It’s late, I’m tired, and more than a little frustrated with the Seleção at the moment, so this might not be the most coherent article I’ve ever written.  But I do have a few thoughts on the match that I want to share, as I’ll be out for the rest of the week and won’t have a chance later.

So without further ado…

 1.  A deep line is a dead line

Like Brazil vs Uruguay, this was a game of two halves.  Actually, it was more a game of two faces:masks

As with Brazil vs Uruguay, both teams swapped masks after the home side went up 2-0.  As Brazil was the initial aggressor on Saturday, Paraguay was the instigator tonight.  Both teams looked to keep possession of the ball as much as possible, circulating well; both teams looked to get the ball down the flanks as quickly as possible to stretch the opposing defensive line; both teams scored two nice goals.

And then both teams got nervous.

Everyone knows that it’s easier to get to the top then stay at the top.  That it’s easier to be the hunter rather than the hunted.  Tonight, Paraguay made the same mistake Brazil made.  They went away from what was working.  Their defensive line started sliding deeper and deeper into their own half.  Their wide midfielders stopped looking to get forward.  Soon, four men behind the ball became eight, then nine, then ten.  Instead of seeking a win, it became a case of avoiding defeat.

In his autobiography, A Champion’s Mind, tennis great Pete Sampras explained that there is a difference between choking and freezing.  Choking is when your nerves get the better of you, preventing you from doing what you know you’re capable of.  Freezing, however, is worse.  Freezing is when your fear is so bad, you don’t even attempt to do what you know you’re capable of.  It’s the ultimate dear-in-the-headlights moment.

Freezing is especially liable to happen after you’ve let a dead opponent take a sniff at life.  As Sampras tells it:

When you let a guy off the hook, you might hear this little voice: You had him, you’re in trouble now…Don’t panic, but this is kind of scary…play safe…play aggressive…forget your game, listen to me we’ve got to do something! 

I think that’s what happened in both games.  Each team took their foot off the other’s throat, and when their victim started to rise, they froze up.  They start to play deeper and deeper, because it’s easier, safer.  They start hoofing the ball instead of playing it out of the back, because it’s easier, safer.  And in doing so, they sealed their own demise.

Beyond the psychological aspects of freezing, there are good tactical reasons why sitting deep is a bad idea in modern football.  It gives your opponent the time and space to build.  It allows them to come forward in numbers with less fear of a counter-attack.  It means subjecting yourself to more crosses, more shots, more set pieces.  And both common sense and football analytics has proven that more shots equals more goals.  It’s that simple.[1]

Of course, it’s possible to play a deep line successfully, but you have to be extremely well-drilled to pull it off for any great length of time.  There’s a reason even defensive-oriented clubs tend to try and play a little higher up the pitch than in older times.  But as Brazil and Paraguay have both learned to their cost, an extremely high line may be suicidal – but an extremely deep line is like handing your executioner the rope.

2.  The 90th minute is no more crucial than the 33rd

No minute, in fact, is more important the others.  What’s really important is the full 90 minutes.  That’s what separates the good players from the great.  Good players provide the odd moment of genuine quality; great players know that every moment counts.

That’s why it was so frustrating to see Dani Alves equalize late into stoppage time.  Because it colors the narrative.  Now, instead of being seen as having a howler, Dani Alves “came up big.”  Now, instead of the discussion being about how Dani Alves repeatedly left his teammates out to dry, it centers on how Dani Alves put his teammates on his shoulders.

None of this is to criticize Alves for scoring – it was a genuinely first-class moment of quality.  But it doesn’t erase everything that came before it.  To quote George RR Martin, a good act doesn’t wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good.  Each deserves its own reward.

For that timely goal, Dani Alves deserves praise.  But for his 89 minutes of utter crap, and all the mediocrity that came before it, he deserves to be dropped from the national team.  It’s harsh, but true.

Unfortunately, the brief moment of quality is all anyone remembers after the fact.  Dani Alves will undoubtedly stay on the team.

And by the way, if you’re wondering whether all of the above applies to Dunga, the answer is: of course it does.

3.  Thank you, destroyers, but your services are no longer required

The concept of a “destroyer” – a purely defensive midfielder designed to shield the defense – seems more and more archaic every month.  Such is the case with both Luis Gustavo and Fernandinho.  While it makes sense on paper to field such players, their actual performances suggest what many other clubs and national teams have already figured out: relying on specialists to do one very specific job is an outmoded way of playing football.

Ask yourself, what exactly are Gustavo and Fernandinho protecting?  Both are capable of good performances here and there – Gustavo was good for about 45 minutes against Uruguay, for example – but neither have been able to prevent opponents from tearing our back-line to shreds.  Neither has been able to defend without persistently fouling.

These days, defending is a collective discipline.  The team defends as a unit, or else it doesn’t defend at all.  Simply throwing in individuals on the field who specialize in defending will not a good defense make.

Similarly, attacking is a collective discipline.  And when you have players who can’t keep the ball, can’t distribute the ball, and can’t really control the ball (Fernandinho), then suddenly you are attacking with a much smaller collective.

There may be situations, of course, when you could see a Gustavo being needed on the bench.[2]  But for the bulk of a match, for the bulk of a qualifying campaign, for the bulk of a World Cup, you need as many two-way players as possible.  You need players who contribute on both sides of the ball.  You need a collective.

Specialists – destroyers especially – too often get in the way of the collective.  For a team like Real Madrid, which has a billion attacking midfielders, a destroyer might be necessary.  But that’s because those attacking midfielders don’t actually do much defending, making a specialist necessary.  But there’s a reason Barcelona are where they are and Madrid are where they are.  One has MSN and the other has BBC, yes, but just as importantly, one has a trio of two-way midfielders, while the other relies on one-way specialists.

It’s important to note I’m not suddenly calling for a midfield of three Coutinhos, or three Lucas Limas, or whatever.  I’m not trying to succeed where Madrid have recently failed.  I’m calling for a midfield of any three or four players who can pass and mark.  Am I asking for too much?  Maybe.  But if Spain can do it, and Germany can do it, and Chile can do it…

Why can’t Brazil do it?

By the way, if you’re wondering whether all of the above applies to static center forwards whose job is to shoot and little else, the answer is: of course it does.

4.  Yes, Brazil does miss Neymar.

Willian and Douglas Costa are very good players.  Willian especially has proven himself to be a hard-working, intelligent soldier.  But neither can consistently control the flow of a match.  Neither can consistently offer a goal-scoring – or goal-creating – threat.  Until Paraguay dropped deep and conceded 80-90% of the pitch to Brazil, Neymar’s absence was keenly felt.

Yes, Neymar has issues.  Yes, there are kinks to be worked out in regards to how Neymar interacts with his teammates on the pitch.  But talent is talent, and skill is skill, and Brazil is sorely lacking both.  Just as Brazil was better with Romario, for all his flaws, Brazil is better with Neymar.

Come back soon, Neymar.  Grow up fast, Neymar.

5.  Will the following individuals please leave the room?

Stay with me here, because I’m about to get weird.

  1. David Luiz – Hard-working, passionate servant, we find your mental attributes unequal to the task. For the moments of inspiration and drama you have provided, and for the uncomplaining service you have rendered, you may pick up your severance and leave by the front door.  But be quick about it – your unhappy contributions to the 7-1 have not been overlooked.
  2. Miranda – Oh ye who were called up just a few months too late! Sadly, late is not always better than never.  You were once a cog in a mighty rojiblancos machine.  But a little more art is needed now.  You may exit through the side door.
  3. Fernandinho – Oh ye whose prime was spent languishing in the wintry climes of the ancient Cossacks! Once, you and your native land might have made sweet music together.  For a very brief time, you did make sweet music.  But your prime has passed, your powers have faded, and all that was once good and wholesome in you has withered.  Oh guilty associate of the 7-1, you may leave by the back door, reflecting on that most bitter of questions: what might have been.
  4. Dani Alves – Oh ye whose prime was never as good as those in Barcelona would have us believe! ‘Tis a proud tradition of knight-errant right-backs whose position you have long sought to fill, but you will never have an honored place at their high table, methinks, being always more pyrite than gold.  Still, over 80 caps is nothing to sneeze at.  I begrudgingly give you leave to go out the front door.
  5. Ricardo Oliveira & Renato Augusto – I am not beguiled by your artful deceits, you twin pretenders! I see your goals for what they are: smoke and mirrors.  You both have done little wrong, perhaps, but are likewise incapable of doing much right.  Slink out the back, and let us see no more of you.
  6. Elias – Little have I to say to you, Corinthian, except damnatio memoriae. Look it up.

This concludes perhaps the most bizarre thing I have ever written on this site.  I have no idea why I wrote this section that way.  None.

6.  Lucas Lima might be the real deal

Perhaps I’m being too cautious by using the word “might”, but I’ve been burned before.  The moment he came in, Brazil started to look like an actual team.  His movement was sharp, active, aggressive.  A few wayward passes aside, I love how quick he is to release the ball, how much he improves circulation.  And I really like the way he dribbles: with the laces of his boot, always cushioning and cradling the ball with each touch.  Whereas Renato Augusto was often dispossessed, or looked like he was about to be, Lucas never seemed bothered by Paraguay’s pressure.

That he has exceptional vision, we already knew.

Steve, a frequent poster here, has opined that Lucas Lima is better than Coutinho.  I’m not sure if I agree with that – he’s certainly not more talented, and I can’t see him driving Liverpool like Coutinho does.  But I do think he’s more mature and intelligent than Coutinho is.  I also think he has a kind of quiet confidence that even the flamboyant Coutinho lacks.  When Coutinho comes into the game, he always seems like he’s trying to avoid mistakes.  Like he’s trying to blend in.  Lucas, on the other hand, looks to stand out.

That said, I see no reason why it has to be one or the other.  Both players are willing to track back and help out in defense (although both could stand to improve in this area.)  Coutinho favors the left side of the pitch, while Lucas is fine drifting more to the right.  Brazil needs – and can use – both.

But… (and there’s always a but)

I’m not quite ready to anoint Lucas Lima as a sure thing.  Because as good as he was tonight, we need to remember that he came in only after Paraguay went into their shell.  Would Lucas have been as effective in the first half?  I’m not saying the answer is “NO”, but I’m not sure it’s “YES” either.  Remember, Lucas started against Argentina, and while he scored a nice goal, his performance in the midfield wasn’t anything to write home about.  He didn’t get enough time against Chile to merit any kind of judgement, positive or negative.  His outing against Venezuela was bright and buzzing, but again, he came on in the second half, when Venezuela began to tire and space was to be found in plenty.

So I suppose what I’m asking is, how will he fare over the course of 90 minutes against top-tier, high-pressing opposition?

Again, I don’t know the answer.  As I said in this article, I really love the way he plays.  I love his mindset and his skill-set.  But I can’t shake the skepticism expressed in the aforementioned article.

In any event, this was unquestionably his best showing in a Brazil shirt thus far.  What is clear is that he should absolutely start the next game, which will be played at altitude against top-of-the-table Ecuador.  It will be a fine test.  And if he gets selected for the Copa America before that?  Even better.

7.  I should never forget that football is supposed to be fun

My son, Austin, is mad for football.  He loves to play it, watch it, read about it.  Many a happy hour have we spent discussing the finer points of how to ping a pass or who will win the Champions League.

But it hurts whenever we watch Brazil play.

When I was his age, I listened to my mom tell me stories of the great Brazil teams.  I grew up with the certain belief that Brazil would always be the best, would always win the World Cup, because my mother said so.  And for a time, it was true.

The first World Cup I ever watched live was in 1990, but I was young and I hardly remember it.  When 1994 came around, though, I paid attention.  I was transfixed.

And Brazil won.

By 1998 I had become a die-hard fan, and although my understanding of the finer tactical points of the game was still fairly basic, my passion was at an all-time high.  I knew Brazil would win the World Cup, just knew it…until they didn’t.

Still, as much as the loss hurt, they still reached the finals.

In 2002, well…we all know what happened.

Austin, however, has no such memories.  By the time he was born, the best days of Brazil’s second great era were long gone.

During the World Cup last year, Austin turned to me and said something I’ll never forget:

“I thought you said Brazil was the greatest team in the world.”

“Used to be, Austin, used to be,” I replied.  “Not anymore.

“Oh.  When will they be the best again?”

I didn’t have an answer for him, and I still don’t.  But, being young, and with no “good old days” to fall back on, Austin embraced Brazil anyway.

Fast forward to tonight.  For the first time in my life, a part of me rooted for Brazil to lose.

Austin had no such conflict.  He groaned at every Paraguay goal.  He cheered when Ricardo Oliveira scored.

And when Dani Alves equalized, he screamed.  He jumped up and down.  He high-fived both his brother and me.  He was ecstatic.  Brazil had rescued a point!  Brazil wasn’t going to lose!

He knows nothing and cares nothing of Dunga.  He neither knows nor cares that Ricardo Oliveira is 35.  All he sees are the yellow shirts.

And in doing so, he taught me a valuable lesson: football is supposed to be fun.

I don’t say this to scold anyone for hoping Brazil would lose – I did too.  I don’t suggest that we should all be like this, that we should all “embrace our inner child” or nonsense like that.  But for a few moments, seeing Austin made me feel like a kid again, too.

And it made me decide something.  My son will not be little forever.  One day he will be grown, and will move away, and we won’t have a chance to watch games like this anymore.  One day he will be probably be bitter, cynical, disappointed.  Much of the game’s simple magic will be gone.

So, as a father, I need to enjoy these moments while I can.  Between matches, I can be as frustrated and disillusioned as I please.  But when the game starts, with my son at my side…

I’m going to focus on the yellow shirts.

I’m going to enjoy the ride.


 

 

[1] Actually applying this wisdom is quite a bit more nuanced, as anyone working with such concepts as xG (expected goals) will tell you.

[2] Which is why I’m not calling for his dismissal from the squad; see thought #5.