On Thursday night Brazil and Argentina faced off in the South American superclássico, the old rivals going head-to-head once more in the quest to qualify for Russia 2018.
The game was the first for Brazil at the Mineirão stadium in Belo Horizonte since the 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat to Germany in 2014. It was billed as the perfect opportunity for Brazil to lay those demons to rest once and for all, and in the process uphold their incredible record of never having lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil.
As well as the obvious attention on the hangover of that devastating defeat, a lot of the build-up to the game was focussed around the two new managers and their differing fortunes during their respective four games in charge.
Former Corinthians coach Tite was appointed by the CBF in June to replace the outgoing Dunga, who had been sacked after a horrific Copa América campaign that saw Brazil exit in the group stage.
At the time Brazil were lying in sixth place in the South American qualifying table and the mood surrounding the national team was one of despair and desperation. Tite, however, came in with a clear plan, using the same 4-1-4-1 formation that served him so well at Corinthians, and had managed to turn things around, winning all four of his games in charge and leading Brazil to the top of the group.
Argentina meanwhile brought in Edgardo Bauza in early August after the former coach Gerardo Martino resigned in protest against the disarray and disorganisation at the AFA. Bauza had previously been at São Paulo FC, Corinthians’ bitter local rivals, but unlike Tite was far from first choice for the job and his appointment was met with some scepticism.
At the time Argentina sat third in the qualification group but in his four games they have only managed one win, two draws and a disappointing home defeat to a limited but resolute Paraguay side. This, combined with FIFA’s recent decision to award Chile a 3-0 win over Bolivia after Bolivia fielded an ineligible player, saw Argentina slide to sixth in the table, outside even the play-off spot.
By implementing a clear system Tite has managed to break Brazil’s dependence on Neymar. He has shifted him out to the roaming left-sided role he plays for Barcelona, rather than giving him the free-rein he was afforded under Dunga, and has thus given the team far more balance and options in attack.
Bauza, on the other hand, had not been able to diminish his country’s reliance on Neymar’s Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi. In this qualification campaign, prior to Thursday’s match, Argentina had won all three games in which Messi started but in the ones for which he was missing they had recorded two defeats, four draws, and only one win.
Argentina had looked horribly disjointed in Bauza’s previous four outings; a group of highly skilled individuals thrown onto the pitch without a clear plan in the hope that their talents alone would be sufficient to prevail.
In the previous game, the 1-0 defeat to Paraguay in Córdoba, Bauza opted for a front four of Agüero, Higuaín, Di María and Nicolás Gaitán in his preferred 4-2-3-1 and had previously even deployed Pablo Dybala wide left in an attempt to accommodate the Juventus man.
However, for this difficult away match Bauza took a different approach. He reverted to a classic 4-4-2, with Mascherano and Lucas Biglia in the middle of midfield, Enzo Pérez on the right, and Di María on the left. Talisman Messi started up front with Higuaín.
This formation was ostensibly used with the intention of providing a stronger block in front of the shaky back four of Zabaleta, Funes Mori, Otamendi and San Lorenzo left-back Emmanuel Más, whilst also liberating the front two from defensive duties. The right-sided deployment of Pérez, usually accustomed to playing in the middle, was an attempt to disrupt the excellent partnership of Marcelo and Neymar down that side of the pitch.
Brazil, meanwhile, lined up in the same 4-1-4-1 formation, with just two personnel changes from their previous match against Venezuela. Neymar came back in after serving a suspension, with Coutinho pushed across to the right hand side and Willian dropping out.
Real Madrid’s Marcelo returned from an injury that had kept him out of the previous two games, with Filipe Luís giving way. The rest of a now settled back four stayed the same; Marquinhos and Miranda started in the middle and Dani Alves on the right.
Fernandinho kept his place at the base of midfield with Casemiro, Tite’s clear first choice in the position, out once more owing to injury. There were some concerns over this in Brazil as Casemiro provides a beautiful balance to the side and defensive discipline that allows others to drive forwards. The Manchester City man had also been part of that horrible defeat to Germany in the same stadium in 2014 and any connection to that national tragedy still leaves Brazilians quaking in their flip-flops.
Renato Augusto and Paulinho, who have both become indisputable first choices under Tite retained their places in midfield as did Gabriel Jesus up front. Despite the four goals he has managed in four outings for Brazil he was perhaps lucky to keep his place as he has not scored for his club since early September.
Dani Alves took the captain’s armband for the game, the new manager continuing with his successful policy of rotating the captaincy that was vacated by Neymar after the Olympics. The decision was also an ode to the late Carlos Alberto Torres who had recently given an interview expressing his admiration for Alves. The full-back even wore Alberto’s number four shirt in homage to the eternal captain and all the Brazil players played sported black armbands in his honour.
Immediately both Brazil and Argentina showed their intent to press the opposition high up the pitch. Less than 30 seconds in Neymar was closing down Sergio Romero in the Argentina goal and in the following passage of play the Argentine forwards pushed up onto the Brazilian centre-backs.
Messi managed to get involved from the start and within five minutes had drawn two fouls from Fernandinho. This led to a booking for the Manchester City midfielder, a worry for Brazil so early in the game.
In the opening exchanges it appeared as if Argentina had the advantage. Perez and Zabaleta down the right were trying to exploit the defensive weakness of Neymar. Zabaleta pushed forward to see if Neymar would follow and Messi also pulled towards that side, as is his wont.
After a frantic opening the game settled into its rhythm. Argentina dominated possession but were failing to penetrate a Brazilian defensive line that had now dropped deep in order to deny Messi space between the lines and to cut off the passing lanes into him.
In Tite’s teams every player, no matter how good, has a clearly defined role to play in both the defensive and offensive phases. A look at the image above will show you how organised the team has become when going backwards. The ex-Corinthians manager demands that his sides remain compact both in and out of possession; the biggest space here is between Paulinho and Neymar on the left but even here the passing lane is being blocked off by Gabriel Jesus, who worked tirelessly all night to interrupt Argentina’s build up.
After the game the manager told the press, “We [Brazilians] need to learn to value defensive actions. Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA with their biggest star playing in defence and the supporters shouting ‘defence, defence’.”
When Brazil did manage to wrest back possession Argentina defended in the clear 4-4-2 shape that was expected from them before kick-off, as you can see in the image below.
With Argentina dominating the ball Paulinho and Renato Augusto switched sides in central midfield, Paulinho going to the left and Augusto to the right. This appeared to be an attempt to use the energy of Paulinho to plug the space on that side of the pitch and it worked well; the momentum swung in favour of the home side from thereon in. In the right channel Renato Augusto also had more space to distribute the ball to the forwards, which is his main function in the side.
The first shot of the evening was a speculative effort from Augusto after 20 minutes that went well over the bar. 120 seconds later Brazil’s ‘keeper Alisson was forced into his first save when Biglia shot from 22 yards after some good Messi work down the right hand side. The long shots were a tell tale sign of a tight, cagey opening to the game. Brazil vs. Argentina rarely provides anything else and it was going to take something spectacular to break the deadlock.
That something came on 25 minutes in the shape of Philippe Coutinho. The Liverpool attacker drifted over to the left to create an overload on that side, in the process drawing three players out of position. Neymar received a pass from Marcelo and played a delightful flick into the Merseyside magician with his first touch. Coutinho turned, drove into the space that he had created for himself and unleashed a vicious shot into the top corner from 19 yards.
The image below shows how Coutinho’s movement in to the half space on the opposite flank drew players across the pitch, leaving the room in the central area from which he is so dangerous. Perhaps Tite had been showing Coutinho videos of the way Jairzinho moved across to create space for Carlos Alberto’s fourth against Italy in the 1970 World Cup final. If so, it was a fitting tribute.
The goal was vintage Coutinho and perfectly demonstrated the way Tite encourages his players to perform the same attacking actions for the national team that make them effective at club level. The move would have looked strikingly familiar to the Anfield faithful.
After his promising first five minutes Messi, by his standards, was increasingly anonymous for the rest of the game and could not link the midfield four with Higuaín in the most advanced role, every time the Barcelona man received the ball he was closed down aggressively by at least one yellow shirt. Try as they might Argentina could not break the Brazilian resistance.
After the opening goal Brazil once more dropped back into their shape with the seamless regimentation of a well drilled army battalion. Anyone who ever watched Tite’s Corinthians would recognise the defensive structure. Argentina had possession of the ball, 63% of it in the first period, but couldn’t arrive in front of goal in high-quality shooting positions. A pathetic Funes Mori shot from 30 yards was emblematic of the Albiceleste’s difficulties.
The image above shows the touch positions in the final quarter of the pitch for the two sides in the first half. Argentina had only three touches in the box, and none in front of goal, despite their domination of the ball. Anyone who thought Brazil’s new centre-back pairing had only looked good in the previous four games because of the quality of the opposition was made to think again.
From the image it is also clear to see Argentina’s focus on trying to exploit Brazil down the right channel. When this line of attack failed to bear fruit, however, it did not appear that Bauza had a plan B, other than blind faith in Messi’s ability to create something from nothing; and even the greatest player of all-time looked bereft of ideas here.
Moments before the referee’s whistle blew for half time Brazil added a second through a surgical counter attack. A long Marcelo throw in went down the line to Gabriel Jesus who showed strength and balance to turn away from his defender. He then cut in and played a terrific reverse through ball to the marauding Neymar who finished with the coolness one would expect; it was his fiftieth strike for the Seleção in his 74th appearance.
This was the sort of direct goal that Tite loves to see from his teams. Even against Bolivia, when Brazil completely dominated possession, goals were scored in this style; drawing in the opposition before catching them off balance with lighting penetration and quick vertical passes from Marcelo into Jesus and Neymar.
The Argentine defending for the goal must come into question, however. They were completely asleep as Marcelo took the throw. Zabaleta and Peréz had their backs to play and were both a full 10 yards out of position. This left the sort of gaping hole that players with the quality of Jesus and Neymar can easily exploit.
At half time Edgardo Bauza took the decision to withdraw Peréz and replace him with Agüero. Messi nominally moved to the right of the midfield four but was still afforded licence to roam as he saw fit. Agüero went up front with Higuaín but the Manchester City player found himself increasingly drawn across to the space on the right hand side as the game wore on. It looked like a desperate act from Bauza and will have done nothing to quell the suggestions that he is way out of his depth at this level.
Brazil continued to sit in their shape and look for opportunities on the counter attack, which were now coming with increasing frequency. The brutal speed in their transitions from defence to attack (and from attack to defence) is a thing of wonder, especially given the limited time Tite has had to work with his players.
Nine minutes after the restart Paulinho drove into the Argentina penalty area on another quick counter and forced a chance for the third. Fortunately for Bauza Zabaleta was alert to the danger and cleared off the line. It is this drive and determination to break forward quickly that keeps Paulinho in the side. He may not be the finest technician but no other Brazilian player can provide what he does for the collective.
Yet another quick transition and some more disgraceful defending brought the third goal just four minutes later. Paulinho played the ball to the left, Marcelo crossed and Funes Mori was unable to clear. Renato Augusto pulled it back across with his first touch and Paulinho was there once more to ripple the gaping net.
The usually composed Tite ran 50 yards down the touchline to jump into the wild celebrations involving his whole squad. To say this felt like a moment of national redemption after all the build up to the game would certainly not be an overstatement.
After this Argentina appeared to have completely lost the mental and physical battle and Brazil turned up the heat, pressurising every pass. The men in white and sky blue played long balls towards Messi and aimless crosses into an empty penalty area. Higuaín ventured further and further out of position, popping up where Mascherano or even Zabaleta ought to have been.
Some Argentine players continued to try to press but it was a disjointed effort and left gaps for Brazil to play through. In the image below you can see Di María trying to close down Alisson but there is nobody providing back up and the Roma ‘keeper can easily play a pass to take him out of the game.
Brazil started to hold the ball from this point on and the fans that packed the Mineirão screamed ‘olê’ to greet every completed pass and every piece of swaggering skill from an increasingly insolent Neymar Jr.
This analysis has been heavily Brazil-centric, and at this point I should probably declare an interest as a resident of the futebol nation, however, this truly was the story of the game.
After the first 20 minutes Brazil had all of the answers to the relatively unchallenging questions posed by their neighbours from the south and, despite having to defend deep for periods in the first half, the Seleção never really looked in serious danger. Tite outwitted his counterpart and the Argentines lacked any sort of creative spark from central midfield.
Brazil defended resolutely, closing down the ball when Argentina advanced, and when they managed to turn over possession yellow shirts broke in numbers with whippet-like alacrity and intelligent interchanges. It was a lesson from Brazil in modern, collective football. Every player performed his role to perfection both in the offensive and defensive phases, and in the transitions between the two.
Brazil broke the Mineirão jinx and maintained their record of never having lost a qualifier on home turf. Messi’s record of winning every game he had started in this campaign is now in tatters.
On Tuesday Argentina take on Colombia at home; if Bauza doesn’t figure out a plan to overcome the Cafeteros his tenure as manager of Argentina could go down as one of the shortest in history.