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2013 Recap – Part II

   

Part II of my 2013 recap series. 

Brazil vs England, 6/2/2013

Pre-Match Hype

Scolari must have been feeling the heat before this one.  Brazil had played friendlies against Bolivia and Chile with domestic-league only players, and while the Bolivian game had gone well enough, the match against Chile was a dour, uninspiring affair.  Indeed, Chile had been the better team and the 2-2 draw flattered the Selecao.

Back came the European-based players, and from this point on, Scolari paid only lip-service to domestic league players.  A few, like Rever, Jean, and Jadson, kept their spots in the squad through the Confederations Cup, but for the most part Scolari looked to Europe for call-ups.  With Neymar and Paulinho shortly to move abroad as well, only Jo, who had not yet been selected, would become anything more than a bit player.

While fans and pundits were already starting to mutter, Scolari was perhaps fortunate that the talk before the second England friendly was mostly centered on the location – a newly renovated Maracana.

How They Lined Up

Filipe Luis returned to the starting XI, with Scolari undoubtedly conscious of the threat posed by Theo Walcott.  More importantly, this marked Luis Gustavo’s first cap for Scolari.  The decision to include the former Bayern midfielder was a key moment in the development of this side, and solidified many of the tactical concepts first introduced back in March.

Scolari was still searching for the right formation under which his tactical scheme could flourish.  He continued to tinker, this time trotting out a very basic 4-4-2-with-wingers formation.  Hulk and Oscar played on the left and right, respectively, while Neymar moved up to join Fred.  Paulinho partnered with Gustavo in the midfield, and Thiago Silva, David Luiz, and Dani Alves completed the back four.  Julio Cesar retained his spot in goal.

Brazil Dominate Possession but Fail to Score

From the opening whistle, Brazil seemed intent on making up for the mistakes in their last go-around against England.  The entire team made a concerted, consistent effort to press, and here you could really see how Gustavo helped the team.  His willingness to go in for the tackle – not to mention his greater adeptness at it – was a marked contrast to Ramires, Hernanes, and everyone else who had played the position before him.

Brazil also seemed intent on keeping the ball and playing out of the back, and just about everyone played with greater composure than they did in February.

Just as notable was Brazil’s use of width.  More than ever before, Brazil looked to attack relentlessly down both flanks, something Scolari’s 4-4-2-with-wingers formation found easy to do.  The team found the most joy down the left.  Filipe Luis again looked absolutely determined to establish that he was just as much an “attacking left-back” in the mold of his predecessors, and took every occasion to overlap with Hulk.  Hulk was in decent form as well, and Neymar, nominally playing as a forward, didn’t hesitate to venture out to the left to receive the ball.

The right flank wasn’t ignored, but with Dani Alves’ continued wretched form and Fred’s tendency – or instructions –  to remain central, most of the heavy lifting was done by Oscar.  Again, the young Chelsea man responded brilliantly.  He routinely got the better of England’s Baines (and later Ashley Cole), sending in plenty of bright, accurate crosses that Fred and Neymar should have capitalized on.  Overall, it was another intelligent, bustling performance by Oscar.

The result of all this was that Brazil dominated the flow of the match far better than they had in February.  It really looked like a totally different Brazil side.  England had a few nice moments themselves, but Luis Gustavo and Paulinho did a much better job of preventing Rooney and Jack Wilshere from establishing any kind of a rhythm.  Just as important was Filipe Luis’ contribution on Theo Walcott.  The speedy winger found Filipe a far different prospect to get around than Adriano.

Of course, it has to be said that the venue played a role as well.  Playing a post-season friendly at the Maracana is much different from a mid-season friendly at Wembley, which partially explains why Brazil looked so fresh and England rather less so.

Unfortunately, Brazil couldn’t turn their dominance into goals.  A number of half-chances were created, including slightly selfish shots from distance by Neymar and Hulk.  Oscar’s aforementioned crosses also produced opportunities to score, with Fred heading over the bar and Hulk’s cheeky backheel attempt drifting just wide.  The best chance came when Oscar squared the ball across the face of goal, but both Fred and Neymar missed their chances.

England’s best chance came when Rooney found enough daylight to drive past Paulinho and feed a surging Walcott.  Again, Filipe Luis was there to stop the Arsenal man, but this time Walcott was able to create enough space to slip in a reverse thru-ball to Johnson.  David Luiz was caught ball-watching and had to scramble to recover, but Julio Cesar was on hand to make a fine save.

It was an ominous development.  Rooney was starting to establish a foothold in the match, and England as a whole began ascending toward the end of the first half…just as Brazil began to slack with their pressing.  The two were undoubtedly related.  A valuable lesson can probably be learned here: a midfield derived of Gustavo/Paulinho/Ramires (and even Hernanes to a lesser extent) probably is not able to dominate possession by technical skill alone.  For these players, sheer energy is just as important.  There’s no doubt that Gustavo, Paulinho and Ramires all have the energy required, but should their stamina flag even for a short spell, momentum can be lost.  We’ll see almost the exact same thing happen in the Confederations Cup against Mexico.

Still, the half ended with Brazil distinctly the better side, and with every prospect of scoring before the sound of the final whistle.

Brazil Cedes Possession…and Momentum

Scolari made three changes for the 2nd half.  He took off two of his standouts, with Gustavo and Filipe Luis making way for Hernanes and Marcelo.  The first change was both a negative and a positive.  It was negative in that Hernanes couldn’t hope to replicate Gustavo’s defensive ability, but positive in that his own contributions directly led to Brazil’s first goal.  More on this in a moment.

The third change Scolari made was a reversion to his now-standard 4-2-3-1.  Neymar and Hulk moved to the wings and Oscar slotted over into the center.

From the start, it was clear that Gustavo’s presence was missed.  The tempo of the match slowed and the pressing faded.  The crowd seemed to sense that the home side’s energy had waned, and as a result became more muted themselves.  All of this worked tremendously in England’s favor, and in large part, they were the better side for the next 45 minutes.

Neymar was seeing more of the ball now, dropping deeper and deeper to get it, but this prevented him from doing anything close to goal, and effectively left the already-static Fred on an island.

Hulk, meanwhile, tried to fight off the effects of the team’s stupor.  Collecting a loose ball, he laid off intelligently to Fred, who had options but elected to selfishly shoot from distance, much like Neymar and Hulk had in the first half.  On another occasion, Hulk did well to get down the left, and this time his exertions led to a goal.  The ball eventually found its way to Hernanes, who cracked an absolutely superb strike off the crossbar.  Fred then volleyed the rebound into an empty net.  It was the center-forward’s first, and only, meaningful contribution of the day, and while he was lucky to get the chance, it must be said that without his alertness and composure, the opportunity might have been missed.

More subs followed.  Scolari bizarrely decided to take off Oscar in favor of Lucas.  The crowd disagreed with the decision and booed heavily.  Now Hulk was on the left, Neymar in the middle, and Lucas on the right.  Like switching Gustavo for Hernanes, the move eventually paid dividends, but for most of the match, Lucas cut a poor copy of the man he replaced.  Neymar, too, was affected negatively.  Despite seeing more of the ball in his central role, his play became much less efficient: more touches, but less effect.

England Respond, Equalize, and Take the Lead

The next twenty minutes belonged to England.  Pressing all but vanished in favor of a sham defense that consistently ceded ground to the Three Lions.  This indirectly led to England’s first goal, off a great, instinctive snatch at the ball by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  At first glance, it seemed that there wasn’t anything anyone could do, but the fault really lay with Hernanes and Paulinho, who let the ball get worked in between them far too easily.

Rooney’s goal came from a combination of bad luck and poor defending.  The bad luck happened first.  Thiago Silva did well to block Rooney’s dribble, but the ball careened off his leg, giving Rooney the space to charge forward.  Enter David Luiz.  Or rather, exit David Luiz.  As against Italy, Luiz immediately ceded ground, this time actually running away from Rooney, his body turned sideways.  No one else could close in time, allowing Rooney the time and space to curl the ball into the top-right corner.

Paulinho Equalizes

It looked like another defeat, but a great counter-attack enabled Brazil to score the equalizer.  The two unlikely heroes were Lucas and Paulinho.  Lucas’ first accurate cross of the night found Paulinho open in the box.  The midfielder’s technique was superb as he volleyed past Hart for his third international goal.  As with Fred, it was the first meaningful contributions for both Lucas and Paulinho, but they proved decisive.

Scolari threw on a mass of substitutes (Damiao for Fred, Bernard for Paulinho) and the match petered out.

How Brazil Improved

Despite not scoring, the first half was a step up in every way from the debacle in February.  Brazil had a full-fledged identity now: press the ball in the midfield, then attack swiftly up the wings.  They also showed a greater ability to play their way out of the back instead of simply booting the ball up the pitch.

How Brazil Still Needed to Improve

Their lack of sharpness and chemistry in the final third was still proving to be an impediment, with too much of the creative burden being put on young Oscar’s shoulders.  More important was their abandonment of the game plan in the second half.

Man of the Match

No clear winner here.  Oscar was the best player in the first half, but the goals came after he was taken off.  Fred and Paulinho both scored, but otherwise were subpar.  Still, I’ll give the award to Paulinho for providing Brazil’s single best (and most decisive) moment.

Flop of the Match

Again, no clear winner.  David Luiz’ completely lost the plot for Rooney’s goal, but perhaps the most disappointing player was Neymar.  He had a few nice moments in the first half, but never really was able to impose himself.

Unsung Hero

Give it to Gustavo, who despite only lasting 45 minutes played a big part in establishing what has become a winning template for Brazil.

Brazil vs France, 6/9/2013


Pre-match Hype

Brazil needed a win.  Badly.

How They Lined Up

Brazil kept the same starting XI save for Marcelo in place of Filipe Luis.  The team reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 with Neymar on the left, Hulk on the right, and Oscar in the center.

1st Half – Brazil Start Lethargically As Neither Side Can Take a Grip on the Match

It was a rhythm-less start to the game.  Brazil’s midfield looked sleepy and heavy-legged, with little-to-no movement.  This forced Thiago Silva, Marcelo, and David Luiz to see more of the ball, and they quickly became impatient, with each resorting to fruitless passes over the top.

France weren’t too impressive themselves, however their one-touch pass-and-move game was better than Brazil’s early on.  They had several well-worked moves, but each ended with the offside flag.

Predictably, Hulk and Neymar began dropping back deeper and deeper to get the ball.  Each would collect, drive forward a few yards, then attempt to play the ball into the center.  But Brazil rarely achieved any real penetration.  Hulk especially was working hard and did a good job taking defenders on 1v1, but his lack of chemistry with both Dani Alves and Fred meant it all came to naught.

Soon, Oscar and Hulk began switching places, and this resulted in the first two chances of the day, with Hulk surging into the box and Oscar crossing.  Both balls were cut out, but at least Brazil were creating action in the final third.  Oscar, again, was impressive, this time main for the sheer amount of distance he was covering around the pitch.

As the half wore on, it soon became apparent that getting to the goal line was Brazil’s best move.  Dani Alves, Hulk, and Marcelo all took turns doing exactly that, but neither Fred nor anyone else were able to convert their crosses.  The best chance came late when Marcelo skimmed a ball across the face of goal to Neymar, but the Barcelona-bound winger just couldn’t get to it in time.

It was a frustrating half in many ways.  The most that can be said was that France didn’t look much like scoring themselves, and Brazil began to grow more into the match as the half came to an end, mainly through raising the pace of play and focusing on bombing down the wings, attempting to get behind the French defense.

2nd Half – The dam breaks

And just like that – everything changed.

It began with Oscar.  A terrific interception, a drive forward, and a squared pass to Fred.  Fred passed over to Hulk, but Hulk’s shot was wide.  A miss, but also a statement of intent.

Brazil’s first goal came, fittingly, from pressing.  France was having trouble playing out of the back, until Gustavo’s meaty tackle (a foul, in truth) led to the ball falling fortuitously to Fred.  Fred had all the space in the world ahead of him before centering to Oscar in the box.  A typically cool, near-post finish gave Brazil the lead.

Pressing, pressing, pressing.  Oscar led the charge – even immediately after scoring, he didn’t take his foot off the pedal.  That seemed to spur his teammates on.  Great work from Alves and Hulk led to Hulk flashing the ball across the face of goal much like Marcelo had done.  But once again, Neymar couldn’t get on the end of it.

France Respond and Scolari Makes Changes

After a frenetic opening to the half, France began to brighten, finding spaces to exploit between Gustavo and Marcelo on the left, and Paulinho and Dani Alves on the right.  In other words, the fullbacks, constantly looking to push up, and the central-midfielders trying to cover for them were just too far apart, like an army that has raced ahead of its supply line.  Fortunately, Thiago Silva was quietly having an outstanding game, reading and breaking up play with masterful precision.

As he did against England, Scolari again made the odd decision to take off two of his brightest players in Oscar and Hulk for Fernando and Lucas.  Perhaps he was simply deciding to save them for the Confederations Cup.  The result was that Paulinho moved up to take the #10 role, with Fernando slotting in next to Gustavo and Lucas replacing Hulk on the right wing.

Shortly after that, Jo came on for Fred.  Fred’s performance was marked again by a single decisive moment inside a long stretch of extreme passiveness.  In other words, the kind of performance that frustrates me to no end but may result in us winning the World Cup…provided Fred can stay healthy.

Hernanes Comes On and Changes the Game

Paulinho had done nothing since moving up, so Scolari brought on Hernanes in place of Luis Gustavo, seeking more offensive firepower.  Gustavo, like Silva, had very quietly put together an excellent game, but Hernanes ended up being something of a difference-maker.

An awful touch from France off a corner led to the second goal.  The ball fell to Paulinho, who had almost the entire length of the pitch to run into with Lucas and Neymar streaming forward on either side.  Neymar was quickly covered, so Paulinho elected to spread wide to Lucas.  In truth, his pass was poor, arriving behind Lucas.  The chance seemed lost, but Jo, arriving in the center, forced one of the French centerbacks to cover him.  This left Neymar unmarked.  Lucas’ crossed superbly.  Rather than shoot, Neymar unselfishly tapped the ball back to Hernanes, whose slightly scuffed shot bounced past Lloris for a goal.

The rest of the game was all Brazil, with Hernanes dictating the play beautifully with diagonal passes and through-balls.  One through-ball in particular led to a great chance for Bernard (on for Neymar), but Bernard’s shot lacked conviction and the chance went begging.

Another good, diagonal pass by Hernanes sent Marcelo through into the box.  Marcelo dived, fooling the official who whistled and pointed to the spot.  The ill-gotten penalty was duly dispatched by Lucas, and Brazil saw out the game with a convincing 3-0 win…the first real win of Scolari’s administration.

How Brazil Improved

In truth, Brazil hadn’t played all that well – there were stretches against Italy, Russia, and even England that surpassed almost anything done against France.  But this time, their game plan (press hard, dominate the flanks, force the opposition to stretch) paid dividends, and Brazil had the win they so desperately needed.  You could see by the players’ reaction how much it meant to them.  The pleasure was plain as day on their faces.  And perhaps, if you looked closely enough, you could see that other emotion, the one no one would ever admit to but must have been there all the same:

Relief.

Top of the Match

Thiago Silva and Luis Gustavo both had a case.  Dani Alves and Marcelo had excellent games too.  And while I was sorely tempted to give the match ball to Hernanes, whose entry coincided with Brazil’s longest period of dominance, I can’t ignore Oscar.  Besides opening the scoring, he set the tone with his pressing, energy, and selflessness.  Brazil’s standout performer for the first five months of 2013 – as indeed he was for most of 2012 – was Oscar.

This was soon to change.

Flop of the Match

None.


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