My first article in over 1.5 years!
Since Tite took over the reins of the national team, how has the Seleção scored? Are they primarily a counter-attacking team, a la Dunga in 2010? Do they rely heavily on pressing and half-counters, like Scolari did until he and the entire squad dissolved into a nervous wreck?
Or has Tite brought back the intricate passing rhythms of Brazil’s golden age?
No, no, and no.
It was an interesting exercise, going back to analyze how Tite’s Brazil scored their goals. To be honest, the results were not quite what I expected. In my mind, I expected to find that half-counters were largely responsible for many goals, but the opposite turned out to be the case.
Here’s a breakdown of the 29 non-penalty goals Brazil scored in qualifiers after Tite took over:
Now, before you draw any conclusions from this, there are a few things to note:
- Obviously, the sum of the graph’s values equal more than 29. That’s because some goals could legitimately fit under multiple categories.
- Quick definition of terms:
Counter: The opposing team has advanced the ball into Brazil’s half, committing numbers forward, only for Brazil to thwart their attack and then swiftly attack in response.
Example: Neymar’s goal vs Colombia
Half-Counter: The opposing team has possession of the ball in their own half or around the halfway line, only for Brazil to steal the ball (often, but not always, through pressing), and attack swiftly in response.
Example: Filipe Luis’ goal vs Bolivia
Possession: For the purposes of this article, I’m defining possession as a longer build-up to a shot involving at least two passes that are solely for the purpose of keeping possession of the ball rather than to penetrate or get past the opposition’s defense. Now, before anyone goes crazy here, wondering how in the hell Brazil scored 11 goals through possession, there’s an extremely important distinction between how Brazil uses possession and how, say, Spain uses it. This category is very important, and we’ll return to it in a minute.
Example: Marcelo’s goal vs Paraguay
Quick Attack/Other: A nebulous area, but defined here as any rapid movement leading to a shot that doesn’t fit any of the first three categories. For instance, an attack off a throw-in, goal-kick, etc.
Example: Neymar’s goal vs Argentina
Opponent’s Mistake: The goal came as a direct result of the opponent’s mistake – a cheap giveaway, a heavy touch, the keeper spilling a save, etc. Note that this can be combined with one of the other categories.
Example: Gabriel Jesus’ goal vs Peru
Okay, let’s talk about possession.
In a sense, we can think of possession as both a state and an action. Any time a player has the ball at his feet, his team is technically in possession. That’s a state, completely independent of any context or nuance like style, philosophy, etc. Even a counter-attack is still technically possession.
One of the most revolutionary developments in football over the past few decades is the idea of possession as a specific objective. A team may want to keep the ball as a defensive measure, since their opposition can’t score if they don’t have the ball. A team may want to keep the ball for offensive reasons, ignoring more immediate routes to a shooting attempt in favor of gradually stretching or draining the defense until a clear-cut opportunity presents itself. A team might also want to keep the ball as a delaying tactic.
In this sense, possession is an action. It’s purposeful.
In the context of this article, the category of possession encompasses both definitions. The eleven goals listed under this category came from when Brazil were in possession of the ball, but not engaged in a counter, half-counter, or some other type of direct attack. Furthermore, each of these eleven goals were preceded by at least 1-2 passes that were not designed to advance the ball, but rather to retain it. An action and a state. Make sense?
Alright, now here’s why this is important. In the years since Guardiola took over Barcelona, the idea of possession as an action has come to be synonymous with long, drawn-out moves involving multiple players exchanging dozens of passes. Think tiki taka. But as we know, there are many ways to incorporate possession into your team’s style of play. For example, Germany is widely considered a possession-based team, but they apply their own variation distinct from the Spanish model.
How Brazil uses possession is key to understanding the way they score.
It takes technique and intelligence to keep possession of the ball. Players must have good touch, good passing, good vision, good movement, good understanding of patterns and space, good organization, good chemistry with each other, etc. What Tite has emphasized – at least in theory – is the ability to employ these traits, especially the last two. This allows them to possess the ball with greater comfort and success than their predecessors. Again, in theory.
Where Brazil stand out is that they only use possession as long as necessary and not a second longer. The moment any opportunity to attack arises, Brazil tend to take it. (Note that I am, of course, excluding completely speculative opportunities.)
Think of it like this. Imagine you’re playing a variation of whack-a-mole. Each mole is worth one point, except for one particularly elusive varmint worth ten. We’ll call this the golden mole. If you get to ten points, you win the game, so if you whack the golden mole, you win instantly. But there’s a catch. If you hit any of the other moles, you can’t hit the golden mole anymore.
Brazil don’t believe in waiting for the golden mole. The first mole they see, they whack.
That’s because the single most dominant aspect of Brazil’s philosophy is not possession, or counter-attacking, or pressing.
Fifteen Seconds or Less
Back in the mid-2000s, the Phoenix Suns of the NBA were famous for employing a style known as “Seven Seconds or Less.” This means they tried to shoot within seven seconds of gaining possession.
Tite’s Brazil isn’t quite as extreme, but they do employ their own variation, scoring a plurality of their goals within fifteen seconds or less of gaining possession.
Here’s a breakdown:
Yes, Brazil scored almost 35% of their non-penalty, non-set piece goals in 10 seconds or less. They scored just over 30% of their open play goals in fifteen seconds or less. Add it all up, and Brazil’s average time to a goal was approximately 15 seconds.
Now, Brazil are far from the only side that scores most of their goals quickly, of course. In fact, most teams score their goals relatively quickly. But since Tite took over, no other national team scored as many goals as quickly and with as much variety as the Seleção did. Brazil aren’t necessarily different than anyone else; they just do what they do better than anyone else. At least statistically.
Look at the first chart again.
Few teams can match Brazil’s pace on the counter and their ability to quickly turn possession into attack. Few teams can match how fast, ruthless, and opportunistic Brazil are. (The opportunism is largely reflected in how many goals came off opponents’ mistakes.)
Jogo bonito…or jogo prático?
So what about the aesthetics of it all? How beautiful do Brazil look when they score?
Beauty is subjective, of course, but if we consider team creativity, technique, and interplay to be major facets of beauty, Brazil has undeniably scored some gems:
For Tite’s Brazil, though, beauty is secondary. Again, speed and opportunism are far more important. This Brazil isn’t a team of dancers, or artists, or samba musicians. They’re cheetahs – swift and deadly and aiming to kill in as short of time and with as little wasted energy as possible.
The proof is in the numbers:
# Players Involved
|Total Passes||Passes in Attacking Half||Time to Goal|
Here is the average number of players involved in each build-up to a goal, the total number of passes, number of passes in the attacking half, and the time to goal. It should be noted that the time to goal is affected by three outlier goals: Coutinho’s goal vs Bolivia, which took 34 seconds, Marcelo’s goal against Paraguay, which took 48, and Coutinho’s goal vs Ecuador, which took 42. (Note these are the “gems” mentioned earlier.) Remove those outliers and Brazil’s average time to goal is about 12 seconds. To me, this goal is more emblematic of how Brazil scores than any of those three.
What can we learn from this? Again, it emphasizes how Brazil use speed of play to score goals. As few people as possible, in as little time as possible. There are few elaborate build-ups that go from one box to another; almost everything starts and ends in the opponent’s half.
The conclusion? Brazil is a deadly team that can hurt you at almost any time, in a variety ways, with little notice. Brazil is a predator.
But of course, this also presents a problem.
It’s one thing to utilize speed and opportunism.
It’s another to be dependent on it.
I’ve come at this from a largely positive angle, but, like most philosophies, Brazil’s is a double-edged sword. Rewatching the matches, especially towards the tail end of the campaign, affirmed what I already knew: Brazil can get bogged down, and when they do, they’re in trouble. Despite a few outliers, the longer the build-up, the less likely they are to score. Swamp the midfield, and Brazil will quickly begin to show a lack of imagination, passing, and movement. (This is why some of us have been screaming for a more technical midfield, with players who can break the lines when things get staid.) When this happens, the symptoms are easy to spot: a lot of back-passes, and a lot of long balls.
And no Lucio to break the monotony.
This is a real issue, because the World Cup has become infamous for slow, combative, WWI-on-the-Western Front-type games. Most teams, especially the weaker ones, will do all they can to turn the midfield into trench warfare. Brazil has the ability to break the stalemate at any time, but what about when things get tense, nerves get frayed, and Neymar goes Dark Side?
We’ll find out next week.
A few random notes
- Despite the concerns mentioned above, it should be noted that most of Brazil’s longer, more intricate buildups took place toward the end of the campaign. In fact, Neymar’s recent goal against Croatia was the climax of probably the longest build-up Brazil has enjoyed under Tite. Does that mean Brazil are getting better at it, or are they merely getting bogged down more? Honestly, I think it might be a litle of both.
- As the first chart showed, Brazil rely heavily on opponent’s mistakes. (This is the single biggest area where Paulinho shines. Many of his goals have come less from the ball falling kindly to him after a mistake in the box. He works in mysterious ways.) Again, this is both a good and bad thing. Brazil are good at forcing opponents into mistakes, but what happens when they come up against a top-tier side like Spain who are less likely to make them?
- While Brazil will sometimes resort to long balls when things get bogged down, they don’t score from them very often. Only 5 of their 29 open-play goals featured a long-ball.
- Brazil also don’t score often from long-distance shots. 6 of their 29 open-play goals came from outside the box. Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus each had two; Paulinho and Willian, one apiece.
- Brazil do make frequent use of wide areas, however. While only 6 goals came from a cross or a squared ball, many of Brazil’s goals came from a wide player cutting inside, or a wide player sucking up the attention, then sliding the ball centrally to a runner, which then led to a goal a few seconds later.
Final Thought: The Critical Importance of Neymar
This deserves more attention, but I’m out of time and out of words.
Neymar’s goal against Croatia should have snapped a delusion that too many pundits were showing of late: that Brazil were somehow less dependent on Neymar.
While it’s true that Brazil did have some good showings without their talisman, the proof of his influence is, again, in the numbers.
Of the 31 qualifying goals Brazil scored under Tite, Neymar was heavily involved in a whopping 58%. What do I mean by involved? On some, Neymar scored. On others, he assisted. And on many, many others, it was a Neymar pass or a Neymar run that completely opened up the defense. He may not have shown up on the scoresheet, but without his genius, the goal probably doesn’t happen.
- Neymar’s first-time pass to Coutinho for the latter’s goal against Argentina
- Neymar’s reverse pass to Marcelo for Gabriel Jesus’ first goal against Ecuador
- Neymar’s control and one-two with Marcelo for the latter’s goal against Paraguay
We saw it at Barcelona, we see it at PSG, and we see it for Brazil: Neymar affects the game in so many ways. He can score from set pieces and from open play; he can pick a defense apart with a brilliant through-ball or an incredible run; he can break the lines with a first-touch pass or with off-the-ball movement.
While I still think Lionel Messi is the best overall player in the world, no one, and I mean no one, affects the game in as many different ways as Neymar does. Brazil don’t just need him to score or make plays; they need the gravity he provides on the field. They need the instantaneous bits of magic or invention he provides that can turn a stalemate into checkmate.
You know what I think of most when I watch how Brazil score?
Futsal is played on a small pitch with a small number of players. Goals often to come from fast, blink-and-you’ll-miss it moments of genius from only one or two players – the magical dribble, the backheel, the flick-on. And that’s how Brazil plays when they are at their best. I don’t mean in terms of flair, but in terms of using as few players as possible, with as few passes as possible, in as little time as possible, all in as small an area of the pitch as possible. Given how many of our players grew up playing futsal – Neymar, Coutinho, Marcelo, etc. – this is at best, fitting; at worst, inevitable. But whether it’s a good thing or a bad, when you watch Brazil, you’re watch futsal on the field.
Spain kill you with a flood of possession. Germany, with masterly precision.
Brazil is a lightning bolt, striking fierce, fast, and hot.
Whether lightning will strike for a sixth time this summer remains to be seen.
If you want to see the raw data used to write this article, click here. If you decide to double-check my work, I can’t guarantee I didn’t make any mistakes…but I doubt I made so many as to negate what I’ve written here.
 As I will never stop saying, the idea that Dunga transformed Brazil into a counter-attacking team is wildly simplistic. First, Brazil have always, always, always used counter-attacks as a major weapon. When your players are faster and more skillful than anyone else, why wouldn’t you? Second, Dunga’s Brazil kept possession of the ball far better than they were given credit for. Still, it’s true that Dunga’s team were more reliant on counters than previous iterations, hence the reputation.
 This metaphor brought to you by the episode “Blueprint for Armageddon” from Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, which I am currently listening to. If you’ve never listened to Carlin’s podcasts before, I highly recommend it; they’re fucking brilliant.
 On the other hand, Brazil’s goal against Germany in their recent friendly came against a completely unforced error by Germany, showing that even the top sides can make them.