Thoughts on Brazil vs South Korea and Zambia Match Discussion
Brazil took on South Korea this weekend, and judging by the time it was played, and the lack of comments on this site so far, I’m guessing that most people didn’t get a chance to watch it. Hence, I thought it would be useful to post a recap of the match for the benefit of those who preferred sleeping to early-morning football.
There are a lot of reasons not to take too much from this match, either positive or negative. For one, it wasn’t against a particularly strong opponent. Second, it was in South Korea in the middle of the club season, meaning most players probably just concentrated on getting over their jet lag and avoiding injuries. Third, it ended up being a comfortable, if unremarkable victory for Brazil, scoring two goals on either side of the half.
There are a couple points of interest to this match from a tactical perspective. Mainly, these points are negative. They’re not hugely important in the grand scheme of things, but they have been persistent, and they could come back to hurt us in the World Cup if we’re not careful.
I originally created this post to contain a lot of pictures to illustrate the salient points, but due to WordPress difficulties, I couldn’t post any of them. So I changed this article to be a lot shorter. As a result, I’m not going to provide a minute-by-minute account, but rather just some of my overall impressions of the match.
So let’s begin.
Luis Gustavo and the Brazilian Midfield
Almost from the opening whistle, the most striking thing about Brazil was the parallel between Luis Gustavo and Gilberto Silva. To put it simply, Gustavo is Gilberto Silva. Swap out 2002 Gilberto with 2013 Gustavo and if you didn’t know any better, I promise you would barely notice a difference.
From 2002-2006 especially, Gilberto operated basically as a third center-back, allowing the more adventurous Lucio license to roam where he wanted and even get forward on occasion. That’s exactly what Gustavo does here, frequently dropping between both David Luiz and Dante, allowing the two of them to stretch farther apart than what would ordinarily be possible. There are positives and negatives to this approach. The positives is that it protected our back-line from counters and allowed our fullbacks greater license to get forward. The negatives will be discussed in a moment.
The second striking thing about the match was how much trouble Brazil had playing out of the back – a persistent issue. SK were playing as a 4-4-2/4-5-1 hybrid, with both forwards shadowing the two Brazilian centerbacks. Mindful of the need to prevent counterattacks, this meant Gustavo kept dropping between them, as previously noted. But here was the problem. This essentially conceded the center-circle to South Korea, with Alves, Marcelo, and to a lesser extent, Paulinho all sticking stubbornly to their zones. As a result, Dante and Luiz kept feeling the need to hoof the ball long.
Hulk and David Luiz
These long balls sometimes led to problems. In the 3rd minute, South Korea intercepted a Dante long-ball. A quick pass over the top of their own led to a swift counter. The ball was swung left, but Hulk raced back to help in defense, allowing Alves to mark one of the forwards instead of rushing out to defend the dribbler, leaving a hole behind him. Hulk’s willingness to help also meant Luiz could act as a “free defender.” This is where I really wanted pictures to illustrate what I’m talking about, but you’ll just have to visualize it.
Hulk’s willingness to track back was very beneficial throughout the first half, because it freed up Luiz to essentially read the game and move to wherever he saw the attack developing. Throughout the match, Luiz was virtually flawless at this. This may stand out as one of the most impressive defenses of his international career, as time and time again he read the play correctly; intercepting, blocking, and tackling in a virtuoso display. For 90 minutes, he always seemed to be in the right position.
Dante, on the other hand, didn’t fare quite as well. While this match shouldn’t do anything to displace him in Scolari’s pecking order, his decision making on the ball was fairly poor. For one thing, he was far too willing to pull the trigger on long balls, and his accuracy didn’t justify it. He also was guilty of several sloppy clearances that fortunately were never punished.
Both teams look to counter
The entire match was basically little more than a series of half-counters. Neither team really pressed, but both sides looked to win the ball before it entered the attacking third by closing down on the dribbler. While Brazil had the lion’s share of possession, they never could really do anything with it in terms of creating sustained pressure. The main reason for this has to do with Korea’s formation and the Gustavo/Paulinho duo. Gustavo’s frequent retreats to the rear basically stripped the midfield of a man. Paulinho is just not technical enough of a midfielder to compensate. His brilliant assist aside, Paulinho actually had a fairly poor match. His range of passing is fairly limited (and by that, I don’t mean in terms of distance but in terms of angles) and his touch was heavy, which often led to a delay in build-up. On defense, he was steady but unremarkable, too often bypassed by his speedier opponents.
This is not a new problem. (It was a problem under Mano, but Scolari compensates for it by at least having a definite philosophy, whereas Mano wouldn’t understand the meaning of the word.) For all of Brazil’s winning ways, we must remember that there have been numerous matches where our midfield has looked stymied, if not completely outgunned. It happened twice against England, it happened against Mexico, it happened against Switzerland, and it happened for long stretches against Uruguay and Italy. South Korea simply didn’t have the firepower to hurt us, but we’ve endured some near misses this year. Our fate at the World Cup might just hinge upon our ability to survive being outnumbered and outclassed in the midfield in the later stages against an Italy or Germany.
Neymar and Oscar’s positioning
This was the most striking feature of the match, and it’s something I hope is never, ever repeated.
Part of our problems in the midfield were exacerbated by the fact that Oscar did not play as a midfielder. After the Confederations Cup, some people asked whether Oscar’s struggles were due to a change in role, no doubt thinking of Neymar’s increased prominence and switch to the mythical #10 shirt. I’ve yet to verify whether that’s true or not, but it certainly was in this match. To put it simply, Neymar played our attacking midfielder, while Oscar featured more as a forward-cum-winger. This was not by chance. I’m certain Scolari drew it up this way, because the two very rarely deviated from these roles.
We can only guess as to what Scolari was thinking. Perhaps he too considered Brazil’s best chances would come on the counter, and to that end he wanted Neymar’s speed to be the engine. Time and time again, Neymar would drop into extremely deep positions to try and receive the ball with his back to goal before executing one of his signature lightning-quick turns. But it didn’t work very well. South Korea seemed wise to this tactic, and from the start, adopted a policy of refusing to let Neymar make the turn at all costs. Sometimes they did this as a result of good defending, anticipating that Neymar likes to turn to his left, taking him further into the center of the pitch. More often, they simply resorted to fouling. In either case, it worked, and for most of the first half, Neymar was rendered toothless. As you might expect, he realized what Korea was doing and soon worked it to his advantage, winning multiple free kicks in dangerous positions. One of these, of course, led to the opening goal.
But Oscar – and in my opinion, the team – really suffered as a result of this. There’s a few reasons why the team didn’t benefit from the switch:
- The aforementioned stripping of the midfield. Neymar is not a midfielder. Oscar is. Oscar’s versatility around the pitch was rendered useless by being stationed so far up-field. Rather than use Oscar’s good touch, his movement, and his range of passing to maintain sustained pressure (rather than a series of half-counters), Brazil relied on Neymar being put into a situation where he is least effective: far from goal, having to take on numerous defenders at once. Neymar is far better 1v1 situations, allowing him to create for himself or others in the final third.
In short, Oscar should be the engine of the team, allowing Neymar to apply the final, killer thrust. Of course, Scolari could claim that his experiment worked, as Oscar was the recipient of Paulinho’s wonderful assist at the beginning of the second half. But in general, Brazil’s attacking displays were remarkably inefficient, thanks in large part to the misuse of its most efficient player.
The start of the 2nd half saw an immediate change: Hulk coming off for Ramires. I believe this substitution was a pre-planned tactical switch rather than as an indictment of Hulk. For one thing, Hulk did not have a bad first half. He did miss one chance to score, but this more due to alert goal-keeping than anything else. In general, Hulk played fairly well. Not only did he help out in defense, but he had a number of very neat touches that allowed Dani Alves and Oscar to get off shots. The attacking impetus might have primarily come through Neymar, but Hulk was arguably at the center of the few decent build-ups Brazil had.
The other reason I think this was a planned tactical switch was because Scolari hinted as much earlier in the week. Besides, Ramires did not take Hulk’s place on the right wing, but rather in the midfield. The formation switched to a definite 4-3-3.
Regardless, it didn’t accomplish much. The tempo of the match went up dramatically in the second half as both teams adopted a frenzied pace. Despite adding an extra man into the midfield, Ramires and Paulinho were frequently bypassed. In many cases, this was not their fault, but rather due to the fact that Alves and Marcelo were often caught out of position, leaving large gaps behind them that Ramires and Paulinho simply could not cover.
Paulinho continued to underwhelm, but made amends by supplying a fabulous defense-splitting pass to Oscar. (Perhaps fittingly, this pass came mere seconds after Paulinho’s sloppy touch gave away possession. Thankfully, Neymar was able to recover the ball almost immediately.)
In truth, Korea’s defense was poor for the second goal, with too much space between the center-backs. But all credit must go to Paulinho for RECOGNIZING this fact; it took him a mere second after getting the ball back to identify the chance and seize it.
Special mention must go to Oscar, too. His performance had also been mixed, but his goal was an excellent one. Even after Paulinho’s pass, he still had work to do. His first touch was good, his rounding of the keeper was better, and his finish was as composed as we’ve come to expect.
The trick of rounding the keeper holds a special place in my heart thanks largely to Ronaldo, who perfected the technique like no one else before or since. Since he retired, it’s been almost a lost art for Brazil. In the last three years, NO ONE has rounded the keeper successfully before Oscar. Neymar, Pato, and others have all tried and failed. (Incidentally, at what point can we say that Oscar is Brazil’s second best finisher after Fred? There’s a lot of evidence to say that he is.)
Substitutions kill all notions of shape or formation
Oscar’s goal effectively ended the match, and Scolari soon introduced a flurry of substitutions. Hernanes came on for Paulinho, Lucas Leiva came on for Luis Gustavo (who had an excellent game, despite my tactical concerns) and eventually, Bernard came on for Oscar. These changes didn’t really contribute much. If anything, they signaled the final death knell of the game as anything more than a cardio workout for the players. There was absolutely no distinguishable shape or formation after these substitutions. I am not exaggerating – it all went completely out the window. Ramires was second only to Neymar in roaming around at will. Hernanes was a bit more disciplined, but he too looked to get forward whenever possible. Oscar had moved to the right-wing around the 60th minute, but when Bernard came in for him, he immediately jogged over to the left. Marcelo and Alves took this sudden descent into tactical anarchy as an excuse to drift inside as much as they liked. Only Lucas Leiva had a defined role, taking over for Luis Gustavo.
There was one moment (and I dearly wish I could post a picture of this) where Neymar was in the center circle, Jo and Hernanes were a little ahead of him. Marcelo was higher and to his left, while Ramires was DEEPER and on the left touchline, effectively playing as a leftback. Bernard could have been in Pyongyang for all I know. It was chaos.
There’s really not much more to say after this. Brazil saw out the game comfortably, and a thoroughly bizarre match came to an end.
Here’s what I think we can ultimately take from this game:
- Luis Gustavo was excellent, but he simply can’t function as a third center-back if we are to play in a 4-2-3-1. It leaves our midfield too bare. I understand that in Scolari’s system, the ball is designed to be spread to the flanks, and the midfield is to act as cover for our fullbacks. That’s all well and good but taking it to the extreme is a problem….unless we were to switch to the 3-5-2 formation from 2002.
- Neymar should be played as a winger/forward and Oscar should be played in the midfield. It’s robbing both players of their best attributes otherwise. This is the single biggest point. I never want to see Scolari try this again.
- David Luiz’ has once again made himself undroppable. His fantastic performance against Spain was a study in heart and athleticism; on Saturday, he showed that when he applies it, he has a heck of a brain, too.
- When Brazil takes an uncertain shape, their attack becomes uncertain, too. This was a very, very sloppy match, punctuated by a lot of miscues, waylaid passes, and poor communication. In the Confederations Cup, against Australia, and against Portugal, Brazil had a much more definite shape, and the players had much more definite roles. The goal is for each player to express themselves WITHIN these roles. That’s when Brazil is strongest.
In any case, on to Zambia. I expect this match to be little more than a training exercise, especially as Scolari seems intent on trotting out his B-squad. But you can use this post as a match discussion thread.
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