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Brazil's Tactical Switch Gives Neymar Centre-Stage in World Cup Opener

Brazil's Neymar is congratulated by Brazil's coach Luiz Felipe Scolari after Neymar scored during the group A World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Croatia, the opening game of the tournament, in the Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, June 12, 2014.  (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press
Karl MatchettFeatured ColumnistJune 12, 2014

Brazil are off to a winning start in the 2014 FIFA World Cup after a comeback victory over Croatia in the tournament's opening match.

Despite falling behind early on to a Marcelo own goal, a Neymar brace and a late Oscar strike gave Brazil a 3-1 win in a match which was certainly intriguing and interesting to watch unfold, if not the spectacular and explosive event that some might have hoped for.

Both sides made a departure from their usual lineups in their 4-2-3-1 systems; Brazil's switch pushed Neymar into a more central role. It worked—to an extent—as he scored twice, including the equaliser on a run from his position in the middle. But there remain questions to be answered for Luiz Felipe Scolari's team.

 

Neymar the Wide Boy

The Brazil side has been largely constructed around Neymar over the past couple of years, allowing him to dart infield from his starting role on the left side of the attack.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JUNE 12:  Neymar of Brazil controls the ball as Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic (R) of Croatia  and during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group A match between Brazil and Croatia at Arena de Sao Paulo on June 12, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazi
Elsa/Getty Images

The centre-forward occupies the opposition's centre-backs, Marcelo breaks forward from left-back to overlap or cut infield and make use of the space Neymar creates and the presence of Hulk on the opposite flank enables Brazil to keep width when they need it.

Moving Neymar into the middle robbed him of one critical facet of his game: that ability to run infield on his natural right foot and look to make passes or shots as he reaches the penalty area.

 

Central Impact

Neymar still looked to pick up possession and run at the opposing defence, but it was far more awkward for his team-mates—who struggled to find tempo and control in the game at times—to find him consistently in space.

On the occasions the No. 10 was able to turn into space and dribble at Croatia, he was a big threat, winning free-kicks and scoring his goal at the end of one such run.

B/R

He isn't a central playmaker though—perhaps explaining why striker Fred was such a passive onlooker in the match—and against teams with a more solid, defensive-minded central midfield setup, this central attacking role will not get the best out of Neymar.

 

Croatia's Positional Control Approach

Out of possession, Croatia clearly sat back in a structured 4-4-2 shape, with Nikica Jelavic dropping deeper from his striker role alongside Mateo Kovacic and two banks of four behind them inside their own half.

They allowed Brazil possession in deep areas, only really forcing the play once they reached the centre circle inside the Croatia half; the European side essentially asked the Brazilian midfield to be creative and brave enough to find a way through.

Playmakers Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic worked hard and kept shape, denying Brazil territory rather than aggressively taking the ball off them, but twice Croatia were undone by this lack of a real destroyer; weak midfield challenges led to direct runs toward the penalty box for Brazil—and long-range finishes.

B/R

Keeper Stipe Pletikosa might get a few fingers pointed his way for failing to stop the goals, and rightly so, but the problems arose as a result of Croatia's performance in the midfield game.

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