POST-WORLD CUP UPDATE: I recognize the awful irony in the headline, and the article itself is hardly better. Still, I’ve decided not to take this post down as some have suggested, because it would be shameful to try and hide it. Besides, anyone could have written an article decrying Brazil’s chances after Neymar went down. I decided to stick my neck out and do something different, and I don’t regret trying it. (But I do wish I had chosen a different number.)
Brazil were dealt an awful blow last week due to Neymar’s tournament-ending injury. But the Seleção are neither down nor out. Despite the loss of their talisman, victory is still attainable. Here are seven reasons why:
1. Teams missing their “star” will often play better without him
We see this kind of thing happen in football all the time, not to mention other team sports, too. When a team possesses a star, whether it be Neymar, Messi, Falcao, or whoever, they tend to turn that star into a crutch. A prop to lean on. And the thing about crutches is when you use them for too long, you start to forget how to use your own legs.
Overreliance on a star has been a trend for several teams in this tournament, Brazil and Argentina especially. With a star on the pitch, the creative onus is placed on the shoulders of one man instead of spread around the team. The burden of being decisive, the pressure that comes from being the most visible and targeted man on the field, is removed. From the other players’ perspective, their role is to simply “do a job.” The rest is up to the star.
But if you take that star away, what happens? It’s easy to think, “Everything will fall apart.” After all, who will bale the team out now? Who will step up when the crowd gets anxious and the clock’s winding down and defeat is staring you straight in the face?
But a funny thing can happen to teams who lose their star: they remember that they are, in fact, a team.
Suddenly, each individual on the team realizes two things:
“Neymar’s not here; I am really going to have to play my best for us to stand a chance.”
The fact that each individual thinks this is the key point. If only, say, Fernandinho came to this realization, it wouldn’t mean much. But when you suddenly have eleven different players all coming to the same conclusion, then something beautiful happens: the level of the entire squad goes up.
“Neymar’s not here; the responsibility is on me now…and I sort of like it!”
When a team loses a star, his teammates realize that not only is their more pressure on the rest of them, but that they sort of like it. Suddenly, Hulk remembers that he’s been the best player at his club for 4-5 years running; that he’s led sides to multiple league titles and even continental trophies. Suddenly, Oscar remembers that Chelsea chose him over Juan Mata; that he was the best player for his country’s Olympic team; that he’s carried the Seleção before when Neymar was either absent or struggling. Suddenly, Paulinho remembers that he was once considered the best player in the Brasileirão, that he led a team to a world championship, that he was named the third best player in a major international tournament only a year ago.
And so on.
Suddenly, players aren’t just booting the ball up to Neymar, hoping for a miracle. Suddenly, they’re taking defenders on themselves, they’re moving the ball quicker, they’re running harder. Because, dammit, they have to. And because…it’s actually pretty damn fun.
When is a team is without its star for a long period of time, whether it be the length of a tournament or for an entire domestic season, success will look far less likely. Eventually, the lack of sheer talent and quality will tell. But for a game or two, the loss of a star can sometimes be like a rising tide that lifts all boats.
2. Pressure lifted
I just mentioned how some players will respond to the increased responsibility placed on their shoulders once a star goes off injured. An additional benefit is that now, for the first time in the tournament, the pressure they’re facing has decreased. With Neymar gone, Germany are the favorites. A Brazil loss is expected. No one would blame the team; after all, they’re without their best player. How are they supposed to win?
All of this means that Scolari and company go into their semi-finals playing with house money. Yes, they still have the weight of history and home soil on them, but the burden of expectation should be lessened. This is no small thing, because that weight has clearly affected the team’s performances. All through the competition, especially in the second halves of the knockout rounds, we’ve seen Brazil play wide-eyed and panicked. They can no longer sustain the aggressive confidence they showed in the Confederations Cup. “We’re to win” has been replaced by, “Oh God, what if we lose?”
The pressure placed on this team – perhaps unique in World Cup history – has affected the team’s composure, their pace, their mindset, and even their technique. For example, the more the pressure rises, the more they stop pressing in favor of sitting deeper and deeper. And because they’re sitting deeper, it now becomes harder to play out of the back. Attacking gives way to defending, passing gives way to booting. Short passes into space become too risky; risk itself is unacceptable, which inevitably leads to the riskiest mindset of all: pure survival.
All those symptoms should be alleviated now, at least in theory. Because what have Brazil got to lose? They’ve already gone further than their last two predecessors, who were either far more talented (2006) or far more systematic (2010.) They’ve lost their star, and their captain to boot. The pressure is on Germany now. They are the ones who have to take care of business. They’re the ones who are expected to win. They’re the ones coming off 24 years of failure. They’re the ones who have never beaten Brazil in a competitive match. They’re the ones who have to perform.
Brazil just need to go out and play.
3. A “trap game” for Germany?
Ah, the dreaded “trap” game: that occasion where Team A encounters a weakened, wounded opponent. Success is inevitable, for Team B are missing the only weapons Team A had to fear.
And therein lies the trap. Like when calm waters belie sharp, jagged rocks waiting just beneath the surface. Like when a straight jungle road conceals the gaping pit lying beneath a cover of palm fronds. Like when a half-completed Death Star distracts from the power of an armed and fully operational battle station. Thinking the match will be easy, that their opponent will simply roll over and concede, Team A relaxes. It is, to quote a well-known philosopher, a Fatal Mistake.
Of all the points raised in this article, I think this one is the least likely to actually happen. Germany are a veteran team who have lost in the semifinals of major tournaments too many times. Especially after scares against Ghana and Algeria, they know not to take anyone lightly. Still, if there was ever a time for Germany to fall victim to a trap game, this is it.
4. “Play for Neymar”
Such seems to be the reaction across the Brazilian media. The same can be said of the population at large, or at least those who care about such matters. Take, for example, the quarterfinal match between Costa Rica and the Netherlands. It didn’t take long for the audience to break out into an impromptu hymn:
“Ole, ole ole ole;
An inspiring rendition, and one suspects that words very much like it will be repeated on Tuesday in Belo Horizonte.
The Seleção have been supercharged with emotion throughout the entire tournament, perhaps overly so. Now their emotion can be channeled into something less abstract, less momentous, and more immediate: to win for their comrade. It’s the closest thing the Seleção have to a “gipper” moment, and perhaps Scolari’s remaining players will be as inspired by it as Notre Dame was 86 years ago.
5. Hulk and Oscar – better without Neymar?
Let’s move away from psychological matters. With Neymar out, the creative burden will undoubtedly fall on the slender shoulders of Oscar and the more massive ones of Hulk. At first, neither player inspires much confidence. Hulk has never scored in a competitive match for Brazil, while Oscar has produced only in fits and spurts since his splendid opening against Croatia.
And yet there’s every reason to believe one or both will play better now that Neymar is out. Why? Because they each have a history of doing so.
If any of you remember my “Wither Hulk” article, I covered this topic at length. The fact of the matter is that both Hulk and Oscar’s best games have come, with only one or two exceptions, when Neymar was either absent or in bad form. If you were to list Hulk’s three best games for Brazil, it would probably look something like this:
- Vs Egypt (Neymar absent)
- Vs Denmark (Neymar absent)
- Vs Mexico (Olympic final; Neymar ineffective)
And those are just games where Hulk started. Not listed are all the matches where Hulk came on as a substitute like the South Africa and Russia friendlies. You can even see the evidence in this very tournament. Neymar shined through the first three and a half matches, whereas Hulk was either absent or unproductive. Starting in the second half of the Chile match, however, and continuing against Colombia, Neymar was hobbled and quiet. Hulk’s influence shot up immediately.
The same is largely true of Oscar. His two best stretches for Brazil were in the run of friendlies before the Olympics stretching all the way to the final of the Olympics itself, and the early months of Scolari’s tenure, when Neymar’s form was so poor some were calling for him to be benched. As I have said before, Oscar was basically Brazil’s best player at least up until Neymar’s volley against Japan. It was only after that match where Neymar seized authority and never let it go…which coincided with a simultaneous drop in Oscar’s consistency. Even afterwards, though, Oscar has shown the ability to step up on the rare occasion when Neymar can’t do it on his own.
Neither Hulk nor Oscar are as good as Neymar, of course, and they may not be good enough to get past Germany. But both are extremely able players with a history of playing better without Neymar, so it should come as no surprise to see them play the game of their lives on Tuesday. Both will certainly see more of the ball, especially Oscar, who I expect to play higher up the pitch and with slightly less defensive duties than he has previously been charged with. If Hulk, who I expect to re-occupy his favored spot on the right, can find the space to run at Germany’s plodding defense, and if Oscar is active and alert when receiving the ball between the lines, they can cause a lot of damage…more than anyone Germany has yet encountered.
6. A place for an extra midfielder=more pressing?
Germany’s draw versus Ghana and their narrow victory over Algeria proved that their midfield can be disrupted when heavily pressed. Italy proved it in the 2012 Euros, and Spain proved it in the 2010 World Cup. Joachim Low’s squad is rife with talent and technical ability, but they rely heavily on establishing a particular tempo for their passing game to work. Interfere with that tempo, and Germany can be made to look ragged.
Brazil have come in for a lot of criticism due to the physical approach they’ve employed under Scolari. Some of that criticism is justified, while some of it is total, ahem, bullshit. Before I embark on an angry tangent, let’s just say that Brazil’s willingness to tackle and body-up on opposing midfields has paid real dividends. This was most notable against Spain last year.
The single worst mistake Scolari can make, in my opinion, is employ an overly cautious approach to this game. If Brazil sit deep, they will almost certainly lose. Not only will they likely concede at least once, but they will find it harder to attack on the half-counter, which we know is their most effective tactic by far. If, on the other hand, Scolari instructs Brazil to press with renewed vigor, than victory is a real possibility.
Neymar’s absence robs us of the one player most able to take advantage of half-counters, but it also means that Scolari can insert another midfielder in his stead. Whether he elects to play Gustavo, Fernandinho, and Paulinho/Ramires all at once, or uses Willian as a like-for-like replacement, he’ll be fielding someone who is energetic, combative, and more than willing to press. This means a greater likelihood of disrupting Germany’s rhythm. Whether this will lead to goals is anyone’s guess, but the point is that losing Neymar at least gives Scolari the opportunity to select a starting XI designed specifically to give Germany trouble.
7. Brazil simply want it more
I don’t care how long it’s been since Germany last won the World Cup. I don’t care how much Ozil or Schweinsteiger or Muller dream of raising the trophy aloft. This competition simply means more to Brazil than it does to anyone else. If they can control their desire, instead of letting it control them, then watch out!
So there you have it. Germany goes into this match as the undoubted favorites, but Brazil is by no means out of the competition. If Hulk and Oscar can step up their games; if the team as a whole can raise their respective levels and channel their emotions appropriately; if Germany relaxes even slightly or find themselves unable to cope with an extra man in an already brutally-contested midfield, than Brazil may yet find themselves playing in the Maracanã on Sunday.
 Or perhaps such inspiration will have to wait until the 2022 World Cup…after all, Notre Dame’s famous victory over Army took place eight years after George Gipp’s death. I didn’t want to write this part, but historical veracity demanded a footnote at least.
 It should be noted that there are multiple reasons for Oscar’s lack of consistency, which are too nuanced and varied to cover here.