FIFA World Cup

If we look past Neymar’s genius and antics, the strength of Brazil’s defence shines through

The last seven winning teams, dating back to Brazil’s own triumph in 1994, have conceded no more than four goals in their seven matches.

When Neymar is not rolling on the ground — because of reasons feigned, imaginary or real — he is a pretty good player. Most of the time, his antics divert our attention from the football.

The Brazilian No 10 has attempted the most shots (23) and got the most shots on target (12). It’s not just that. He has also created the most goal-scoring chances for his teammates (16), attempted the most dribbles (40) and suffered the most fouls (23) at the 2018 World Cup.

As the numbers show, he can play but his constant drama has already become a meme magnet. There was a point in the second half when play was stopped for a lengthy period. Mexico full-back Miguel Layun seemed to gently step on the Brazilian’s ankle, and Neymar began to wail and writhe as if it was a stamp. Nothing came out of it all except the question, ‘Why?’

Why does he need to do this? This was a game he dominated. There were stepovers, there were one-twos, there was a sublime back heel, there was an assist, there was a goal and yet, he felt compelled to exaggerate and react to every little touch. If he thinks, this will get the referee’s to protect him — then he needs to make sure it is and looks genuine.

After the game, Mexico’s manager Juan Carlos Osorio said: “It’s a shame for all football. It’s a negative example for the game, it’s a charade.”

Brazil’s manager Tite brushed aside the comments and so did Neymar but all of it does seem like play-acting most of the time. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth and also distracts us from all the good work that this Brazilian defence has been doing.

Mexico came hard at Brazil in the early going. They were aggressive, they ran at the Brazil defence but Thiago Silva and Co were prepared for that. They soaked in the pressure, made a few last ditch tackles and by half-time it was clear which side was in the ascendancy.

It was a marvellously controlled performance by Brazil. In the first quarter, their midfield and forwards had not found any rhythm but they weren’t worried because they knew they could rely on the defence to pull them through. Mexico were restricted to just one shot on target and that came after 60 minutes.

Brazil have conceded just one goal in this tournament — in the first match against Switzerland. Since then, it’s been clean sheets all the way and this isn’t a one-off. They have been doing this for a while.

Brazil’s record under Tite:

25 games
20 wins
4 draws
1 defeat

54 goals
19 clean sheets
6 goals conceded

19 clean sheets in 25 games shows that this team has a method. In the early going, Tite chose to make sure that he had three players stationed at the half-way line even during a corner. He did not want Brazil to be caught on the break and the side almost never were.

Paulinho and Casemiro are the first line of defence. They track back, they make the interceptions and have an incredible work-rate. The latter earned his second yellow on Monday and that will see him miss the next game but Tite has a like-for-like replacement in Fernandinho. He could also be more adventurous and draft in Fred instead.

But given the results they have had in recent times, don’t expect him to experiment too much. He really doesn’t need to, for now... his formula works.

Then, comes the real defence. Thiago, Miranda, Filipe Luis and Fagner are all mobile and quick to react. They play for each other and off each other. Each of them ready to cover for the other at a moment’s notice.

Marcelo, who apparently had a back spasm due to the hotel mattress, got injured in the last group game but his replacement Luis has been linking up well with the attackers and the defenders. Still, against Belgium — in the quarters — expect Tite to put him back in if fit.

As important as the offence might be, teams don’t win the World Cup with a leaky defence. The last seven winning teams, dating back to Brazil’s own triumph in 1994, have conceded no more than four goals in their seven matches. The logic to those numbers is simple, you give the good sides a chance and they will make you pay.

But so far, Brazil have found the perfect balance between attack and defence and that will give them great confidence as they go deeper into the tournament. And against Belgium, they will need all the confidence they can muster.

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