Weight of Expectation
After years of sluggishness, Brazil hasn’t assembled a squad as rich as this one in over a decade. Tite has developed a strong plan in both the offense and defense, but when such concrete steps have been taken, the flipside is that no nation carries a greater weight of expectation. No matter the situation, no other outcome than a sixth World Cup title is acceptable.
Written by Joel Parker.
On the grandest stage, only a select few can claim to be in World Cup eternity. Yet Brazil can claim to be even more than that. No colours are as recognisable, no style is as flavourful. Nations can claim to be winners, but no one has won more than the Brazilians.
It’s layers of success that build the belief, even if the greats have long laced their boots. However, for twenty years, how the Europeans have tormented those in yellow. Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry ended their record-breaking winning streak in 2006, Wesley Sneijder – of all people – headed home from a corner to send them home from South Africa.
Belgium put Brazil to the sword four years ago, but it is obviously ‘that’ one on home soil that no one will ever forget. That was a Brazil squad that lacked the nation’s greatest trait: attacking flair, even with Neymar being featured until the quarter-finals.
Luiz Felipe Scolari was handed bare bones and Tite was handed better fortunes in Russia, but now the Brazilian coach has to accommodate an incredible amount of offensive depth. Vinícius Júnior, Raphinha, Richarlison, Antony and Gabriel Jesus to name but a few, are all regular starters at elite clubs.
On the surface level, Brazil appears to have struck the balance. Just two defeats to Argentina and one to Peru since that Belgium encounter: three defeats in a fifty-game period, twenty-six goals scored in their last seven matches. Brazil is living up to its heritage heading into Qatar, dominant with goals at the forefront. But will expectation unearth fresh scars, or can Brazil take the weight to break twenty years of anticipation?
Copa América 2021: Tite’s search for perfection
The ninth Copa América title for Brazil was a significant milestone, their first success in over ten years and completed while conceding just once in the process. Tite’s team had gained significant attacking strength in his tenure, but the champions had issues to tweak. Having a world-class talent like Neymar dropping deep is certainly no bad thing, but with him unavailable, Brazil needed to find other solutions. They would find it through the strength down the channels, with Dani Alves, Gabriel Jesus and Everton playing a key part.
2021 had Neymar back but posed the same problems. Could they find a functional system that didn’t rely on Neymar in the buildup? In the first game against Venezuela, Tite lined his team up in a 4-3-3 formation with a variety of adjustments. Fred would sit in a wide-left role, which saw him bounce between being next to Marquinhos or his fellow center-midfielder Casemiro. Renan Lodi and Gabriel Jesus provided the pinning on the opposition wing-backs and this saw their prime creators, Neymar and Lucas Paquetá in the halfspaces. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace.
Vs Venezuela, 14th minute: Brazil’s on-ball dynamics against Venezuela. Fred was positioned in a wide-left role, which enabled Lodi to overlap and Neymar to drop deep into more space.
This 2-3-5 formation was very flexible, which aimed to stretch Venezula’s midfield line but fell into a u-shaped passing structure. Brazil’s only source of danger in the first period would come from a vertical pass, from defense to the halfspace player that moved towards the defensive line. This created better separation against the center-backs and enabled Richarlison, the striker, a trigger to peel off. Brazil faced problems, but Tite adapted his halfspace creators at half-time. On the right, Paquetá was replaced by Everton Ribeiro, who offered more versatility in his movements by coming to the ball side and offered more interaction with Jesus on the right. Brazil found a rhythm for a 3-0 win.
First-half passing problems. Very u-shaped with major emphasis down the left and not engaging Paquetá or Richarlison in the ball circulation.
Tite constantly tweaked the buildup of Brazil as the tournament continued. In the second game versus Peru, Fabinho and Fred sat on the same line whilst Juventus fullbacks, Danilo and Alex Sandro, had phases where they came closer to the ball or sat wide. Everton Soares and Jesus were the wingers, whilst Gabriel Barbosa was the right striker. Neymar played as a false nine A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. and the system lacked coherence past the halfway line. The fullbacks remained conservative and there was a disconnection between the midfield and attacking lines – although Alex Sandro’s third-man run A passing combination between two players, while a third player simultaneously makes a run, usually in behind the opponent’s defensive line. After the initial combination, the ball is quickly played in depth for the third player to run onto. showcased that Neymar dropping could truly spark with aggression around him, to score the opening goal.
The false nine role of the PSG attacker was accommodated better with Richarlison on the same side. Although he is very direct and constantly moved in behind, Richarlison can also possess the technical ability that can keep Neymar moving up the field, which improved their performance against Peru in the second half, as well as against Colombia, despite the Brazilians going 1-0 down early on.
Vs Peru (Semi-Final), 18th minute: Buildup to Neymar’s chance. Neymar and Paquetá highly in-sync and Brazil profited from Paquetá’s blindside movement in the halfspace.
Goals from Paquetá knocked out both Chile and Peru, but this was indicative of how much more the attacking midfielder was connected in the buildup. On paper, the 4-2-3-1 formation that Tite selected was heavily adaptable once again. Neymar and Paquetá worked in proximity in the center, with Everton Soares on the right and Lodi pushing forward on the left. Whereas Brazil’s technical brilliance is historically reserved for its wingers and striker, the connectivity the two brought in the center of the field had Brazil looking formidable heading to the final.
Brazil may have dominated the ball against Argentina, but early warning signs in their buildup would come back to haunt them. Despite a passing plan that is strong, in both the defensive and midfield areas, getting the ball to the forwards can remain an issue. Down the left, Neymar’s adaptations in his position can enable him to interact, but Argentina kept Brazil’s right side uninvolved with the action. A vertical pass from Rodrigo de Paul to Ángel Di María had Brazil back peddling after twenty minutes. Just 0.8 expected goals were reached by Tite’s team on South America’s ultimate stage.
Constant tweaks to similar dynamics
So what have Brazil changed to combat all this? For starters, Tite has a greater selection of wingers to select from. Raphinha, Antony, Gabriel Martinelli and Rodrygo have all been selected, whilst Vinícius Júnior, involved in the Copa América squad, has developed into one of Real Madrid’s biggest stars. All players are well equipped to provide the carrying in wide areas, not only an important asset to all Brazillian forwards but pivotal to a system that doesn’t require both fullbacks to overlap. When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping.
When building up, Alex Sandro and Danilo can change their positions but rarely push further than the midfield line. With similar roles being partaken at Juventus, both men are perfectly able to change the passing angles for the center-backs by tucking closer to the double pivot or maintaining width. In their last friendly, against Tunisia, Brazil’s backline changed the angles to open up angles from center-back to winger. Alex Telles at left-back, sat in the same line as Thiago Silva and Marquinhos, whilst Danilo moved much more narrowly, in the midfield line when Marquinhos had the ball. This adjustment played to great effect when Raphinha lofted the ball into Richarlison’s run for their second goal.
Vs Tunisia, 18th minute: Buildup to the second goal. Danilo pinning the winger opened the passing lane to Raphinha. Richarlison beats the center-back’s attempt to play him offside.
Though 39 years old, the neutrals may still view Dani Alves as the same highly attacking fullback that he was earlier in his career. The Pumas defender operates similarly to Danilo, rarely pushing ahead of the winger, who has often been Raphinha, but influencing games from the midfield area.
Brazil’s greater adaptations can be seen from its double pivot. Two central midfielders next to each other. Casemiro and Fred have consistently been Tite’s choice in the midfield and for good reason. Casemiro always remains in the center, solid enough for Fred to push further ahead and behind the opposition midfield line. This isn’t always the case with Fred, who has recently featured on the right side of Casemiro, as opposed to the wide-left role he took up in the Copa América.
Vs South Korea. Brazil rotations on the ball. Fred played much more advanced to join attacks in the right halfspace, whilst Dani Alves tucked in to pin Heung-Min Son. This made South Korea’s shape more narrow and opened avenues out wide.
In games where Brazil are facing a greater threat, expect Fred to sit more conservatively when his team is in possession. But when Brazil is expected to break teams down, Fred can dial up his positioning, playing in a much more aggressive role between the lines, even if the likes of Neymar or Paquetá have dropped to get into possession. Fred can become an effective option when Brazil is in possession, as when he is in this more offensive role, he often roams from the center to the right towards the ball carrier.
With Fred on the right, this has seen Paquetá play more on the left side. Pinning the opposition fullback can vary, but with Neymar often dropping, Paquetá is relied upon to keep the defensive line stretched. Nevertheless, rotations down this channel are quite common and both forwards can help combine with one underlapping as the other pins out wide.
Vs Tunisia, 33rd minute: Underlapping Neymar run. Paquetá pins the opposition right-back, whilst Neymar makes a third-man run to get Brazil up the field.
Tite’s alternative to Fred’s offensive role can see Paquetá fill in the void as a result. When Brazil faced Ghana back in September, Paquetá still played a crucial part. Éder Militão slotted in at right-back, which saw him play deep as a result. When Vinícius dropped deep, dragging the left-back, the West Ham midfielder pushed ahead into the vacant space that was left behind.
Such rotations in the midfield need to be compensated by direct runners behind. Not only does this provide a fixed point for the team to work around but keeps the defensive line back from interacting with the rotations. This is where Richarlison, and to an extent, Gabriel Jesus, come into the frame of their attacking setup. Richarlison has the versatility to fill other positions, but his role in Tite’s team is as an explosive striker, with little interaction in the moves until he can get the ball behind the center-backs. Only Neymar has scored more than the Tottenham striker in World Cup qualification.
In possession, Brazil buildup at a slow tempo, but with a vast amount of flexibility between games. This can make them lopsided towards the left with Neymar at times, however, Brazil has an immense amount of offensive quality that means breakthroughs can appear in other areas.
Passivity and counterpressing
Tite has two very different but identifiable elements in his off-ball approach. When they have lost the ball high up the field, Brazil has a system that enables them to counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. and stomp out the opposition in the transition.
As their fullbacks stay in the middle third, If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. Sandro or Danilo are capable of quickly engaging with the opponent when Brazil lose the ball down the channels. However, it’s the collapsing from the forwards which is the strongest aspect of their counterpress. As Brazil is often set up with a 2-3-5 or 2-4-4 attacking shape, it’s easy for two forwards to commit to the transition. The two forwards and fullback can collapse as a three, whilst Casemiro/Fabinho or the far-sided center midfielder can also step up to block the ball from moving towards the center.
Vs Ghana, 21st minute: Prime example of Brazil’s counterpressure. Two players behind force the ball carrier to keep moving forward, whilst Casemiro moved forward to dramatically close the space. Richarlison and Paquetá move vertically to occupy the potential receiver. The pass deflected off Casemiro and Vinícius before going back to Brazil circulation.
These transitions usually lead to them putting the ball back in its circulation, but if the ball is won high enough, Brazil has the attackers that you do not want to give space. With Neymar, Paquetá or Fred in the halfspaces, it’s easy for the opposition to distort their defensive line to try and stop the attack, whilst pockets open for the wingers or Richarlison to get into.
Counterpressing is not always the defensive choice from Brazil. Not every game is emphasized in possession control, especially in tournament situations or in extreme weather conditions (see their game against Ecuador as a prime example.) Off the ball, a passive 4-4-2 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. can be seen, with Neymar often joining the frontline in this arrangement.
Even when the front two are high up, it does not mean the midfield line is there to join them. The flat lines can see spaces between them open up, but whereas coverage for a pressing winger is supported by Fred or Casemiro, it does not mean that the two center-midfielders cover themselves effectively.
International games rarely see predetermined patterns come through, especially when compared to matches at club level. That being said, without the center-midfielders covering each other, it can lead to the opposition gaining entry behind the midfield line easily. Brazil allowed the likes of Peru, Ecuador and Chile to control a lot of the ball in their Copa América games, but this does not mean they allowed them to take a lot of shots. Between these teams, Chile had the most possession and registered eleven attempts, but with a small number of expected goals against the Brazillian defense.
It will come as little surprise that many are banking on Brazil for World Cup glory in Qatar. Their attacking premise has developed over the course of a year, not just in its selection but the constant options circulating ahead of the opposing defense can certainly overpower the greatest of blocks; an important asset if Tite’s team is to face the likes of Portugal, France or England, who would look to sit deep.
The distribution of quality across the field has blessed Brazil with a well-balanced starting eleven – and with plenty of depth too. Neutrals were quick to point out the ageing fullback options, but more reserved roles in the buildup and counterpressure, as well as operating similarly for their clubs, will make them feel more at home.
Expect plenty of variety in Brazil’s play: plenty of positional adjustments around its midfield, with Richarlison or a hybrid role of Gabriel Jesus providing the off-ball movements to accommodate. Tite’s team can also spend a lot of time off the ball, and aim to shut down attacks up the field so the rebuild can begin. Expectation always develops with Brazil: can they cast a new light after years of stagnation?
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