Friendly? What friendly? Brazil vs. Argentina can never be described using such a trifling adjective. This was another edition of the purest, fiercest, most spectacular rivalry in world football.
Even the fact that it was played 13,000 km from home, and kicked-off at 7 a.m. Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires time, was not enough to completely destroy the atmosphere surrounding the game. This is perhaps the only international friendly that could draw a crowd of more than 95,000 on neutral territory.
The usual anticipation for this fixture was intensified by the recent and much talked about arrival of Jorge Sampaoli as head coach of the Selección Argentina. And a new man at the helm meant a new team on the pitch. Sampaoli sent his players into the game in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Messi and Dybala floating around trying to provide the link between the midfield four and front man Higuaín.
Brazil, on the other hand, maintained the 4-3-3 that had seen them win their previous eight games and taken them to precipitate qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Instead of changing the shape Tite opted to shuffle his pack in terms of personnel. Out went Neymar, the entire first-choice defence, Casemiro and goalkeeper Alisson. In came Chelsea’s Willian; defenders (from right to left) Fagner, Thiago Silva, Gil and Filipe Luis; as well as Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho and Atlético Paranaense goalkeeper Weverton.
The game exploded into life almost immediately. After just 5 minutes Philippe Coutinho managed to dribble into the area but could not get his shot away. Seconds later Argentina countered with lightning velocity and Dybala slipped a wonderful ball through for left wing-back Di Maria whose shot hit the outside of Weverton’s near post.
Argentina, as expected, had been sent out by Sampaoli to hound the Brazilian players when out of possession. This, though, did not faze the men in yellow who were as determined as ever to employ their quick, dynamic passing game.
Brazil defended using a medium block, with two narrow lines of three attackers and three midfielders to stop Argentina advancing through the central area of the pitch. Tite’s teams are often happy to let the opposition have possession in their own half but as soon as Argentina advanced beyond the halfway line the pressure on the man with the ball was always intense and infuriatingly insistent.
As Argentina were struggling to work the ball forward on the floor Messi ended up coming deep to receive it and try to make something happen. It was to little effect in the opening quarter of the game, however.
After 20 minutes the little shiny-headed figure of Sampaoli became more active on the touchline, pacing to and fro and calling for his team to be more compact when in possession. His expressive, restless manner is in stark contrast to his predecessor Edgardo Bauza.
Moments after the Argentina coach’s little outburst Willian’s pace exploited Argentina’s high defensive line, one of the weaknesses of Sampaoli sides. The Chelsea forward broke down the left and played in Coutinho who couldn’t get the ball out of his feet and was stopped in his tracks by Sergio Romero.
When in possession Brazil always look to work the ball around at the back before advancing with rapid interchanges of passes between three players up one of the flanks. Most of the play in this game, in the absence of Neymar, came up the right where Fagner, Coutinho and Paulinho were stationed.
Towards the end of a wonderfully balanced first half Ever Banega started to come into the game and pull the strings from his deep-lying midfield position. When the Internazionale player starts for the Selección the link between the defence and attack is always more fluid and composed.
Right at the end of the opening 45 the increased control paid off for the albiceleste. A short corner was played to Di Maria whose cross found Nicolás Otamendi. The Manchester City man’s header hit the post but bounced back into the middle of the six-yard box and Otamendi’s fellow centre-back Gabriel Mercado was the quickest to react and had the simple task of pushing the ball into the net.
It was a nice moment for the men in sky blue and white and appeared to give them a surge of much-needed confidence after a series of poor performances and inconsistent results.
At half time Sampaoli took the opportunity to withdraw Higuaín and bring on Joaquín Correa, with whom he worked in his previous job at Sevilla, though the attacker struggled to impose himself on the game.
After seven minutes of the second period the manager also introduced Independiente left-back Nicolás Tagliafico in place of Lanús right-back José Gomez, both former youth national team players making their debuts. Full-back was a position in which Bauza’s side were worryingly short so the fact Argentina now have new options here is certainly a plus. Tagliafcio made an immediate impact, whipping in a cross for Di Maria who was unable to finish.
Despite this isolated Argentine attack Brazil had the better of the opening exchanges in the second period and found themselves in several promising attacking situations. The finest of the lot came just after the hour mark but ended in wails of frustration from the Brazil supporters inside the ground. Gabriel Jesus rattled his finish against the post before Willian hit the other upright with the follow up.
Tite also took the opportunity to test out a slight tactical variation. In the second half full backs Fagner and Filipe Luis were ordered to come inside to build the play from midfield whilst substitute Douglas Costa, who came on for Renato Augusto, and Willian stayed high and wide in the style seen with Pep Guardiola’s teams in Europe and in Brazil with the recently-fired Dorival Júnior’s Santos.
With the exit of Renato Augusto, Coutinho also moved into a central position, another variation on the system. It is a change that Tite had openly talked about testing out and admitted to discussing with Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp. It is a good option for when Brazil need more attacking creativity.
Argentina, too, made alterations towards the end of the game, going to a back four for the last 20 minutes. River Plate defender Joanthan Maidana and Otamendi formed the central defensive pair.
With the substitutions, however, the game lost a little impetus, as is the case in almost all non-competitive internationals. By this point Argentina were happy to try to keep possession, take any little sting out of the game and play out a confidence building first victory under their new coach.
Both managers will have come out of the game with positives. Argentina in particular will have taken a lot of self-belief from this win. It was a huge improvement on the last meeting between the two, when the Albiceleste lost 3-0 in Belo Horizonte in November.
Their new 3-4-2-1 formation worked well and appeared to provide more balance going forwards and in defence. In Messi and Dybala Argentina have the two perfect players to perform the floating, creative roles in this system. With a bit more time playing together, and against teams less well-drilled than this Brazil, they will surely be an unstoppable combination.
Tite, as well, will have been fairly satisfied with the performance. With a second choice back six, and without their most important player, they were able to limit an excellent attack to a few chances and create enough at the other end to have drawn or perhaps even won the game. He will also have seen that he has a plethora of competent, if not spectacular, replacements for his first choice players.
Brazil have already booked their tickets to Russia and it is now a case of testing players and preparing the squad. Sampaoli and Argentina have four rounds of qualification left to do the same. If they continue to progress like this expect both sides to go into next year’s tournament with high hopes to take the trophy.