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Brazil pay the price for midfield misgivings in 1-1 draw with Switzerland

Not a good start for the Seleção.

Brazil v Switzerland: Group E - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

It was expected that Switzerland would bring their A-game, and thus a difficult challenge, for the match against Brazil in Rostov last night, both teams’ opening match of the 2018 World Cup. Xherdan Shaqiri is never a player easily handled, and the “Swiss wall” meme initiated in Brazilian lands did not come out of nothing.

Still, Brazil showed unexpected frailties in the 1-1 draw.

Football’s most important position is the midfield. It is there that games are won or lost, most of the time. Seeing the trio of Casemiro, Paulinho and Philippe Coutinho — even if the latter might be Brazil’s weakest link in their starting eleven — lose the midfield battle to Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami will never be a good sight.

The first part of the first half was great. It was akin to the Brazilian show seen in the warm-up friendlies and in the qualifiers that Brazil passed without breaking a sweat once Tite took over. Ball on ground, good interplay, lacking only better aim on their shots.

A goal was almost inevitable. For Brazilians used to the high-octane (but poorly played) domestic league, a gameplan based on patient build-up with ball retention is the definition of boredom. But it yields results, as it did today.

Coutinho, whose main (and only?) strength are his shots from outside the box, scored on one just 20 minutes into the match.

But Brazil did not “kill” the game after that. They had good chances, with misses from striker Gabriel Jesus and centre-back Thiago Silva on headed attempts from corners, but their intensity had dropped noticeably.

Why exactly that happened is not entirely clear, but knowing how Tite coaches, it was likely under his instructions. His Corinthians teams, which won two Brazilian League titles, one Copa Libertadores and a Club World Cup against Chelsea, were always tactically acute but a little too conservative in attack. And in a tournament as important as the World Cup, those notions are likely to have become even more heightened.

It would seem that Tite instructed his team to “save energy” for the upcoming games — once in the lead, take their foot off the gas pedal. The pair of world-class defenders in Miranda and Thiago Silva, along with growing star Alisson, would surely be able to more than hold their own against Switzerland’s threats.

Only they did not.

Switzerland were already showing signs at the end of the first half that they would be a threat in the second. Shaqiri had finally kicked into gear, and his teammates were getting in sync.

Tite did not react properly. Just five minutes into the second-half, Switzerland got the game-tying goal.

Brazil’s left flank is a strength and a weakness at the same time. It has two of the world’s best attackers, Real Madrid’s Marcelo and Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar, running the show upfront. But once they move forward, holes as big as the Vredefort crater appear behind them.

It is something that had been exploited multiple times in Brazil’s games. Thankfully they usually have a defensive juggernaut in midfield to cover the space, as Casemiro functions in similar ways to what he already does in Madrid when playing alongside Marcelo.

Today, that arrangement faltered. Because of course it would. It is, after all, the World Cup. A tournament that may lack the technical acumen of the Champions League, but oozes in importance. And that in turn affects the nerves of every player involved. And that leads to basic mistakes, such as the one that allowed Steven Zuber to free himself from his markers to head the ball uncontested into the back of the net.

Credit should also be given to Shaqiri, who earned and took the corner, but not without placing an equal amount of blame on Brazil’s failure to pick him up on this play. And several other plays that would come later in the second half.

Brazil’s troubles were not limited to the left flank, where Marcelo did what Marcelo usually does and Neymar’s struggles to could be attributed to not being fully recovered from the February injury that took him off the pitch for three months.

The most troublesome sight for Brazil was the midfield. Numeric advantage alone should have given them the edge. It did not.

Paulinho looked half the player he is, tired of running up and down the pitch with no end product. Coutinho is not a midfielder. Casemiro picked up a yellow, trying to cover for the mistakes of teammates next to him. He was eventually replaced by Fernandinho while Paulinho made way for Renato Augusto. Neither did much to improve Brazil’s chances, even if the side’s shot volume increased. But that was mostly down to Switzerland playing smart, setting their lines deep and attempting to surprise Brazil on counters — and they were almost successful in it.

Some of these long shots were close but none of them made it to the back of Switzerland’s net. And so, the match ended 1-1. Red shirts in awe; yellow shirts in distress.

Obviously, this is not the end of the road for Brazil. The unexpected result should wake some people up, especially those upfront who did not deliver. Willian and Gabriel Jesus were not mentioned because they were simply shells of themselves on the pitch today, and they might lose their starting spot if they do not improve quickly.

But maybe it is time to readjust expectations. In terms of personnel, Brazil’s team is as good or better than most of their rivals for the title. However, they are faltering in the most important sector of the pitch. Tite’s current gameplan is faltering.

Coutinho’s long-range shots will not be enough to bring home a title, as any Liverpool fan could attest to. Casemiro, like Kanté at Chelsea, can’t do it all by himself all the time. Paulinho? Don’t make me laugh. To make matters even worse, the one player who would solve these issues, Grêmio midfielder Arthur, was left at home to watch the World Cup on TV.

Perhaps I’m overreacting. Perhaps this is just a minor hiccup and Brazil’s midfield fate improves. Otherwise, simply hoping that Neymar at half capacity can put the nation on his back will not be enough.

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