Last night, against Serbia, Neymar had a decent game. His movement off the ball was good, he was comfortable drawing the attention of the strikers without trying to do too much and there was even a generous dose of Oscar-worthy performances.
Neymar might turn around and tell us that ‘that’ is how he rolls but even while he brings himself up to speed, the man who has been shouldering the responsibility of taking Brazil forward in the tournament is Philippe Coutinho.
Coutinho’s 2018 World Cup stats make for pretty pleasant reading if you are a Brazil supporter.
- vs Switzerland: goal
- vs Costa Rica: goal
- vs Serbia: assist
Neymar was buzzing last night but so was Coutinho, as he became the first Brazilian player since Pele (1958) to score or assist in his first 3 World Cup games.
The pass that set up the first goal was the kind that makes fans thank the footballing gods. It was the perfect result of teamwork – Gabriel Jesus dragged the centre-backs to one side, Neymar and Willian stayed wide, keeping the Serbian fullbacks occupied. It opened up a gap in the defence and Paulinho took the opportunity and made the run.
In a game, we see so many such runs being made and so many of them are not noticed. But as Countinho took the ball from the left flank and gently ambled along the half-line, he noticed – the gap, the position of the players and the start of that run.
He noticed and he delivered a perfectly weighed pass that dropped nicely to Paulinho, who converted with a classy touch to give Brazil the lead.
A couple of days before the game, Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos had already tipped his hat to Coutinho: “Everyone is talking about Neymar, but the truth is that Coutinho is also a great player for Brazil. Coutinho is at Neymar’s level.”
Now, that is high praise. But so far, he has shown himself to be more than worthy of that statement. And it only promises to get better.
Have a look at Brazil’s passing stats below:
The one point to note in that table is the interlinking between Neymar and his childhood friend, Coutinho. Countinho passed 18 times to Neymar, Neymar passed 21 times to him. Between them, they are the players who create for Brazil and if they start linking up better, it will become increasingly difficult to stop the Selecao going forward.
Against Switzerland (in the first group game) – that number was very different. Neymar passed to Countinho just 6 times in that game. And in the game against Costa Rica, there were just 9 passes from Neymar to Countinho. In a sheer statistical sense, the game against Serbia was a huge jump and it will probably prompt the Brazil manager Tite to tell them to do a lot of it.
If Neymar truly finds his rhythm, he will draw even more defenders to him and that will allow Coutinho even more freedom to wreak havoc.
Brazil plays three midfielders but such is Coutinho’s threat going forward that Tite can easily ask him to play as a forward too if the situation demands, knowing that he can deliver the goods. It gives Brazil versatility and makes them even harder to stop.
But more than anything else, Coutinho’s performances so far are perhaps a reflection of a man who is supremely confident of his ability to deliver no matter what the odds are. He has been inventive and even though, he lacks Neymar’s penchant for theatrics, he has been just as eye-catching.
The five-times champions will now travel east to Samara to play Mexico as Group E winners. The match against Serbia was still not Brazil at it’s finest; it wasn’t Neymar at his finest either. But Coutinho has already run up the stairs and he’s just waiting for the rest to catch up.
Rest assured, it’s all starting to come together for the Selecao and at the heart of it all is Coutinho.