Brazil, the most decorated football nation on Earth, have not won the World Cup or Copa América in eight years. In fact, in those eight years, they haven’t even made the final of either tournament. Yesterday’s shootout loss to Paraguay confirmed their exit from the 2015 Copa América, and these whispers have turned into very loud groans.
In the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals, Brazil were stunned by a Wesley Sneijder brace as they exited South Africa. In the 2011 Copa América, Brazil bowed out in the quarterfinals after losing to Paraguay on penalties. At the 2014 World Cup…7-1. And yesterday, Paraguay happened again.
Watching Brazil against Paraguay without Neymar just felt…off. Paraguay didn’t look intimidated in the slightest. Paraguay outshot Brazil 11-6, and notched six shots on target compared to Brazil’s three. Brazil recorded 485 passes to Paraguay’s 324, but Paraguay were much efficient in creating dangerous chances. Brazil also tried 29 dribbles over the 90 minutes, but only 12 were successful, a success rate of just over 40% (Stats courtesy of WhoScored).
Even without the stats, it was very clear that, again, Brazil looked off. Brazil are spectacularly mediocre without Neymar. Their most lively spells came through the fullback positions with Dani Alves and Filipe Luis. Alves and Luis are both very good fullbacks who have demonstrated their proclivity for bombing forward. There’s nothing wrong with those two players’ involvement in a team’s attack. There is something wrong, however, when they’re seemingly the only players there. Liverpool duo Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino had flashes of good attacking play, but weren’t the driving forces in the squad the way quality attacking midfielders should be.
Brazil are far too dependent on Neymar, but there’s no one else in the squad who is anywhere near his ability. Now, a lot of national teams could say that, but you don’t expect a side as decorated and lauded as Brazil to be in this situation.
The Seleção with Neymar currently find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If he plays (which is a question at times, given his behavior), their attacking tactics are pretty easy to stop. Brazil under the last two managers have installed a philosophy of “give Neymar the ball and hope he does something awesome.” This tactic at times has been successful. Neymar was great against Peru, where he scored a goal and provided a dazzling 91st minute assist in a 2-1 win.
However, José Pékerman and Colombia knew what Brazil were planning to do and invited anyone besides the Barcelona forward to beat them. No one could. Colombia grabbed a 1-0 win and Neymar managed to get himself sent off and expelled from the tournament in a post-match kerfuffle.
And that brings us to what happens to when Neymar can’t play. Brazil lack a spark, and despite the presence of some pretty good creative midfielders, lack imaginative, intelligent play. They managed to get past Venezuela, but Venezuela still put a scare into the Seleção. Newsflash: Venezuela aren’t very good.
Right now, this current generation of Brazilian talent – with one obvious exception – is a shell of their Joga Bonito predecessors. Neymar has the flair and ability to make Ronaldo and Ronaldinho proud, and eventually become one of the country’s all-time greats. Those footballers don’t grow on trees. The guy needs a little help.
However, this isn’t necessarily all doom and gloom for Brazil. There are three years between now and the 2018 World Cup. At Euro 2012, the Netherlands didn’t have Memphis Depay, France didn’t have Paul Pogba and England didn’t have Raheem Sterling. A lot changes over three years.
Over the course of the next three years, Brazil could see promising 23-year-olds Coutinho and Firmino develop into consistent attacking talents at Anfield. Or perhaps players like Lazio’s Felipe Anderson, Fluminense midfielder Gerson or Chelsea-linked forward Kenedy will make their cases to become integral cogs in Dunga’s system.
However, as of now, Brazil don’t have anyone besides Neymar. And as long as Brazil have that problem, they will continue to disappoint and underwhelm at tournaments. It is a problem that is easy to spot and difficult to solve.