Brazil dispatched Colombia last week thanks to a spectacular free-kick by Neymar. Here are a few of my observations from the match:
1) One thing about this generation of players that never ceases to amaze me is how passionate they are about playing for the yellow shirt. Whether it’s the World Cup or an early September friendly, it’s incredible how much the likes of David Luiz, Luis Gustavo, Neymar, and others pour into each game.
Colombia came out seeking retribution for their loss in June, but the tempo and tone of the match was set by Brazil right from the start, with Maicon, Willian and Ramires engaging in some lightning-quick interplay. Neymar and Diego Tardelli, the latter especially, took turns closing down on goalkeeper Ospina, while the first crunching tackle of the game came courtesy of Filipe Luis. Colombia responded in turn, and one of the un-friendliest friendlies you’ll ever see then ensued.
Of course, this surplus of passion can be both a positive and a negative. When applied correctly, the Confederations Cup is the result. When applied incorrectly, you get the mental breakdowns and panicked play of the World Cup itself. The same was true for this match. Brazil’s passion and energy ensured that Colombia never really grew into the game, and even before the official reached into his back pocket, Brazil was on the front foot for the majority of the time. Unfortunately, this same passion and energy also resulted in increasingly clumsy tackles and ridiculous temper tantrums. When this happens, it only results in conceding free kicks from dangerous positions, yellow cards, and a loss of composure.
One of Dunga’s biggest tasks will be to teach his team how to control their aggression rather than be controlled by it. Unfortunately, Dunga’s own track record suggests he may be the worst possible manager in this regard.
2) In terms of make-up, Dunga’s Brazil didn’t look very different from Scolari’s. Diego Tardelli was the only truly new player in the starting XI; even Filipe Luis and Miranda saw a little bit of time under the last regime.
The formation, a 4-2-3-1, was similar as well. Both fullbacks looked to push up whenever possible, the double-pivot of Ramires and Gustavo had a hard time consistently advancing the ball up the middle, and it seemed sheer energy would be Brazil’s biggest weapon.
But as I looked closer, I saw there were a few important differences. First, the false nine. True to his word, Dunga instructed Tardelli to drop deep to collect the ball, and even venture to the wings whenever Neymar drifted inside. Results were mixed, but it was a welcome change from Fred’s static, statuesque performances and Jo’s giraffe-like loping.
Second, the fullbacks. I mentioned that both Filipe Luis and Maicon looked to push up whenever possible. The key words in that sentence are “whenever possible.” Instead of camp out in advanced positions and generally try to function as wingers, Filipe and Maicon returned to the original Nilton Santos model. Both focused on fulfilling their defensive duties before attacking. When they did get forward, they hugged the touchlines closely, always looking to overlap Brazil’s attackers instead of merely reinforce them. While Maicon was beaten for pace on a few occasions, both fullbacks kept their flanks extremely clean and safe from counter-attacks, while still participating in some of the best moves of the night. (Filipe Luis’ shot rebounded to Tardelli for the disallowed goal, while Maicon created two golden chances for Neymar and Tardelli respectively.)
Finally, Brazil’s defense in general was a major improvement. The fullbacks stayed home more often, Miranda and David Luiz were in fine form, and the midfield did an excellent job of closing down on Rodriguez. As a result, Colombia was reduced to little more than shots from distance for most of the game. The only aberration occurred toward the end of the first half. Gustavo and Ramires both started allowing too much space to open up between them, and their positioning, combined with the increasingly ill-tempered nature of the match, led to clumsier tackling. Both were cautioned. Around this same time, Brazil started sitting deeper and deeper, yielding more possession to Colombia and making it harder to clear their lines. Fortunately, it was only an aberration and order was soon restored.
3) Let’s return to the idea of the false nine. I give full credit to Dunga for actually trying it, but it’s clear that the tactic doesn’t come naturally yet. The entire point of the false nine is to have the man nominally occupying the center forward spot either drop deep or spread wide to receive the ball. By doing this, the false nine can either drag his marker out of position or overload the midfield zones, putting the opposition at a numerical disadvantage.
Tardelli’s performance was a bit mixed. I loved his energy and his movement. On more than one occasion, he helped Brazil recover the ball early, and he gave the midfielders an additional passing option. I doubt, however, that he has the technical ability to truly flourish as a false nine, and against Colombia he sometimes struggled with controlling the ball. Worse, there were several instances where he either didn’t see or couldn’t take advantage of passing lanes to overlapping runners, which is crucial if the false nine tactic is to work.
To be fair, he wasn’t helped by the fact that his teammates, especially Neymar, didn’t seem to know what to do whenever Tardelli dropped deep. In a false nine system, the other attacking players, especially those in wide positions, must make runs into the space vacated by the false nine whenever possible. It’s this space that a false nine is specifically designed to create. Too often, however, Neymar either didn’t make the run, or ended up moving into the same zones as Tardelli himself.
There is a theory, and it’s probably accurate, that Neymar plays best when he has a good center forward to play off of. Such a center forward can occupy both centerbacks’ attention, enabling Neymar to run at individual defenders rather than be double-marked.
Playing with a false nine, as he does for Barcelona, means two things: first, Neymar has to spend more time on the left wing rather than roaming around the pitch. Second, as a wide player, Neymar has to spend more time making runs into space than wait for the ball to be played to his feet. This doesn’t seem to come naturally to him, though, and it’s one of the reasons why he hasn’t flourished (yet) in Spain. Part of the problem is that Neymar’s finishing simply isn’t good enough when he does make the run.
He has the natural talent to excel at this sort of thing, though, and when he gets it right, it’s beautiful to watch:
If Dunga elects to continue with the false nine, he’ll either need to devote a lot of coaching to proper movement , or (and this would be my preference) make Neymar the false nine rather than Tardelli.
4) Brazil may have only managed a solitary goal against Colombia, but it wasn’t due to a lack of creativity in the final third. The entire match saw some truly fine interplay in and around the box, only to be undone by poor finishing or an errant linesman’s flag. Take Oscar’s lovely through-ball to Filipe Luis, or his equally exquisite back-heel to Diego Tardelli. Neymar exchanged some excellent one-twos with both Fernandinho and Willian in the second half, but couldn’t finish either. Maicon teed-up Neymar in the box and fed Tardelli with an excellent cross, while David Luiz completely whiffed a sitter off a Neymar set piece. Perhaps the worst miss was Oscar poking wide after being set up perfectly by Willian.
It’s encouraging that Brazil was able to create all these chances, but their poor finishing is definite cause for concern…especially if Dunga maintains the same lineup against Ecuador. Neymar’s substandard finishing remains his major weakness, Willian has never been a goal-scorer, and as our own Zetona is keen to point out, Tardelli’s finishing is often disappointing as well. Of the four attacking players, only Oscar is an above-average finisher for his position.
5) During Dunga’s last go-around, Brazil were known as the absolute masters of the counter attack. But there was little countering going on in this match. That’s not surprising given that Colombia spent most of the second half a man down, but even in the first half, genuine counters were few and far between. Part of the problem was that Neymar, Tardelli, and Willian had difficulty moving in concert together. Neymar often cut inside toward the dribbler when he should have been peeling away, Tardelli’s passing was wayward, and Willian was guilty on several occasions of holding onto the ball for too long. Furthermore, Ramires and Gustavo also simply don’t have the passing range to consistently launch counter attacks, usually opting for a safer option, like simply passing sideways.
(One of the few well-executed counters in the first half was botched by Oscar’s miss mentioned above.)
It will be interesting to see if Dunga can turn Neymar’s Brazil into the same finely-tuned counter-attacking machine that he did with Kaka.
Brazil’s first match under Dunga was a mixed performance. On the plus side, we saw genuine creativity in the final third, good pressing, fantastic energy, and a strong defense. On the other hand, Brazil’s poor finishing, lack of composure, and inability to truly capitalize on a man-advantage are things to watch out for in the future.
Given the quality of the opponent and the strain of bad blood that exists between these two sides, it’s probably safe to consider the match a net positive. It will be interesting, and instructive, to see if Brazil can expand on this with a more dominant result against Ecuador.