Brazil – Serbia: Slow Samba Eventually Finds Its Rhythm (2-0)

A slow tempo had appeared by design. Brazil’s buildup faced a strong Serbian defensive block, geared to shut down avenues on their left side of the field. Tite needed an answer and had a trick up his sleeve, the groundwork for the fantasy Brazillian goal to be scored.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

After two shocks in two days, Brazil was determined to stay away from some of the contenders that had stumbled into the first hurdle. Tite’s team went into this World Cup with a flexible 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 system in place; foundations built around a slow passing tempo with plenty of rotation behind the opposition midfield line. Though passive in a high block, their strong counterpressing often saw Brazil retain long spells of possession. 

On paper, Serbia had all the attacking elements to test Brazil’s metal. A 90th-minute winner from Aleksandar Mitrović put Serbia on top of their qualifying group, over Portugal in the last fixture. The coach, Dragan Stojković, has assembled them in a 3-5-2 formation with plenty of offensive profiles at play. Dušan Tadić roams behind Mitrović and star striker, Dušan Vlahović, who was unavailable for this game. Sergej Milinković-Savić and Andrija Živković offer more dynamism from deep in an experienced and deadly team.

The big change in Brazil’s starting eleven came in the construction of its midfield. Tite opted for Lucas Paquetá to play alongside Casemiro, rather than Fred, his usual pick. As a result, Vinícius Júnior took the vacant spot on the left side of their attack.

Serbia was without the Juventus duo of Dušan Vlahović and Filip Kostić, as Stojković put out a team that read as a 3-5-1-1 formation. Mitrović played as the lone striker, whilst Filip Mladenović filled the void in the left wing-back position.

Serbia blocks Samba at the source

This world cup has been defined by the underdogs, matching their opponent’s superiority through well-organized medium blocks. In the first half, Serbia followed a similar script, with a deeper defensive line, but geared to break up Brazil’s attacks at its most creative source.

Stojković’s defensive approach varied in its shape but mostly resembled a 5-2-3 formation when the ball was with Brazil’s center-backs. Their forwards were flexible in their defensive positions, Sergej Milinković-Savić was more orientated around Casemiro’s space, Mitrović bounced between sitting on the left or engaging with the center-backs and Tadić dropped as the ball moved up on the left side.

24th minute: Collapsing in Serbia’s 5-2-3 shape. Tadić followed Alex Sandro’s pass to compact the right side and give Serbia numerical superiority over their opponents.

On the right side, Serbia was very reactive off the ball and constantly compressed this area of the field. Saša Lukić pressed on Neymar, orientated outwards to protect the halfspace and encourage Neymar to move the ball to Vinícius, overloaded by right wing-back Živković and ball-sided center-back Nikola Milenković. These dynamics could change, as Milenković followed Neymar dropping deep or Lukić changing his pressing target towards Vinícius. Nevertheless, there was always someone to cover in Nemanja Gudelj, or even Tadić, who sometimes ended up deeper than the midfielders off the ball.

Brazil has a secure 4-2-4 passing network, with very conservative fullbacks playing deep. They can retain the ball for long periods in the middle third, but their forwards can have a hard time connecting, especially in the slow passing style that this team adopts. Vinícius and Raphinha pinned in the wider channels, Neymar operated in the left halfspace and Richarlison was central, but not engaged in the first period of the game. Without over or underlapping fullbacks, passing phases can become more predictable.


There were occasions when Serbia’s reactiveness would create some openness for Brazil to split the lines. More space was afforded for Raphinha and Paquetá down the opposite channel, neither Milinković-Savić nor Mitrović provided the cover that Tadić offered to the right. In the 26th minute, as Brazil circulated from right to left, Serbia was tilted and their right-sided players in the defensive line stepped up. Thiago Silva played Vinícius through, only for the enormous frame of Vanja Milinković-Savić to come out and slap the ball away. Eight minutes later, Paquetá and Raphinha also combined to manoeuvre through Serbia’s midfield line stepping up.

Nevertheless, Serbia had a solid approach to combat Brazil and it’s dangerous forwards. Just four shots were attempted by Tite’s team in the first period, forced laterally by an organized opposition approach.

Brazil is not challenged by Serbia’s buildup

Two nations with strong attacking outfits were playing with blunt instruments. Out of possession, Brazil was more aggressive in their 4-4-2 shape than usual, but this didn’t stop their opponents from having several opportunities to build.

Once again, emphasis on their right side was at play in an asymmetrical structure. Both Gudelj and Lukić dropped between the left center-back and Veljković. This saw Milinković-Savić or Mitrović come more towards the ball, whilst Tadić remained high with Živković, able to move high up thanks to Milenković’s position.

Serbia’s approach in possession: Gudelj dropped between the center-backs, deeper forwards on left countered by higher forwards on right creating an asymmetric look. In the early phases, Raphinha dropped to occupy Filip Mladenović, which altered Brazil’s 4-4-2 shape.

Spells of Serbia’s possession broke down quite easily, despite some combative central work from Mitrović. Attacking midfielder Paquetá may have been deep in the 4-4-2 block, but Casemiro was able to cover with Marquinhos often coming out of the defensive line to directly approach the striker. The transitional threat was also minimal, with no out ball being available once they broke up Brazil’s attacks on the right side. Živković had several carries, but starting from a deep position, constructing a challenging counterattack was very difficult against Brazil’s deep players.

Tite finds a solution

Brazil completely changed the dimensions of the game in the second period, altered by more direct balls to their forwards, once they had regained possession. Tite’s team often begin the next phase of recycling once the ball is back at their feet, but from the start of the second half, their chance creation grew as a direct result of building up the tempo.

Vinícius profited from this change of direction, assisted by Neymar becoming more adaptable in his movements. The PSG attacker covered a larger area of the field, moving more towards the halfway line, as well as appearing more towards the center too. Not only did this allow Vinícius to be more isolated from Živković and receive quicker passes into his feet, but also opened up more avenues into this box once he had slalomed into position. Once he was engaged forwards, more angles appeared to either shoot at the goal or fire into the box.

54th minute: Buildup to Neymar’s chance. His movement forced Serbian midfielders to move more towards the ball side, inverted Sandro created a passing lane from Casemiro. Richarlison’s vertical movement forced Živković inward and more space for Vinícius on the left.

Brazil was getting into more dangerous positions and the number of attempts reflect great improvements, beating their first-half count within the first ten minutes of the second half. Raphinha was gifted a great chance within the first thirty seconds by picking Gudelj’s pocket. Neymar also had a good opportunity, built by the aforementioned tweaks in the frontline. He roamed towards the right, which dragged Serbia further and enabled Casemiro to link with the inverted Alex Sandro. Vinícius was isolated on the left, to drive the ball back inside towards an off-balanced Neymar.

Nonetheless, Tite had found the solution and it wasn’t long before their offensive talent broke through. Neymar slalomed past two Serbian defenders into the penalty box, his heavy touch teeing Vinícius to shoot. Milinković-Savić saved, but Richarlison was in the right area at the right time to open the scoring.

Despite a very short rallying cry from Serbia, holes started to emerge in the transition for Brazil to exploit. This was the platform for the trademark Brazillian goal to arise, something that only they could craft. Vinícius was left in space again to drive towards the box, an outside of the boot cross to connect. Richarlison’s touch was perfect for him to lift his boot, over his head and power the ball into the bottom corner. Technique, flawless. Execution, perfect. Puskás Award? If it isn’t this, I don’t know what is.


Although their offensive plan wasn’t translatable, Serbia posed Brazil with a tough tactical dilemma. They harnessed onto the significant distances between the opposition attackers and Stojković had aligned his defenders superbly to keep the favorites quiet.

However, even the most subtle of tweaks can tip the scales in your favor, especially when you have world-class talent involved in the making. Pictures of Neymar’s swollen ankle has caused concern, but pictures of Richarlison’s incredible second can mold a greater image as the tournament goes on. Brazil entered this World Cup as favorites for a very good reason.

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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