In June, during a friendly against Brazil, South Korea coach Paulo Bento wanted to see how far out he could push the boat. His side were among the top sides in Asia, reasoned Bento, and so were normally on the attack. Could they take that approach with one of the giants of the world game?
The answer was an emphatic “no.” Brazil breezed to a 5-1 win. It is fair to say that Bento will be doing something different in Monday’s round-of-16 match at the World Cup.
South Korea will have to attack in spurts, spending most of their time covering up and protecting themselves — which presents Brazil with a problem they faced throughout the group phase. In most of Brazil’s warmup matches, the game had already been decided by half-time. But in the World Cup, against more organised, better motivated opponents, they have yet to score a single goal in the first half. Can Brazil coach Tite find a blend to get his side off to a quicker start?
He will be helped, of course, if Neymar is fit and ready to return from his ankle injury. The notion that Brazil might be better off without him belongs to fantasy land. And having Neymar back in the team might also help a structural issue that has been brooding for a while. During last year’s Copa America, the best aspect of the Brazil attack was the partnership between Neymar and Lucas Paqueta. Operating close together, they combined well, with the passing of Paqueta opening up space for Neymar to run through his repertoire.
And then in the months following the Copa, Brazil’s new generation of wingers emerged. Amid a move to Barcelona, Raphinha on the right took to international football with astounding ease. On the left Vinicius Junior found it harder to show his stuff, but he had become a global star with Real Madrid, and his time would surely come. Indeed, his World Cup group stage performances against Serbia and Switzerland have been his best games for his country.
Would the team, then, have two wingers, Neymar as a false No. 9 and Lucas Paqueta as an attacking midfielder? It was an option — but one that lost strength as a consequence of that June match against South Korea and subsequent one against Japan, because it was then that Richarlison started to make himself impossible to drop as a genuine penalty-area centre-forward.
In the 5-1 win over South Korea, Richarlison started the game and scored the first goal, with Vinicius left on the bench. Four days later the team began the game against Japan with two wingers and without a conventional centre-forward. A goalless draw seemed likely until Richarlison came on for the last 20 minutes and won the penalty from which Neymar decided matters.
From that point it became a consensus in the Brazil camp. There would be a centre-forward, and Richarlison was the leading candidate. Was it possible to have an out-and-out striker, two wingers and the Neymar-Paqueta link up? Only if Paqueta dropped to play in place of Fred as an all-around midfielder. It was risky; it meant that effectively the midfield trio comprised Casemiro, Lucas Paqueta and Neymar. Would there be enough defensive solidity?
In a friendly against Ghana and the World Cup opener against Serbia it worked well. Brazil hardly had defensive problems, although it was not easy to bring Neymar and Paqueta close enough together for their combinations to fly.
But then Neymar got injured and he missed the win over Switzerland. Brazil tried moving Paqueta forward into his slot, but with little faith in the idea. Paqueta is a player of association rather than of individuality. In the absence of Roberto Firmino — it always looked like a risk not to include him in the squad — Brazil then tried Rodrygo in the Neymar role. He did not do badly. But he lacked a partner, and this was clearly a problem in the 1-0 loss to Cameroon.
The two wingers work far better when there is good play through the middle of the field, exchanges of passes that open up the defence and create space in order for them to be slipped behind the opposing defence.
And so, moving into the decisive stages of the World Cup, the question remains; as the pressure builds and the stakes get higher, are Brazil able to field two wingers with a centre-forward and still construct play through the middle, maintaining defensive solidity while they do it?
It is a question which South Korea will pose. And this time Tite cannot count on Bento helping him out with an over-ambitious commitment to attack. Brazil will have to box for their openings as they search for the knockout blow.