First things first, since I probably won’t bother to create a separate match thread for Brazil vs. El Salvador, here’s the brief program notes for that.

Brazil vs. El Salvador

FedEx Field, Landover, MD, USA

Kickoff: 8:30 PM EDT / 9:30 PM BRT / 12:30 AM GMT

US TV: beIN Sports (surprisingly, this preempts Argentina vs. Colombia, which is happening at the same time)

US Streaming: ditto

Starting Lineup: Neto; Éder Militão, Marquinhos, Dedé, Alex Sandro; Casemiro, Arthur, Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa, Neymar; Richarlison

Alright, cool. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: did I mention that I was at the game last night? Well, I was at the game last night:

You’ll notice a lot of empty seats in that photo, especially in the upper rows. Attendance was a disappointing 32,489, in a stadium that can hold 82,500. I think this is the worst crowd I’ve ever seen at MetLife stadium. I chalk it up to the organizers cranking up the prices because the Americans were playing: tickets were about 50% more expensive than for the Argentina-Colombia match happening in this same stadium on Tuesday. That might explain why the Brazilians, who get far fewer chances to see their team near New York, seemed like they outnumbered the Americans in the stands.

I got there early enough to watch the goalies, and later the whole team, come out for warmups. One moment that really stuck with me was when Hugo, Flamengo’s 19-year-old ‘keeper, came out onto the pitch for the first time with the other goalies to a huge cheer from all the Brazilians in the crowd. He approached the stands and you could see on his face just how exciting and significant it was for a young player to be part of the Seleção—for any player to be part of the Brazil team for the first time.

Warmups went much as you’d expect: a combination of shooting drills and passing rondos, with the starting and reserve outfield players working separately from each other. The rondos, especially the ones the reserves did, were particularly fun, since the players were pulling out all sorts of flicks and feints. Here’s two minutes, in which the starting XI play 5v5 on a reduced pitch and then practice their shooting, while the reserves have fun in the rondo:

Eventually it was time for the national anthems. You can’t hear it much on the broadcast, but the fans gave a proper singalong to Brazil’s anthem. For once, the folks at the stadium played the whole thing instead of cutting it short halfway through and making the crowd keep singing it a cappella.

Onto the game itself, which… didn’t really live up to expectations. Here are my main takeaways:

In Games Like This, The Only Thing That Can Hold Back Brazil Is… Brazil

On the whole, it was kind of a limp performance from Brazil. We started pretty solidly, scored, let off the throttle after that, ramped things up again toward the end of the first half, scored again, and then just cruised through the rest of the game—which was particularly disappointing since I was sitting at the opposite end from where the goals were scored. We controlled the game, had 65% possession, and won comfortably, 2-0. All of which is fine… except it really felt like doing the absolute minimum given the circumstances. 10 of the 11 starters, after all, were part of the World Cup squad and were thoroughly familiar with Tite’s system and each other, we were up against an extremely young US side under a caretaker coach, and we put four goals past better US sides in each of our last two meetings. For long stretches, especially in the second half, we were content to knock the ball around the back, rather than look for a goal, and throughout the game there were many, many occasions when we got the ball into a good position, the player on the ball had to check back, and rather than try to pick a pass to someone ahead of or level with him, he would just send it back to Casemiro or the center-backs.

This is the safe strategy, sure, but Brazil is capable of so much more, and built its reputation on doing so much more. I didn’t come to watch Roberto Firmino tap in one cross and otherwise do very little, I didn’t come to watch Neymar roll home a penalty; I came to watch them put on a show and rip through an opposing team they’re more than good enough to beat by a wide margin. We got a dribbling show, and not enough else. Hopefully we see something a bit more goal-oriented against El Salvador on Tuesday.

Brazil’s Lack Of Verticality Is A Conscious, Disappointing Decision

One thing that became particularly apparent from where I was sitting was how the teams were spaced out, and, in turn, what passing angles were available. I noticed, throughout the game, that players were making themselves available to receive vertical passes in the middle of the park and weren’t receiving them. Here’s a picture of one example. Thiago Silva has at least two reasonably viable options for a pass that would substantially advance the ball, and maybe as many as four

I’ve illustrated his options below. He could play it straight forward to Casemiro (red arrow), who’s in a reasonable pocket of space to receive a pass that short, or to Neymar (green arrow), way out on the left. Alternately, he could potentially hoof it up to Douglas Costa (blue) way out on the right, or risk playing it over the top to Firmino (purple), who’s beyond Casemiro up front.

Instead, he played it straight left, to Filipe Luís. He, in turn, did play it forward, sending a good ball up the wing for Coutinho. But that was so often the story of Brazil’s play: vertical passes up the wings rather than up the middle of the park. Both Douglas Costa’s goal and the golden second-half chance he created for Neymar came from the defenders on his side, first Marquinhos and then Fabinho, playing the ball up to him. Those same sorts of passes could go to players in the center. We know full well that Marquinhos and Thiago Silva are good enough passers to supply the midfielders; they’re not playing those sorts of passes because the system doesn’t want them doing so. BrazilStats raised a similar point when talking about Fred:

Even if I have doubts about his overall game, Fred is a good vertical passer, and he showed very little of that last night. Playing deeper, as Stats suggested, might have helped, but Fred had his start as an attacking midfielder, and he can’t show that side of the game if he’s not ever given the ball when in space, and he didn’t get much of the ball last night—because this is still fundamentally the same team that didn’t play through the midfield because it knew that Paulinho wouldn’t do anything with the ball. Put someone better on the ball in his place and that doesn’t really change, as Fred and later Arthur proved. You have to supply them better, and adjust the team’s movement to match. (Similarly, it was funny to see how Filipe Luís slotted right into Marcelo’s role as one of the team’s primary playmakers from left-back.)

The other component of this is vertical passing to the forwards, which was in better supply last night, yes, but there were many times when a player would make a great run into space, perfect for a cross-field ball or launch over the top, and the player on the ball would just touch it back to his nearest teammate instead. (Even as good as Douglas Costa was, he was a particular victim of this; there were many points where I was surprised that nobody looked for him.) Many of the vertical passes were into the channels, where the recipient would often have a defender between him and the goal, rather than attempts to put someone clean through on goal (though there were several attempts to do that which didn’t find their target).

All in all, I’m reminded of one of Black Matt’s recent articles, where he noted that Tite’s Brazil tends to score after passing moves of 15 seconds or less. Games like last night’s suggest that a lot of that is simply because those are the cases where the team decides to push for a goal, rather than just pass it around safely. Against teams like the US, at least, we’re capable at any moment of turning it on, of finding an opening to unlock the defense. The opening goal last night came when, after several passes around the back, Marquinhos decided to give the ball to Douglas Costa, who had the whole right side open before him. Having that sort of capability, and choosing not to take advantage of it more regularly out of some abundance of caution, is just disappointing.

Tite Needs To Adjust His System To Suit The Players He Has

The system was probably the single thing least likely to change, given that Tite had a bunch of World Cup holdovers and only three days to work with them on the training ground, but it’s telling that, even with Firmino, Costa, a fully fit Neymar, and no Paulinho, the team still played… largely like it did at the World Cup. Vastly more dangerous down the right, sure, but still, organized, cautious about getting forward in numbers, a little too willing to sit back after taking the lead, letting the opponent get forward a fair bit without ceding many bona fide chances of note. (Also still shaky from set pieces, but let’s leave that to the side.) That is to say, as I mentioned earlier, that it’s not really going to matter who takes Paulinho’s spot if the team’s still geared around them not receiving the ball outside of the penalty area; it’s not going to matter how fit Neymar is if he and Coutinho are always squeezed into one corner of the pitch; it’s not going to matter whether Firmino or Gabriel Jesus starts when they’re both carry-the-ball-forward players in a system that seems to want someone who can play with his back to goal. All these fast, skillful players aren’t going to do much if the system doesn’t emphasize quickly getting them the ball when the opposing team is disorganized.

In fairness, there were glimmers elsewhere. Neymar spent more time in the center, though not enough to make any truly decisive plays through the middle. Costa and Fabinho were massively more effective on the right side than Willian and Fagner ever were. Everyone was constantly moving and rotating positions in a way that could yield huge dividends down the line. Tite has the time to change his system for the better. Remember how he started out with a fairly direct, counter-focused side where Neymar, Coutinho, and Gabriel Jesus were able to break forward quickly because they were all central and forward enough to interchange with ease when they had space, and then widened and slowed it down so that Coutinho could move to midfield and Willian start in his place on the right wing, and then the team started scoring less as a result? That worked out great! Just great! So well!

I Don’t Know What To Think About Coutinho

Coutinho produced some marvelous moments of individual skill last night, but little else. When his shooting boots aren’t on, and they weren’t, he really doesn’t offer that much. He’s not asked to produce the gorgeous through balls we know he’s capable of conjuring, so he ends up interchanging with Neymar on the left in a way that dramatically condenses the space on the pitch. Their combinations too rarely ever actually go anywhere, and when they do, it usually ends up putting them on the left side of the penalty area in a position where they’re facing so many defenders that only a remarkable bit of skill will result in a goal or even a shot on target. He’s an incredible talent, but in this setup, how much is he adding, other than the occasional golaço?

I really don’t think he works as a midfielder. He’s simply not enough of a creative force as a passer, despite his marvelous through balls (and how many of those have we seen for Brazil?); he contributes very little defensively; and he has to work by more players to get anywhere close to goal than he would when playing in attack. I think he was better, and the team was better, when he was played as a proper winger on the right, and even if we’re not likely to go back to that, I hope Neymar’s increase in play through the middle means we’ll one day see Coutinho tried as a left-winger with Neymar in the number 10 role.

Firmino Doesn’t Look Like The Answer

The opening goal felt like a symbolic rebuke of Tite’s choices at the World Cup. Douglas Costa, who should have started ahead of Willian, crossing for Firmino, who should have started ahead of Gabriel Jesus, to score the first goal of the new World Cup cycle? Pure poetry. But then the rest of the game happened, and while Costa continued to light up the wing, Firmino just… did nothing.

One of the things that becomes more apparent in person is the relative pace of players. And let me tell you, Bobby is slowwww. The word I’d use to describe his movement is “lumbering”. And his reactions in and around the box last night were also weirdly sluggish. There was one moment in the first half where he got the ball in the box in a position to maybe hit it first time, and instead trapped it and tried to spin, which got him dispossessed. Another moment in the second half saw him latch on to a through ball with a defender to beat, and he was neither quick enough to beat the defender nor sharp enough to spot Lucas Paquetá wide open in the middle.

Obviously, central to the problem is that Firmino is less a true number 9 than a second striker who thrives in systems where he can press the ball and play in quick, skillful forwards on the resulting breaks. Brazil’s press is nowhere as cohesive as Liverpool’s, and though I’d take Neymar and Costa ahead of Salah and Mané, their default positions are far wider. As a result, if Firmino picks up the ball in a deep position, he can’t play any incisive passes, because the wingers are too wide to be making the right sort of runs. He either has to pass straight to the side or try and run at the defenders himself, and he’s not great at that. In a way, he’s more similar to Gabriel Jesus than we sometimes like to think. He’s a bit taller and stronger, sure, and at the moment a better finisher, but he’s not much more of a target man or back-to-goal player, and he suffers in the same way in a system where the supporting players are stationed too wide to regularly combine with him.

This Team Needs Pacy Players

Like I said, watching in person really gives you a sense of who’s fast and who isn’t. And once again, this team finds itself full of slowpokes. Douglas Costa is the main exception, of course, but Neymar doesn’t yet seem to have fully recovered his extraordinary acceleration (or is too boxed-in to ever use it), and other than those two, there’s not a whole lot. Coutinho isn’t all that quick nor is dribbling at speed his strong suit, none of the new midfield talent is in anything like Kaká’s mold, and both fullbacks are pretty pokey. Filipe Luís is clearly past his prime, while Fabinho, though he did very well all-round for somebody who hadn’t played right-back in two years, just isn’t that fast. The likes of Arthur and Fred aren’t going to change the state of the midfield in this regard, and it’s not like we’ve got any truly quick center-forwards unless Neymar starts playing there, but we can definitely do better in the fullback department. Alex Sandro had better be starting before too long, and I’m really curious to see whether Éder Militão can offer more in this department than could Fabinho.

Willian Is Done

This is a gimme, sure, but it was incredibly apparent when he came on for Douglas Costa after a 15-minute spell to start the second half that was arguably Brazil’s best all game and the team pretty much ground to a halt. Some of that is because he didn’t play well, giving a really bland and timid half-hour, but it speaks more to the stylistic difference between our two right wingers. The basic game plan with Costa is very simple: give him the ball and a bit of space and he’ll carry it into a more dangerous position by virtue of his unbelievable speed. Willian, on the other hand, likes to stop, draw a defender close, and then burst past him, which is slower in general but particularly counterproductive in any situation where the opposing defense is stretched when he first receives the ball, since he stops to let them back in position. Brazil thrived by switching the play and finding Costa in space on the right, and when Willian came in, unable to exploit that space in the same way, and often not even looking to occupy it, everything went downhill in the attack.

Willian is still very popular with the fans—there was a big roar of excitement when he came on—but he is clearly, blatantly, not the sort of player Brazil needs right now. Going forward, Douglas Costa’s backup will have to be a lot more Douglas Costa-like.

Ugh, I Don’t Like Being Such A Downer

Even if the performance was less inspiring than hoped, there are still plenty of good things to take from this game. Willian and Paulinho were very much not missed. Fabinho gave a really good showing for having not played right-back in two years, and has justified his inclusion there at least in the short term. Arthur slotted right into the midfield. Everton looked very bright in his brief cameo. The team moved and interchanged in ways it didn’t do enough at the World Cup, even if the passing game wasn’t much for actually trying to pick out those runs.

Our next two games should be even easier than this one. Neither El Salvador, whom we face on Tuesday, nor Saudi Arabia, whom we face on October 12, have a good recent record nor a good historical one. Those should be good opportunities to give more playing time to the youthful talent in this side, even if the Neymar-Coutinho-Casemiro-Costa-Firmino core is likely to keep starting. More importantly, for me at least, they’re chances to rack up a statement victory, to demonstrate that Brazil can still put on a show instead of doing just about enough to win 2-0 every time. Even if it means little in the long term, beating El Salvador 4-0 or 5-0, perhaps with a couple goals from the likes of Richarlison and Lucas Paquetá, will have us all feeling a little better about the direction of this team.

Let’s close this out with the video I took of Neymar’s goal.