Brazil look unified and have strength in depth to cope without Neymar | World Cup 2022

Brazil had a decent start to their 2022 World Cup. The first game of the tournament is always a little bit more difficult. An early wrong turn, a miscontrolled ball or a badly placed pass can dictate the story of the game. A team that wants to go on to win the tournament need to realise that and manage the raw emotions and the overall energy of those first minutes. Brazil did that in their 2-0 win against Serbia. But let’s be careful. The three points does not guarantee anything, not even progress to the knockout stage. The players need to know that humility and respect is key here and you can never have too much of that.

Now comes a game against another European competitor, Switzerland. Football is exciting because we will never be able to fully understand it, but a win on Monday and early qualification for the second round is what the coach, Tite, is after. Then he could use the third game to rotate the squad somewhat and try a few different tactical things for the battles ahead.

The win against Serbia was not straightforward. In the first 20 minutes the high and aggressive defending of Dragan Stojkovic’s team put the Seleção in difficulties. It was interesting to see how they dealt with that. The first game of the tournament is always important, but especially so if you are one of the favourites.

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Against Serbia Tite’s team did not want to make any mistakes in their defensive third, but this meant that they were not in control of the ball as much from the back as they would have wanted and were therefore unable to properly infiltrate the attacking zone. Brazil are at their best when they can exchange quick passes, create a rhythm and find space for players to attack their opposite numbers one-on-one.

At first this did not happen against Serbia and that is clearly something other opponents will take an interest in. Dusan Tadic had a strong start and that, along with the tight and tough marking, had an impact on Brazil’s confidence. True, Vinícius Júnior and Raphinha had some luck on the flanks but Brazil were not able to do what they do best – keep hold of the ball and work their opponents from side-to-side to create an opening. When everything works Neymar is more of a playmaker than a dribbler, helping Lucas Paquetá and Casemiro to play creatively, and there is support from the full-backs. Against Serbia, Neymar held on to the ball a bit longer, which did not help the star of the second half, Richarlison.

“Pombo”, as Richarlison is known, was isolated among the giant defenders but did not give up and dedicated himself to his work. He kept on being visible and showed the mental strength of someone who has gone through hardships to get where he is. He never stops running and, as a sign of his character and human values, he is a striker who never stops fighting.

Brazil’s Lucas Paquetá in action against Serbia
Lucas Paquetá may be given more licence to play a creative role for Brazil with Neymar out of the team for the match against Switzerland. Photograph: Tolga Bozoğlu/EPA

His reward came in the second half when Serbia were unable to maintain their high defensive line and threat on the counterattack. To play effectively against Brazil you need to have something approaching Spanish standards in possession and Serbia’s players did not have that.

As Brazil asserted themselves the chances started coming and, in the end, Tite’s team were indebted to two goals from Richarlison. The second one, in particular, was stunning but interesting to me was what happened after the striker’s scissor-kick. The en masse celebration was evidence of a group in harmony.

I don’t like the word union. I always say that before union there needs to be an understanding of each player’s responsibility and the celebration indicated to me this team knows what it means to wear the same shirt and have the same goals, whether they are friends or not. Once you understand what football means, how important victory is for the fans, whether in international or club football, then you understand each other’s needs. Egotistical tendencies are put aside for teamwork above all. Hard work will always come before talent and it looks like this Brazil squad has the maturity to understand this.

The main negatives coming out of the Serbia game were the injuries to Neymar and Danilo, who, like the other full-back Alex Sandro, was defensively solid (but it helped that Serbia were not at their best going forward with Sergej Milinkovic-Savic subdued and Filip Kostic not playing).

However, seeing Fred, Rodrygo, Antony, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli coming off the bench indicated Neymar’s absence for the next two games may not be the big problem some people feared. He is, undoubtedly, the star of the team and one of the best players in the world but without him Tite has the option to add another midfielder, such as Fred or possibly Bruno Guimarães, to play in a classic 4-3-3 to free up Paquetá, or keep the same tactical structure to introduce Rodrygo into the team.

To fill Danilo’s vacancy on the right-hand side we will see if Dani Alves was called up as a genuine playing option or as more of a leader and to bring his champion mentality. I think Éder Militão would be a safer choice but, either way, Tite cannot complain; everywhere he looks in his squad there is quality and options. There are four days between games, enough time to make adjustments while also keeping in mind the physical recovery of the players.

Now for the Swiss. Not the most stable of teams defensively, they pose a threat going forward through Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Breel Embolo. They, like most opponents against Brazil, will play like it is their World Cup final and need to be treated with respect.

Without Neymar the time has come to show the strength of this squad, a squad that Tite has always said is up to any challenge, whatever is thrown at them.

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