We enter the third and final match of group play with two teams needing a win.  Serbia, for any hope of qualification.  Brazil, to secure qualification – and as a balm for their own wounded psyche.

I don’t know if Brazil’s first 135 minutes of this World Cup were the worst of this century or not, but it felt like it.  The team’s start in 2014 was very poor, but that team created more concrete chances against Croatia and Mexico than this one did against Switzerland and Costa Rica.  In 2010, Brazil huffed and puffed far more than they should have against North Korea, but at least scored two very fine goals – including an all-time great by Maicon – before Luis Fabiano demolished Côte d’Ivoire.

2006 was also a rough start, with a distinctly average Brazil needing a golaço from Kaka to defeat Croatia, and scruffy goals from Adriano and Fred (!) to vanquish Australia.  But to my memory, at least, it was still better than what we saw for most of the match against Switzerland and the awful first 45 against Costa Rica.  In 2002, Brazil had to come from behind to beat Turkey, but the second half was relatively comfortable.  In the second match, they brushed aside a mediocre China squad before not-quite romping their way to the title.  

Slow starts, it seems, are a Thing for Brazil, which may be a comforting thought at the moment.  On the other hand, Brazil lost in ’06, ’10, and ’14.  Lately, a slow start has not augured well.

And of course, there’s this chart.  

This is a graph of Brazil’s performances under Tite.  The good news is that the defense has stayed consistently impressive throughout, never shipping more than 1 goal, and that but rarely.  The bad news is that Brazil’s attack peaked early on against Bolivia, and has been going downhill ever since.  (Even the most recent spikes in goals came in friendlies against the likes of Russia and Austria.)

It’s hard not to escape the feeling that for all of Tite’s virtues, for all the confidence and organization he brought to the team, his influence on the team’s attack has been…overstated.  Brazil scored a LOT of goals early on when the entire team was buoyed by:

  • A new change in direction
  • Victory at the Olympics
  • Neymar and Gabriel Jesus’ form
  • Paulinho looking at the calendar and seeing it wasn’t a World Cup year.

Worrisome signs started creeping up towards the end of qualifying – I remember a particularly ugly feeling after a late draw with Colombia.  And so far in this World Cup, Brazil have yet to show any kind of consistent tactical game-plan other than hoping the team’s left side will bail out its right.

But then the team came roaring out of the gates during the second half against Costa Rica, and hope – horrible, fickle hope – began to stir.

(Image by the great Michael Caley.)

As Caley put it, “Brazil mostly seem fine.”  They created a some good chances, upped the tempo of play dramatically, Tite nailed his subs AND his half-time talk, and Brazil got the victory.

Of course, it still took them until extra time to score, and the key figure in Brazil’s second half, Douglas Costa, is now injured, and Neymar and Coutinho have yellow cards and Marcelo brought his hair but not his brain when he left Ukraine, and Thiago Silva’s feelings are hurt, and Neymar’s still a dick, but maybe now that he’s scored the floodgates will open, but Tite’s still going to stick with his usual starting XI, and man, I don’t even fucking know.

Here’s Julie Andrews’ take:

Okay, here’s what I really think

Let’s start with Serbia.  They’re desperate for a result, and they also smell blood.  For the first time, Brazil will be playing a team who wants to score as badly as they do.

I’m no expert on Serbia, but the way I see it, they will approach this match in one of two ways.

  1. Serbia packs the midfield and tries to close down central passing lanes, forcing Casemiro, Paulinho, and Coutinho into an endless procession of back-passes.  Brazil, becoming ever more impatient, start trying to force feed balls to Neymar and Gabriel Jesus with their back to goal.  This results in Brazil giving the ball away cheaply in dangerous areas, allowing Serbia to then quickly target the space between the full-backs so they can get beyond Brazil’s back-line and send in crosses.
  2. Serbia, feeling the pressure themselves, adopt a more attacking style of play from the jump in hopes of taking the lead. (They definitely don’t want to let Brazil get ahead.)  Brazil will withstand most of their attacks, but the moment Brazil win possession, Serbia will implement counter-pressing to get the ball back.  Their hope here, I would assume, is to try to get an ever more beleaguered Brazil to foul them, knowing the more set pieces they win, the more likely they are to score.

Either way, I expect Brazil to win this game.  But I think they’ll have a much easier time of it if Serbia go with tactic #2.  Serbia isn’t really built for such a style, because as we saw against Switzerland, they don’t quite have the organization for it.  Spaces will open up for Brazil to exploit – and punish.

Tactic #1 will be harder, and will probably make for a nervy opening half.  But I think Tite is prepared for this, and it’s probably what he had in mind when he scheduled the friendly against Croatia.  It will require patience and calm for Brazil – easier said than done – but ultimately, I think their superior quality will win out.

It sure as hell better.

A few other things I think will happen:

  1. Neymar will play moderately better.  He won’t look like a world beater yet, but scoring against Costa Rica will bring some much-needed calm.  And while I still remain true to my convictions that he’s better in a more centralized role, this is the one match where the team might be better served with him on the left.  Serbia is such a big, centrally-oriented team, Neymar drifting into the middle might just clog things up further.  If he stays on the left, Neymar will be going up against Ivanovic, who hasn’t had the best of seasons.
  2. Paulinho will score.  If Serbia use Tactic #1, Brazil will need to capitalize on the few chances they’re likely to create in the first half…and Paulinho’s burly strength and predilection for secondary runs could be just the ticket.  Having said this, I will now light myself on fire.
  3. Coutinho will have his worst match of the group stage.  Serbia will be physical with him, and Coutinho will have a tough time finding time and space on the ball.

Two things that MUST happen:

  1. No stupid fouls in dangerous areas!  Just as it was Sweden’s undoing, so too could it be Brazil’s.  Casemiro is going to have to be on point in this match, and as much as I love him, I wouldn’t let Fernandinho within ten feet of the pitch.
  2. The full-backs must be dialed in defensively.  When it comes to defending crosses, not all of the onus is on the center-backs.  The full-backs must work extremely hard to block as many crosses as possible, or at least rush them.  The more time Serbia has to pick out their crosses, the more accurate they’ll become…and the nervier our center-backs will get.  (While I’m always worried about Marcelo, I’m really worried about Fagner in this match.  How I curse the day Fabinho became a defensive midfielder.)
  3. Tite needs to watch a few courtroom dramas and feel-good sports films tonight.  His team talk must get the entire squad fired up.  No more slow starts, no more fearful mindsets.  Go out and send a warning to all the other contenders: Brazil may cry, but they don’t cower.

Looking Ahead

If Brazil win against Serbia – and yes, it is an “if” – they will be up against a murderer’s row of opponents.  But they just might have the right setup to get through.    As disappointed as I am in Brazil’s attack, Tite has built a rock-solid defensive spine in Casemiro-Thiago Silva-Miranda-Alisson.  Other pre-tournament favorites, like Germany, Spain, and Argentina, can’t say the same.  And in the World Cup, defense tends to win championships.

(Should that prove the case here, Tite will be hailed as a saint.  Carlos Alberto Parreira and the entire ’94 team, however, will still be looked on as sinners, proving once again that timing is everything in sports.)

What can I say.  Hope is a powerful drug.