Watching this match drove me to a greater state of agitation than I have known in years. From initial optimism (Brazil take the lead!) to incredulity (how could we concede a goal like that?) to outrage (enough with the long balls to Jo already!) to acceptance (Brazil are probably going to lose this penalty shootout, and that’s okay, life goes on) and back to incredulity again (wait…did we really just win?) my emotions were simply too erratic for me to write a coherent recap.
So I decided to watch it again.
It’s always useful to re-watch a match, of course. One of the beautiful things about football is that you can watch the same match three or four times and still not see everything there is to see. There’s so much activity, so many variables, so much movement (at least, there should be) that it’s all but impossible to pick up on everything, even after multiple exposures.
In this case, re-watching the match was more about giving myself the opportunity to study the game while in a relatively calm state. After the match ended the first time around, I was so on edge that I couldn’t sit still; I had to eat my lunch standing up, then go for a hike with my boys.
Eight hours later, I was finally ready to return to the sunny, circular confines of the Mineirão. This is what I saw:
A retroactive live-journal of Brazil vs Chile (aka “The Redemption of Julio Cesar”)
00:00 – White shorts. Brazil are wearing white shorts! I hate those white shorts, and am incensed that Brazil are forced to wear them. Why aren’t Chile forced to change their shorts? This is bothering me more than it should.
00:14 – Seconds after kickoff, Howard Webb whistles a dodgy foul on Fernandinho. This will be the first of many, many fouls. You get the sense that Webb is still trying to make up for the 2010 final. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Howie. Everyone misses at least one Nigel de Jong kick in their lives.
01:00 – Thiago Silva bundles over Arturo Vidal in a dangerous area, but the ensuing free-kick is deftly headed away by Fernandinho, falling right to Neymar’s feet. The boy wonder controls well and lays off to Hulk, who is off to the races, but his return pass is intercepted. Within one minute, the tone has been set: Brazil is looking to press, win the ball back early, and then attack at speed. Black Matt likey.
01:55 – Fernandinho gets his first touch on the ball. Notable because this wouldn’t happen again very often.
02:20 – Fernandinho is really trying hard to press, but is whistled for the foul again, and this time it’s an awful one, catching Arranguiz very late. If it had happened five minutes later, you feel it almost certainly would have been a yellow.
04:00 – Brazil win possession on the halfway line and Neymar takes off like a shot, but Arranguiz brings him down from behind. Is this the moment that caused his leg to swell up?
04:20 – Good run down the left by Gustavo, who wins a corner and waves for the crowd to get on their feet. Meanwhile, Neymar is hobbling due to an obvious dead leg, so Hulk takes the corner for him. The ball eventually comes to Marcelo, who after a nice feint with his right foot, shoots wide with his left from just outside the box. A good start by Brazil – this is the kind of energy that was missing in the group stage.
05:45 – An awful giveaway by Dani Alves leads to a speculative shot by Diaz that goes just wide. Neymar limps off to get treatment, opening the door for commentator Steve McManaman to register his fifth grumble of the day. A fine example of Anglo-Saxon contempt, but in the end his finishing lacks placement and the play goes out for an Ian Darke-goal-kick. When it comes to wagging his tongue, McManaman has the pace, but lacks precision.
07:00 – Strong run down the left by Hulk after a good pass by Marcelo. Hulk gets all the way to the goal-line but his cross is claimed by Bravo.
Early on, Brazil’s tactical game-plan was already clear. The deep-lying players –Gustavo and Fernandinho especially – work hard to win the ball, then pass to the fullbacks who launch attacks quickly down the flanks or over the top. It’s exactly the game-plan I hoped for, and the result is a promising start for Brazil. Major caveats to follow, though.
10:00 – Chile play a long ball up to Sanchez, who is well-covered by Thiago Silva after David Luiz looked beaten. Marcelo then returns the favor to Neymar, who chests down to Hulk, only for the Zenit-man to waste an attempted through-ball to Fred. Claudio Bravo’s goal-kick is route one back up to Sanchez. Marcelo is slow to react and Thiago Silva is forced to come over once again. Sanchez plays in Vidal, who’s shot-cum-cross is saved by Julio Cesar. Nervy moment, but Brazil and Chile are basically just launching cannonades at each other. Come on, guys. Don’t you realize that Argentina is the real enemy here?
11:00 – Great pressing again by Fernandinho to nick the ball away, setting up Neymar for another half-counter. Neymar can’t sort his feet out and the chance is momentarily lost. But Hulk is pressing, too, and wins possession on the halfway line. He feeds Neymar down the left, who once again loses the ball. Then Marcelo gets in on the whole pressing thing, dispossessing Sanchez almost immediately after. He attempts a one-two with Oscar on the edge of the box, but Oscar bottles the return pass. Still, magnificent pressing from almost the entire team.
12:26 – Where Oscar and Marcelo fail, Hulk and Neymar get it right! Hulk surges through the middle, then lays off to Neymar, who cleverly back-heels the return. Hulk is through on goal, but is brought down in the box. Webb is uninterested, because, well…Fred. Anyway, it’s a penalty for me, but I will concede that Hulk went down a little too easily. If he had stayed on his feet, he would have had a golden chance to shoot with his favored left foot.
13:20 – Gustavo presses, wins the ball, makes another good run, and wins a free-kick, which is wasted by Neymar.
15:27 – Neymar pounces on a loose ball and leaves the Chilean Silva in his dust. He has a golden opportunity to score with his left foot, but elects to cut back onto his right and the chance is lost. He does try to slip in Fernandinho on a secondary run, but the pass is hit slightly too hard.
16:10 – Handball by Mena gives Brazil a free-kick on the right flank. Hulk whips it in well, but Bravo punches over the bar for a corner. Can Brazil take advantage of Chile’s lack of height? Will Neymar finally find the range on set pieces? Is there really a point to asking these questions when we already know the answer? Stay tuned.
17:21 – Neymar’s corner is flicked on by Thiago Silva to David Luiz, who may or may not have scored. Brazil go up 1-0, and while it may actually have been an own-goal, it’s a deserved lead.
Lost in all the kerfluffle over who actually scored is the fact that Neymar finally delivered an accurate corner. His delivery on set-pieces has been one of Brazil’s biggest weapons for three years now, but he hasn’t been anywhere near as consistent during the World Cup. But this one was perfect. Also, Thiago Silva’s flick-on was understated brilliance. It’s the kind of thing that almost never gets noticed or credited, despite the fact it’s so easy to get wrong.
19:45 – Hulk, Gustavo, and Fernandinho are all doing really well at winning possession. I want to emphasize this, because it corresponds perfectly with when Brazil are on the front foot, and when they are on the back.
25:00 – Another great run by Neymar, who surges past the Chilean Silva once again. This time he does shoot with his left foot, but he scuffs his shot well wide. It’s disappointing – I thought Neymar had grown more comfortable with his left over the past twelve months.
26:00 – While I have praised Gustavo for his pressing, I do have some serious concerns about his positioning. He keeps wandering very far left, giving Brazil effectively three defenders down that flank. I can understand his thinking, as Chile is most dangerous down the wings, but this seems excessive. For one thing, Hulk is already there and doing a good job of tracking back. For another, it’s leaving Fernandinho with a lot of space to cover in the center, which Chile are beginning to exploit. Brazil are starting to yield more and more outright possession to Chile, and while on one hand it takes away Chile’s most powerful weapon (the quick attack down the flanks) it’s also marginalizing Fernandinho, Oscar, and even Fred from having any active role in the game except when defending. More on this in the second half.
27:35 – Brazil have been ignoring any sort of build-up through the middle for virtually the entire match, but now that they have basically yielded the center to Chile, it’s starting to limit their options. It was around this time that Brazil started to rely too much on balls played over the top. David Luiz plays just such a ball here, and it’s a fantastic one to Dani Alves, who overlaps at last. Alves crosses for Fred, who spurns the gift, electing to fall over instead.
Yes, you read that right.
I noticed this in real time, but figured I my eyes had betrayed me. But while watching the replay, I saw the truth: Fred had just made the tournament’s worst attempt at winning a penalty. While jogging into the box, Fred ambles up to the backside of one of the Chilean defenders (Medel, I think) and after the slightest bit of self-inflicted contact, falls right over. I cannot express to you how awful it looks. Fortunately for him, no one even really seems to notice, thereby settling the issue of “If a Fred falls alone in a forest, does he win a penalty?”
There were good tactical reasons for using the long-ball. One, it enabled Brazil to bypass Chile’s hyperactive pressing in the midfield. Two, it gave Neymar and Hulk – the former especially – opportunities to run at isolated defenders. Initially, I had no problems with the tactic, even though long balls are not my cup of tea. My only initial concern was the aforementioned marginalization of Oscar and Fernandinho.
What started out as sound tactics, however, eventually turned into one-dimensional overreliance. As the match wore on, balls played over the top shifted from a cunningly employed weapon to a desperate attempt to avoid mistakes. Chile started marking Neymar more closely at the same moment he began to tire, while Fred and later Jo proved completely unable to win aerial duels so they could hold up play. In the end, all those long passes served to do was cough up possession at an alarming rate.
28:00-30:00 – McManaman whining. McManaman whining.
28-31:30 – Storm clouds on the horizon. Brazil are starting to look a little one-dimensional, but Gustavo, Fernandinho, and Thiago Silva are closing and covering with real skill, preventing Chile from creating anything truly threatening. That is until…
31:40 – Awful mistake by Hulk! Marcelo’s throw-in near the corner flag is improperly dealt with by Hulk, whose soft back-pass is woefully under-hit. Vargas pounces, then slides the ball over to Sanchez. Gustavo doesn’t move, Luiz is too far away, Thiago Silva seems more concerned with defending against a pass than a shot, and Julio Cesar fails to save Sanchez’s soft side-footer from nestling into the far corner. A woeful mistake followed by woeful defending.
The goal wasn’t entirely against the run of play – Brazil’s aggression had started to flag a bit in the preceding few minutes, for one thing – but it was mainly the result of bad concentration. For the most part, Brazil had been the better team for the first thirty minutes, but now they had very little to show for it.
For the past week or so, I’ve voiced my concern that Scolari and the team are focusing too much on “eliminating mistakes” and too little on “imposing their will.” Since training camp opened, the number one thing we keep hearing from the press is that Brazil are terrified of making a mistake, that they don’t want to concede, that they are focusing most of their time on defending counters and corners. These things are very important, but overly focusing on them brings a negative side effect: a culture of fear. No matter how much you train, mistakes are inevitable – witness the fact that every single goal conceded has come down to an individual mistake of some sort. So all Brazil have really accomplished is negating any possibility of a positive mindset. In short, the Seleção aren’t playing to win…they’re playing not to lose.
It’s clear that the pressure of playing at home, combined with the burden of history and the weight of the country’s social upheaval has put the entire team on edge. But I’m convinced that the way Brazil have prepared for this tournament is the single biggest factor in their underwhelming performance thus far. We know this team can play better. When they are on form, they are the best international team in the world by a healthy margin. But in the group stage, and in the second half against Chile, we’ve seen a side that is nowhere close to the level they displayed in 2013…because they’ve largely abandoned both the tactics and the mindset that made them so feared and favored.
33:30 – A scooped ball from Sanchez to Vargas almost results in a dangerous moment, but is well-read by Fernandinho and seen out for a goal-kick.
35:00 – Great work by Neymar, twisting and turning through three Chileans to feed laterally to Alves. Alves then passes to Oscar, while Neymar continues his run into the box. Oscar’s cross is perfect, and Neymar rises to head it home, only for the ball to deflect off the back of Medel’s skull. Is it just me, or has Neymar had rotten luck with headers in this tournament?
37:00 – Brazil’s insistence on not playing through the center is starting to get really noticeable. Fernandinho is literally being bypassed by his own teammates, as almost everything is over the top or down the wings.
38:29 – Possession statistics give a glimpse as to what I’ve been talking about. Brazil’s game-plan has led to more opportunities to score, but Chile is starting to develop more sustained spells of possession as they take control of the center.
38:45 – Wonderful long ball by Oscar to Neymar, who controls beautifully. Silva and Medel are on him in an instant, and perhaps Neymar doesn’t quite have his balance, but he misses an absolutely golden opportunity to poke the ball past Bravo with his left foot. Fred follows up, but some last ditch defending forces him to sky over the bar.
Oscar was a marginal figure in this game, but it’s worth noting that he easily could have had two assists by halftime.
41:45 – Alves tries a dipping shot from range, only to see Bravo tip the ball over the bar. Aside from winning a free-kick, this is one of Dani’s few contributions in the final third, the vast majority of his involvement coming from long-range passes.
In fairness to Alves, he’s played a solid tournament since his awful opening match, in that he hasn’t really made any major mistakes either in defense or in possession. True, he’s made a few poor decisions here and there, but nothing terrible. (I don’t blame him for Cameroon’s goal.) That said, he hasn’t really contributed much of note either, and for a team that relies so much on attacking fullbacks for both width and drive, his performances have just not been good enough. Maicon continues to look like a more dynamic option.
42:15 – Once again, Neymar’s set pieces have just not been up to his usual standard.
43:15 – Oscar and Alves crowd out Chile near their own box, allowing Oscar to win the ball and slip in Fred, who scuffs his chance and can only shoot meekly at Bravo. Were it not for the fact that Jo looked even more woeful after coming on, I think it’s safe to say that Fred is only a game or two away from locking up the “worst center forward to ever play significant time for Brazil at a World Cup” award. I mean, can anyone think of someone worse? Let’s go back through the years:
1978: Reinaldo/Roberto Dinamite
2010: Luis Fabiano
I mean, only Baltazar in ’54 and Serginho in ’82 come close. I’ve never seen any video of Baltazar, so I can’t comment on him. Serginho was basically a giraffe, but I’d still take him over Fred in this tournament so far.
44:15 – Another run through the middle by Neymar, who gets to the goal-line and chips the ball back to Fred, only for the Fluminese man to get his header all wrong.
45:10 – Awful giveaway by Gustavo! Arranguiz is only stopped from scoring due to a combination of David Luiz and Fernandinho sliding into his path right at the near post. Chile get nothing from the ensuing corner, and the first half comes to a close.
Brazil actually responded fairly well to Chile’s goal, but I still remember getting a disquieting feeling after Gustavo’s mistake. It’s never a good idea to concede the last chance of the half to the opposing team, and I wondered if this would spook Brazil while simultaneously buoying Chile on to new heights. How much of an influence Gustavo’s giveaway actually had will never be known, but one thing is certain: Brazil definitely came out of the locker room spooked.
Otherwise, this was in many ways Brazil’s best half of the tournament, given the quality of their opposition. They had enjoyed the lion’s share of the scoring opportunities, some of them very good indeed, had showed both energy and a definite game plan, and had mostly limited Chile to half-chances. Only a momentary lapse of concentration and some bad luck (Hulk’s denied penalty, Neymar’s deflected header) prevented them going into the changing room with a lead.
In retrospect, however, there were a few problems. The main one is that Brazil were looking increasingly one-dimensional as the half wore on, and for all the chances they created, only three were the result of teammates combining: Hulk’s penalty claim, Neymar’s header, and Fred’s scuffed shot. The rest were due to individual runs or balls played over the top to Neymar. When a team plays one-dimensionally, even if it’s based off sound tactics, it soon becomes easier for the opponent to nullify those tactics, as Chile would do in the second half. By that time, paralyzed with fear as they were, Brazil would look increasingly impotent as the match wore on.
I’ll cover the second half in my next article.