The Brazilian national soccer team have played two games at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and so far they have yet to justify their status as tournament favorites.
Although the Selecao are still in position to finish first in Group A, their 3-1 win over Croatia and 0-0 tie against Mexico did little to demonstrate that this squad is ready to add to Brazil’s incredible World Cup legacy. According to ESPN FC, manager Luiz Felipe Scolari had this to say after the Mexico game:
A 0-0 is never a good result but it does reflect how close this match was.
The problem is that it wasn’t supposed to be so close. However, Brazil must continue to focus on the matches to come. With four points in the pocket, they must only look back upon their two opening games in order to learn the lessons they will need to make it to Estadio Maracana on July 13.
Who will top Group A at the 2014 FIFA World Cup?
Assuming Brazil picks up the pace and tops Cameroon, they should still finish first in Group A as long as Mexico doesn't unexpectedly blowout Croatia in their showdown. That victory is far less a given than it was a couple of weeks ago, however.
The convincing winners of the 2013 Confederations Cup have been unable to find their signature offensive flow, and their defense has looked vulnerable. Their struggles have resulted from three major problems with their game.
The first problem plaguing Scolari’s side is one many predicted: an overreliance on Neymar.
Neymar is one of the very best players in the world, especially when representing his country, so it is natural that such weight rests on his shoulders. So far though, the team’s reliance on him has been way too obvious on the pitch, not only in terms of who creates chances, but in terms of where players look to.
Every player on Brazil is constantly looking for their No. 10, and the result is an absurdly left-flank-heavy game plan. This is a problem offensively, as you need to attack a defense from multiple angles, but it is also problematic defensively.
The offensive nature of defender Dani Alves on the right flank, combined with the team’s insistence on going left, leaves a giant gaping hole on the ride side of Brazil’s defense. Croatia took advantage of this by pushing on the right side with Ivica Olic and it allowed Croatia’s goal when Thiago Silva was forced out of position to get on the ball.
Julio Cesar was left with only two legitimate defenders in front of him. When Brazil realized Croatia was forcing the ball right, Neymar and Hulk switched sides for a while, but they were just forcing right too much instead of left so they switched back.
Players such as Oscar, Paulinho and Hulk (or Ramires, depending on who is starting) absolutely need to create more individually. Beyond the midfield, Fred has been struggling to create from the striker position. As Sports Illustrated's James Young pointed out, the striker was “repeatedly straying offside and proving ineffectual” due to his “lack of mobility.”
Then there's the second problem: Brazil desperately needs defensive help from its midfielders Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo in order to liberate the wing-backs.
Having wing-backs Alves and Marcelo push forward is an important part of Brazil’s offense, so holding them back is not a solution to the problem. Brazil is lucky that their back four had a huge game against Mexico, because the hole between the defense and the midfield was visible from space. Brazilian soccer is offensive by nature, but you can’t win seven games of elite international soccer without defense.
Brazil's offense brings us to their third and most pressing issue: the team has refused to play on the ground and repeatedly attack through the air.
This makes no sense since their lineup against Mexico was centered around the relatively small Neymar (5’9”), Oscar and Ramires (both 5'11").
These three players are extraordinarily gifted dribblers, so why not open up space that way instead of chancing it on headers?
Ultimately, the situation is far from calamitous for Brazil. Without an absolutely incredible save by Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa on Neymar's header, as well as several other key saves, the Selecao would have six points and would already be mathematically through to the next round.
But this is the World Cup.
After the Cameroon game, it becomes single-elimination. If Brazil doesn’t start getting more from players not named Neymar, the host nation could be left mourning another failed attempt to take home soccer’s most prestigious trophy.