The knockout stages have arrived, and from here on out, every match Brazil plays is basically a final.

First up: Chile.

Chile comes into this match as one of the darlings of the tournament, an entertaining side that wins over neutrals thanks largely to their commitment to pressing.  This was most apparent against Spain, where they overwhelmed the vaunted Spanish midfield by swarming Iniesta, David Silva, Xabi Alonso and company every time one of them received the ball.  Because they are so talented at denying their opponents space and time in the midfield, they are able to continually win possession in dangerous areas, then attack at speed down the wings.  Their talisman, Alexis Sanchez is especially important.  Sanchez’ pace and dribbling skill can suck in defenders, opening up space for Vargas and others to roam free in the eighteen-yard box.  (Brazil will need to pay special attention to Vargas, who scored in his last two matches against Brazil.)

Chile has also been one of the more tactically innovative sides at this World Cup.  The tournament has seen a rebirth   formations with three-man back-lines, a shape that Chile is particularly adept at given that they’ve been using it for years.   The end result is a very attacking, very fast-paced team that is both dangerous and extremely fun to watch.  I’m full of admiration for the way they play.

And yet, I wonder if perhaps people haven’t been hyping them up a bit more than they deserve.

To be sure, Chile deserve credit for both the way they play and for getting out of the toughest group in the competition.  But like everyone else, they have flaws, and if you look closely, you’ll see that they haven’t been quite as convincing as it may seem.

Their second match against Spain was absolutely brilliant; a masterclass in executing a tactical game plan and a sterling example of how far sheer passion and desire can take you.  But on either side of that game are two less impressive bookends.  Their 3-1 scoreline over Australia, for example, is a touch flattering.  Chile were absolutely brilliant for the first twenty minutes, but had to suffer long stretches of Australian dominance for basically the rest of the match.  Their last game was actually a loss, and while they enjoyed the lion’s share of possession against Holland, this was mainly due to the fact that their opponents had no interest in keeping the ball in the first place.  For all their possession, Chile never achieved any real penetration, and as a result, rarely looked like scoring.

Chile have played better than Brazil through the first three matches, but they can’t – or at least shouldn’t – be feeling as confident as some of their fans are.  The fact of the matter is that Chile is very capable of playing brilliant football…but they are equally capable of flattering to deceive.

Still, Brazil are basically in the same boat, having essentially scraped through the group-stage due to a handful of brilliant individual performances rather than because of any collective brilliance.  When the two teams line up for the anthems tomorrow, they’ll do so with neither being a true favorite.  This is the very definition of a pick-’em match.

Chile strengths=Brazil strengths

In truth, both teams play very similarly.  For example:

  • Both are most threatening down the wings rather than through the middle
  • Both are most successful when pressing, winning the ball in the opponent’s half of the field, then breaking quickly and getting their attackers into space
  • Both tend to field three-man back-lines

Let’s focus on the last two points.  When it comes to pressing, the real difference between the two teams is that Chile sees pressing as the essence of their philosophy, while Brazil are not nearly so dogmatic.  Brazil are best when they press (and almost every single goal they’ve scored so far has come after winning the ball in the opponent’s half) but don’t pursue the discipline with nearly the same zeal as Chile do.  Against Croatia and Cameroon in particular, there were long stretches where Brazil barely pressed at all.

Moving on to formations, a three-man back line is Chile’s preferred formation both in practice and on paper.  Brazil, on the other hand, field a nominal back-four.  In reality, however, it usually ends up looking more like a back-three, with the fullbacks pushing up and Luis Gustavo dropping back between Thiago Silva and David Luiz.

It’s been a neglected point on other sites, but the fact of the matter is that Brazil and Chile are really not so different.  For that reason, the winner of this match may well be the side that most rigorously and confidently executes the points listed above.

Potential Chile Weaknesses

When the two teams met last year, Brazil got out to an early lead mostly because they were the team that pressed hard out of the gates.  Look at Hulk’s opening goal.  Jo applied the initial pressure, forcing Chile into a sloppy pass.  Oscar intercepted, then immediately played in Hulk, who finished with aplomb.  Again, this may be Chile’s philosophy, but it’s also Brazil’s best practice.

The reason why Brazil were able to do this is because Chile seem prone to tactical nerves.  When Sampaoli gets the jitters, the entire team tends to play more conservatively, just as Brazil do.  (Another similarity!)  You get the sense that whichever team handles the pressure better will be the team that executes their game-plan better (see above).  Will Brazil wilt under the weight of expectation?  Or will Chile pale when they actually see their old tormentors lining up in front of them?  Either could happen, and it’s another reason why this match looks so even.

Another Chile weakness – and this one is oft repeated – is their lack of height at the back.  Two of the three goals they’ve conceded thus far were headers from crosses into the box, and both were very meekly defended.  You get the sense that if Fred is going to have a truly good game in this tournament, this one would be it.  And while I pray Paulinho doesn’t start, he may yet play a vital role late in the game if Brazil are searching for an equalizer.  Finally, if there was ever a time for Scolari to start Maicon, it’s now.  He’s the best crosser on the team, and played extremely well in last year’s friendly.

Last year’s friendly leads me to another weakness: injury concerns.  When Brazil beat Chile 2-1 last year, the result was somewhat misleading because Chile were missing several key players, most notably Isla, Diaz, Aranguiz and Vidal.  La Roja will be better stocked this time, but still have injury problems to deal with: Gary Medel and Arturo Vidal are either doubtful or not truly fit.  Hopefully Brazil can capitalize on this.

With all that said, Chile still have more than enough ability to beat Brazil.  If Chile come out with the mindset they had against Spain, and if Brazil look as uninspired as they have of late, it might be an unhappy summer for the rest of us.  Our midfield is especially concerning.  Hopefully Scolari has realized how much Fernandinho is needed, because if he hasn’t, Gustavo and Paulinho may be completely overrun, and Brazil’s attack will be so severed from its defense that it will be like an army that has lost its supply line.  Brazil must also be conscious of the fact that Chile will undoubtedly target the space in behind Dani Alves and Marcelo.

So there you have it.  Both teams have similar strengths.  Both teams have pronounced weaknesses.  It looks like a 50/50 match-up, but hopefully Brazil can ride their star player, their pedigree, their confidence from the Cameroon game, and their home-field advantage to a resounding victory.