The group stage has come to a close and hosts Brazil have successfully qualified for the next phase. So what have we learned about the Seleção?
The most important point to remember is that group stage performances are not the be-all and end-all when going into the tournament’s later stages. Brazil qualified in first place in their group, which is all that matters. The key to winning short tournaments such as the World Cup is gaining momentum in the knockout stages.
In the World Cup of 1982, Brazil’s dream team with Zico, Sócrates and Falcão were terrific in the group stage, comfortably winning all three matches and dazzling spectators all over the globe. However, they did not address some defensive issues that cropped up against the USSR and Scotland and were shocked by Italy in the second group phase and sent home early.
Brazil’s 0-0 draw with Mexico will mean nothing if the Seleção manage to hit form in the knockout phase. What the opening stage is important for is ironing out mistakes, finding balance within the team and gaining momentum.
With an almost identical squad, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s goal at this World Cup was to reclaim the positive atmosphere created during the Confederations Cup. This was always going to be difficult — these are totally different tournaments, the Confederations Cup is only semi-competitive and the stakes are exponentially higher in the World Cup, for Brazil and their opponents.
Brazil have fallen into this trap before, back at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. One year before, they strolled to the Confederations Cup title, brushing aside a weak Argentina side in the final, winning 4-1. At the main event in 2006, they seemed over-confident and failed to impress, being eliminated in the quarter-finals.
The Seleção’s connection with their fans, a crucial part in the Confederations Cup win, has changed. Last year’s mass public protests took a dramatically nationalist turn around the time of the tournament, bringing widespread support for the Seleção. That same protest movement has since fizzled out, replaced by much smaller, isolated and often violent demonstrations that have lost public support completely. The patriotic swell that the Seleção benefitted from last year has passed, the familiar pressure and expectation on the national team has returned.
The difference is best observed during the national anthem, which since last year has had its second verse sung a cappella by the fans, with Fifa imposing a time limit on anthems played over stadium speaker systems. Last year, while belting out the final few lines along with an almost all-Brazilian crowd, the players looked inspired and motivated. This year, some of the players look visibly nervous during the anthem. Neymar burst into tears before the match against Mexico and went on to play a terrible game. Elsewhere in the squad, players such as Daniel Alves, Marcelo and Paulinho have struggled, three others that look visibly nervous under the World Cup pressure.
A defining characteristic of Brazil’s Confederations Cup victory was the way they started each match at an incredibly fast tempo, pressing high up the pitch and often scoring early goals. In their World Cup opener against Croatia, instead of taking an early lead they conceded an early own goal.
It appears that Felipão’s system is going stale. They have refused to make changes and tweaks and this insisted repetition has stifled their creativity and flair. Against Mexico, they had possession but could not break through to score an opening goal. Felipão looked to his substitutes’ bench and was unable to offer any effective attacking variations.
At half-time against Cameroon, Brazil’s tournament encountered a potential turning point. The introduction of Manchester City’s Fernandinho in the place of Paulinho transformed Brazil’s worst performance into their best.
The match was an odd one. With nothing to lose, Cameroon poured forward and flooded Brazil’s midfield, stretching their defence and impeding them from constructing moves on the ground. The Seleção’s response was to lob balls over Cameroon’s advancing midfield to Neymar, who often found himself in all sorts of space to pick apart the opposition’s disappointing defence.
Cameroon were so vulnerable at the back that Brazil got away with a 2-1 lead going into half-time. It is unlikely any future opponent will offer such space to Neymar and co, especially now we have entered the last 16 stage.
The introductions of Fernandinho and Ramires on the right side brought calm to the midfield storm and Brazil were finally able to control the match and dictate the tempo. Fernandinho’s presence was such an improvement on the absent Paulinho, the Manchester City midfielder helped to organise the play from the middle and even pitched in with a goal. Felipão would be crazy not to start him against Chile on Saturday.
Looking forward to the last 16 match with Chile, there are certainly worries for Brazil. From what we saw against Cameroon, the Seleção struggle when pressed high up the pitch, which is what Chile will do to them all day.
Brazil’s full-backs have also been unconvincing, which Chile will look to exploit. Sampaoli’s side play with two attacking wing-backs, Mauricio Isla and Eugenio Mena, who always look to get involved in the play. Their two forwards, Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas, will also give plenty of trouble to Marcelo and Daniel Alves respectively, always looking to attack the channels with direct running. The potential introduction of Maicon at right-back shows Felipão’s worries in this zone.
However, Chile’s weaknesses leave them susceptible to Brazil’s strengths. Sampaoli’s high back line could be torn apart by Brazil’s moments of explosive attacking skill, while their lack of height can potentially be exploited by Brazil’s good set-pieces. I would not be surprised if we saw a high-scoring tie.
Brazil will also have the psychological edge. The Seleção have not lost to Chile in their last 12 meetings and they have beaten them twice in the last 16 stage of the World Cup, in 1998 and 2010. The Chileans are known as Brazil’s fregués — literally meaning “customer”, a team that regularly loses to another. Of course, this retrospect will have little impact on the strength of either side on Saturday, but the step from the group stage into the knockouts is crucial and Brazil would rather play Chile than have to face their demons of 2010 in a match against Holland.