What went wrong for Neymar, Tite?
When Brazil crash out of a World Cup it doesn’t take long for shock and sadness to be replaced by anger in the country. A villain has to be appointed; usually it is the coach. And, after getting no further than the quarterfinals in two consecutive tournaments, Tite is an easy target.
The knives have extra sharpness this time because of Tite’s conduct immediately after Friday’s penalty-shootout defeat against Croatia. No, he did not flee the scene, as his harshest critics allege. But after speaking to a few of his players he retreated to the dressing room. Many would have liked to have seen him out on the field at the darkest hour, sharing the pain of his players.
The expectations for Brazil are higher than anywhere else, but yet again the Seleção have fallen at their first meeting with a European side in the knockout stage. And the conquerors keep getting smaller. In 2018, it was Belgium, with a population of under 12 million. This time it was Croatia, with less than four million. So where did it go wrong?
The short answer is that penalties were forced by a moment entirely untypical of the Tite team — caught out on the counterattack with the team up 1-0 and the finish line in sight, the game sent to a shootout by Bruno Petkovic’s goal (Croatia’s only shot on target), which needed a deflection to get past goalkeeper Alisson.
The fatal move is being analysed, analysed and analysed again; pressure and extra time can do strange things to a team. Should they press high as usual or drop off? What they should not have done is attempt both at the same time. Croatia built their move in the gaps, where maybe midfielder Casemiro should have been more prudent than to try to win the ball and get the wrong side of Luka Modric.
Ale Moreno wasn’t impressed by Neymar’s display against Croatia, despite his great goal.
But why did it get to this, anyway? Why had Brazil not been able to dispatch Croatia long before, as most had expected?
Injuries did not help — in two ways. First, they weakened one of the most interesting characteristics of this Brazil side: the attacking press. Neymar was not 100%, playing within himself as he shook off an ankle injury suffered earlier in the tournament. Yet the real problem was that striker Richarlison was clearly struggling. Brazil’s No. 9 is the leader of the press and his harrying brought two goals in the previous round against South Korea, but he was carrying a thigh problem.
Brazil had subs warming up after five minutes, but they kept Richarlison on the field. Had Gabriel Jesus been available then he would surely have been thrown on earlier, but the Arsenal striker was yet another injury casualty, and so, without another striker capable of pressing the opposition, Richarlison soldiered on for just over an hour.
This was extremely important. It meant that Croatia could play out from the back in relative comfort and bring their splendid midfielders into the game, from where they could spend plenty of time, if not threatening the Brazil goal, at least dictating the rhythm and running down the clock.
The other area where injuries played a part was at full-back. Left-back Alex Sandro was nowhere near fit enough to start and only played the last 15 minutes, while his reserve Alex Telles had already been ruled out of the tournament. And so first choice right-back Danilo, himself not 100%, moved to the left while centre-back Eder Militao filled in down the right.
Ale Moreno gives his take on Tite’s approach that sees Brazil crashing out again in a World Cup Quarterfinal.
Against massed defences the ability to construct from deep is crucial. Until he tired, Militao attempted heroically to burst forward down his flank, but the team missed the capacity of Alex Sandro to appear in the attacking line as an element of surprise.
There is also a second question, wider and perhaps more interesting. Was the system of play adequate for the competition?
In the past year and a half Brazil developed a way of playing with two wingers. Raphinha took instantly to international football on the right flank; Vinicius Junior on the left matured into a global star and produced his best Brazil performances to date in this tournament. And then, in the last few months the goal-scoring form of Richarlison forced his inclusion at centre-forward. This collection of attacking talent rolled over South Korea.
But Brazil found it harder in the tougher games. Did this formation leave them light in midfield? This certainly seemed the case against Croatia when, without an aggressive press, Brazil ran the risk of being outnumbered three to two in central areas. And there was also a problem in the construction of the moves. Before the emergence of the wingers, the best aspect of Brazil’s attacking play was the link-up between Neymar and Lucas Paqueta.
But afterwards the two of them were often too far apart to combine effectively. It is worth remembering that Neymar’s wonderful goal against Croatia was a special moment in both individual and collective terms. Rodrygo had been thrown on to help Brazil play their way through the middle, and Neymar exchanged passes both with him and then — gloriously — with Paqueta before going wide on the keeper and scoring a goal that answered any questions that were being posed about his contribution to the cause. Had he spent more time closer to Paqueta, maybe Brazil would have found it easier to break down rival defences.
But even with the injuries, and with possible doubts about the team formation, Brazil appeared to have done enough to get past Croatia and move into the semifinals. One fateful loss of defensive focus and two missed penalties bring Tite’s reign to an end two games earlier than he would have liked. His is a cruel departure.
For the second time his team are out after a quarterfinal when they surely deserved more. He knows that plenty of criticism is coming his way, but after the match he declared that he was at peace with himself — and so he should be. A pair of narrow defeats can’t take away the impression that for more than six years he has steered the ship with competence and dignity.