About an hour into their cagey, uninspired performance against Switzerland on Monday, thousands of expectant Brazilian football fans at Stadium 974, and the millions watching at home, surely had one thought on their mind: “Can they do this without him?”
Neymar – currently out with an ankle injury he sustained in Brazil’s first game – has been expected to guide his country to World Cup glory for the better part of a decade. Now in his maturity, he has become the most crucial cog in a system full of vastly talented players touted as favourites for the title in Qatar. For all the drama and subsequent criticism that seems to magnetically follow him around, the prospect of playing the rest of this tournament without Neymar could be problematic for Brazil.
Ardent fans of Brazilian football would not be happy to hear this, but this team is more European in playing style than it has ever been. Most of the talent on display has been honed at elite European football clubs as opposed to the futsal grounds of their home country, and coach Tite is unmistakably influenced by European tactics.
As opposed to the one and two-touch passing, dribbling skills and trickery most associated with the Selecao, this is a team that emphasises creation of space more than flair, with a solid defensive structure, a systematic approach that has been well tested by lesser-talented teams in South America that like to defend deep and hit on the counter-attack.
The approach can be reliant on Neymar, barring the obvious threat he holds with his generational talent. Playing a deeper role than his usual forward position allows him to create space. There are few players on the planet that are better dribblers than him, and even fewer who are better at drawing defenders.
When Neymar receives the ball deep, he dribbles past midfielders with ease and draws defenders to close him down, leaving behind plenty of space for players like Vinicius Jr., Richarlison and Raphinha to run into and create attacking threat. When he’s off the ball, Neymar is roaming all over the empty spaces and drawing defenders to mark him, again creating space for fellow attackers to move into.
How they fare without him
Over the past 18 months, Brazil have been in incredible form, hardly looking stale or losing a game in the build-up to this tournament.
Emphasising on a few results in isolation is not exactly indicative of a team’s performances, but it is not a mere coincidence that in the few games where they have stuttered, it was without the involvement of their star man. Two of their three draws in World Cup qualification came without him, the same when they rested him in the only game they did not win in the run-up to their final defeat to Argentina in the Copa America last year, drawing 1-1 to a defensively-sound Ecuador.
Against Switzerland, Brazil eventually won 1-0 thanks to a moment of inspiration from Casemiro, but they looked devoid of inspiration going forward for a majority of that game.
Neither Brazil nor Neymar were at full tilt in their 2-0 win against Serbia, but it was often the talisman thanks to whom they broke open the game. The first goal came after Neymar got past two midfielders on the half-turn and drove with the ball into Serbia’s area, eventually taken on by Vinicius whose shot was parried into the path of Richarlison.
Earlier, it was his promising drive into the final third that led to drawing a yellow card for Nemanja Gudelj, who was later substituted to not risk a red, which affected the balance of Serbia’s deep defence and allowed Brazil to gain a foothold as the game wore on.
Already through to the Round of 16, Tite will likely not risk Neymar in their next game against Cameroon. Even if he returns in the latter stages of the tournament, there are question marks over whether or not he will be fully fit.
So much of the balance in Tite’s team is built around Neymar stitching the play between midfield and attack that it is hard to point at one player to replace him in particular. But Brazil have no dearth of talent on their bench.
Against Serbia, Lucas Paqueta moved further forward to occupy that role as Fred was called up to the midfield, a move that didn’t quite work. Paqueta was subbed off at half- time for Rodrygo, going for a more traditional 4-2-3-1 with four clear-cut attacking players which did look a bit more promising.
The issue with that system, however, is that each of the attackers found it more natural to either stay wide, or make runs in behind the defence, none of whom would occupy space centrally or draw defenders deep to create space behind them.
If Neymar is to be out for longer than expected, Gabriel Jesus may play a bigger role in this team, maybe replacing Richarlison as a striker who likes to come deep to receive the ball and replicate some of Neymar’s ball-carrying. Tite may even try a two-man strike force at times, with Raphinha and Vinicius staying wide.
Replacing Neymar is not just about replacing his talent, but about replacing the role he plays which is so crucial for the attacking philosophy of his side. Tite will need him back and firing, or get that replacement right, at the business end of this tournament.