, but it will happen. The cause is not yet lost. This team can win the World Cup. But it can’t win playing like this.
Help! I’m the right hand and I’ve been taken captive against my will! Black Matt won’t let me write anything! If you’re reading this, please do somethi