Note: Rather than try to provide a detailed, comprehensive breakdown of every match, which I don’t have time for (and is covered through readers’ comments anyway) I’ve decided to try something new.  Starting now, match-specific articles will follow a specific template containing the following sections: Starting XI, substitutions, Pre-Match Storylines, Moments of Note, Tactical  Themes, and Five-a-Side (five players who stood out to me, either positively or negatively.)  In this way, I can hopefully:

  • Write recaps more consistently
  • Cover the broad strokes so that anyone who didn’t watch the match would still get a feel for how it unfolded
  • Enable individual readers to dive deeper into the details with their comments

So without further ado…

Starting XI

 Starting XI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Substitutions:

Coutinho à Lucas Lima (67’)

Kaka à Hulk (67’)

Elias à Fernandinho (74’)

Lucas Moura à Willian (78’)

Rafinha à Luis Gustavo (81’)

Neymar à Douglas Costa (82’)

Pre-Match Storylines

Storyline Outcome
News out of training camp suggests Dunga re-emphasized keeping possession and building from the back Brazil finishes with 62% possession. Aside from a stretch towards the end of the 1st half and the beginning of the second, the team had little trouble keeping the ball.   However, before Kaka’s substitution, most of Brazil’s attacks were familiar: get the ball to the runners down the flanks, or ping long passes from back to front in an attempt to catch Costa Rica by surprise. Kaka, Coutinho, and to a lesser extent, Neymar, were able to add another dimension to Brazil’s attack late in the 2nd half, combining on several occasions to form passing triangles in the middle of the pitch.
Is an in-form Lucas Lima the answer to Brazil’s midfield dilemma? Uncertain. Lima played a solid match, switching the point of attack on several occasions and providing good outlet passes to the flanks for counter-attacks. But his off-ball movement was pedestrian, meaning he didn’t end up influencing the match as much as one might hope. Looked to be an intelligent passer, but never provided much in terms of penetration. Would still rather see Coutinho in that position, with Lima himself in a more deep-lying role.

Moments of Note

5’ – Willian receives the ball on the right flank, pauses, then cuts in on his left foot before being fouled near the 18-yard box. Hulk takes the free-kick, with a trademark thunderbolt that the keeper is forced to palm over the bar.

7’ – After an exchange of simple passes between Lucas Lima, Marcelo, and Douglas Costa, the latter bends a long-range cross into the box for an onrushing David Luiz, of all people. It seems the simplest thing for Luiz to tap the ball into the box, with Costa Rica’s keeper caught completely stranded, but he somehow contrives to miss.

Costa cross

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun little observation: Douglas Costa’s cross was similar to the kind of thing Rivaldo used to excel at. Remember this?

10’ – Goal!  After Fernandinho’s awful square pass to Danilo is almost picked off, the right-back recovers and immediately plays a long-ball up to the isolated Hulk. Hulk lowers his shoulder and muscles his marker out of the way, then slips in classic Hulk-fashion. The chance looks like it will go begging, but Hulk shows great tenacity to get back on his feet quickly, then even better composure to slot the ball past the keeper and inside the near post. It’s a nice moment for Hulk, for whom justified criticism has too often become unwarranted contempt in some quarters.

Hulk goal

Another fun little observation: after the goal, Dunga and his son exchanged a few words, leading to a wry smile from the manager. I’m probably way off base, but I almost wonder if Dunga’s son was pointing out that Danilo’s pass was the kind of thing Dunga used to do on a regular basis.

16’ – Fernandinho receives the ball in the center circle, then immediately spreads wide to Lucas Lima on the right flank. Fernandinho continues his run and is rewarded with the return pass. Once inside the box, he blasts a shot at Pemberton’s near-post, but Pemberton makes the save. A quarter of an hour in and Brazil has dominated proceedings so far, mostly through quick, simple attacks launched from wide positions that Costa Rica seem ill-equipped to handle.

38’ – Brazil break up a Costa Rican attack, and then play another ball over the top to Hulk, who finds himself 1v1 in acres of space. The Porto Hulk – and maybe even the Zenit Hulk – would either outrace his marker or try a cannon shot from distance, but the Brazil Hulk takes too long to make a decision, losing both his footing and the ball. Meanwhile, in a universe parallel to ours, their Hulk ends the move by ripping a hole in the net, causing a delirious Galvao Bueno to describe him as the second coming of Adriano.[1]

48’ – Marcelo carries the ball up the field, then plays a 1-2 with Hulk, whose perfectly timed thru-ball may be considered worthy of the parallel-universe Hulk. Unfortunately, Marcelo’s first touch is heavy, and takes him too close to the goal-line. He still manages to get off the shot, but it flashes harmlessly across the face of goal.

49’ – One of Lucas Lima’s better moment. He cuts in from the right-hand side, then slips a pass over to Hulk. Hulk manages to hold off two defenders, but instead of shooting with his right foot, he shifts back onto his favored left, which forces him to rush – and ultimately scuff – his shot.

52’ – Good pressure by Douglas Costa forces keeper Pemberton into an ill-advised pass. It’s intercepted by Marcelo, who dances around one marker before surging into the box. He beats another defender, then shoots with his right foot almost on the penalty spot. Sadly, the shot is weak and easily saved.

56’ – Costa Rica scores, but the goal is disallowed thanks to an incorrect offside call. Brazil’s back-line was a shambles, with Danilo and Miranda both well ahead of David Luiz and Marcelo. The breach between the latter two (more on this in a moment) is identified by both Ruiz and Venegas. The former makes the run, the latter makes the pass, and both defenders, who had been caught ball watching, are left for dead.

67’ – Dunga makes two significant and timely changes, with Coutinho and Kaka coming on for Lucas Lima and Hulk. The latter two had their moments, but never really dominated the flow of the match. Meanwhile, Kaka creates an immediate uptick in tempo thanks to his relentless “pass, move, and receive” style of play.

74’ – The ball is played over to Danilo on the right. Kaka, in what appears to be a false 9 type of role, identifies the narrowness of Costa Rica’s back line.  He immediately breaks into space, calling for the ball as he does so. Danilo obliges. Making it all the way to the goal line, Kaka waits, waits, then squares the ball to the onrushing Douglas Costa, whose first-time shot is saved brilliantly by Pemberton.

Kaka cross

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

77’ – Costa’s powerful run into the box results in a goal, but is negated by yet another dubious offside call.

78’ – Kaka and Coutinho combine expertly in and around the box, but Kaka’s attempt to chest the ball down is a tad heavy and he can’t get the shot off.

85’ – More dancing around the box. Kaka ends up playing in Neymar, who, like Hulk, takes too long to make a decision and the opportunity is lost.

87’ – Kaka and Neymar combine. The latter sets up Coutinho, who miscontrols at the vital second.

Tactical Themes

  • Brazil’s running does most of the damage. Until Kaka’s inclusion, Brazil’s attacks were primarily based around quick, simple moves down the flanks. On the right, this was done by Willian. On the left, Douglas Costa and Marcelo shared the responsibility. Either way, the game plan seemed to be to get the ball to the wide players as quickly and as high up the pitch as possible, so they could run directly at and past any instances of single coverage. Sheer pace was Brazil’s most effective weapon.
  • On a related note, Brazil looked far more comfortable in wide positions than in the center for the first 60 minutes. This has been an increasing trend for years now, and one I’ve already written about at length. Things changed somewhat once Kaka and Coutinho came on. Because both players’ games are based on excellent control and quick decision making, rather than sheer pace, they are far more willing to probe the center than anyone else. In addition, both players are aggressive movers[2], which is the best way to keep the ball circulating at a fast tempo. It was interesting to compare their movement to, say, Lucas Lima, who was not always as quick to move into space diagonally off the ball.
  • Poor decision-making in the final third. On many occasions, Hulk, Douglas Costa, and Neymar all took too long to decide what to do. Even worse were the occasions when all these players, plus Willian, either ignored or didn’t realize they had teammates available on the overlap who were in far better positions to shoot. As cohesion and chemistry in the final third was one of the hallmarks of Dunga’s first go-around, I expect this to improve as Dunga re-settles on a new first choice XI.
  • Defensively, Brazil were rarely troubled. That said, I hope Dunga noticed that the combination of David Luiz and Marcelo is a dangerous one. Neither had a bad game, but throughout the match, most of Costa Rica’s best attacks came by exploiting the seam between the two players. Both are capable of making last-ditch tackles and vital clearances, but their concentration and positioning are too often suspect. Maybe it’s their hair?

Five-a-Side

(Five players who stood out, either positively or negatively)

  1. Marcelo – I don’t trust him at left-back, not against top-level competition. He’s proven time and time again that he can be a defensive liability, and unlike Roberto Carlos, his offensive contributions have never been enough to offset his defensive weaknesses. But he does have some undeniable qualities: pace and dribbling. He used both to good effect, carrying the ball forward with real authority and carving out several excellent chances for himself.

Quick tangent.  If I were to make a list of Brazil’s best dribblers, it would go something like this:

Close control: Coutinho, Lucas Moura, Marcelo, Dani Alves

Improvisation: Neymar, Marcelo, Firmino

Speed: Neymar, Marcelo, Lucas Moura, Douglas Costa

Only Marcelo makes all three categories for me. Which means that, if I were manager, I would give serious consideration to making Neymar my false nine and Marcelo my left-winger. Of course, there’s no guarantee it would work. After all, there’s a real difference between having to out-dribble defenders consistently, which is what attackers have to do, and having to out-dribble midfielders occasionally, which is what attacking left-backs have to do. But it still might be worth a try.  A left flank consisting of both Filipe Luis and Marcelo looks very solid to me, in both attack and defense.

  1. Willian – In the first half, Willian was probably the closest thing Brazil had to a talisman…in other words, the one player all the other players looked to more than anyone else. But it’s a role he’s simply not suited for. He has Neymar’s annoying habit of standing over the ball, made worse by the fact that it’s even less likely to lead to anything good. Some of his passes were downright atrocious, especially in Brazil’s own half. Most frustrating of all is his tendency to constantly move toward the ball instead of off it. The majority of the time, it only serves to stall a potentially good build-up.

Willian is a very useful player, especially when you surround him with better talent. But he’s also a limited player who tends to think that he’s better than he is. I actually don’t have a problem with him continuing to start, as long as I know there’s plenty of other, more technical players surrounding him. I get a little uncomfortable describing a player as a “work horse”, because it tends to function solely as a pejorative, but I’ll make an exception here. One or two work horses in a herd of thoroughbreds is a very useful thing. But right now, we have far more of the former than the latter. Until that changes, I’d rather see Lucas Moura, Douglas Costa (in his more natural position) or even Felipe Anderson be given the chance to show what they can do.

  1. Hulk – He got the goal, and was involved in two or three other chances. He also displayed the kind of heavy-footed awkwardness for which he has become infamous.

Matches like this convince me that my “Wither Hulk” article still holds true. I think Hulk has value – but as a situational player. Bring him on in the second half when the other team starts to tire. His energy, pace, and directness would create a nice Plan B for Brazil, while relieving him of the responsibility of having to provide anything more. The strength and tenacity he displayed against Costa Rica should never be dismissed, but since he’s clearly a square peg in a round hole, why not keep him in reserve until the moment a square peg is needed?

  1. Douglas Costa – A game of two halves for the Bayern Munich man. In the first half, he was predictable, selfish, and clearly overly anxious to impress. The result? A lot of unforced errors. It didn’t help that he was being played out of position.[3]  In the second half, as Costa Rica tired and the game opened up, he became far more effective. His pace and aggressiveness made him uncontainable in 1v1 situations, and he could have, should have, scored a brace. So which half is more indicative? Frankly, the answer is “both.” After years of watching him play in Ukraine, I can confidently say that neither half surprised me. He can look one-dimensional one match and absolutely devastating the next, all without changing a thing.  At Shakhtar, Costa was very much a barrel of raw goods. Sometimes, the operative word was raw. Other times, you got the goods.

Right now, Costa looks an even better candidate for the “super sub” role than Hulk…it will be interesting to see if Guardiola can transform him into something more.

  1. Kaka – Within two minutes of coming onto the pitch, you could see Kaka brought a more collective mindset that almost no one else on the team had. He moved without the ball. He played with his head up and exploited space. His first touch was assured, his decision-making quick and intelligent. His legendary pace is gone, but his understanding of the fundamentals remains as strong as ever.

It’s unfortunate that we have to rely on a 33-year-old has-been to demonstrate these fundamentals, but that’s where we are. Moving forward, it may not be a bad idea for Kaka to be retained, less for what he does on the pitch and more for the example he sets…an example that everyone can benefit from. I don’t think for a second that he can start and play 90 good minutes against a team like Chile or Argentina. But if his inclusion means the team learns how to play more intelligently and cohesively against the Paraguays of the world? That’s worth a roster spot to me.

He’ll never go down as a Seleção legend, but Kaka remains my favorite player post-Ronaldo. It was good to see him put on the yellow shirt again.


 

[1] In that universe, Brazil never rested Leonidas against Italy in 1938, never conceded a second goal against Uruguay in 1950, never saw Careca get hurt in the build-up to 1982, and slipped Ronaldo a Xanax on the eve of the final in 1998. It’s a pretty nice place, that parallel universe.

[2] In Coutinho’s case, he’s unfortunately NOT as aggressive with his movement as he is for Liverpool. When in red, Coutinho is like a bird, darting and hyperactive, always looking to find little pockets of space to receive the ball. For Brazil, this is only occasionally the case.

[3] When both Costa and Willian played together at Shakhtar, Costa clearly favored the right wing and Willian the left. So why did Dunga do the opposite?