Ahead of their World Cup quarter-final against Colombia on Friday, there will be one man causing the Brazilian coaching staff plenty of concern. James Rodriguez has lit up the tournament with a number of impressive displays and will have to be stopped if the hosts are to emerge victorious.
Former Brazilian international Zico is a big fan. "In my opinion, he is one of the most talented players in the World Cup," he wrote in a recent column for The Guardian.
"His passing is sweet and it is really interesting how deceitful he can be: Rodriguez can look absent from the game but can pounce and catch his markers unaware."
Provide Rodriguez with just a yard of space and he is capable of producing something truly magical, as he did against Uruguay in the round of 16.
The 22-year-old is a nightmare for opposing defenders. Stand off him, and he has the time to pick out a pass or step forward and strike at goal; get close, and he’ll be away with a drop of shoulder and a flick of the boot.
How, then, will Brazil deal with him on Friday?
In normal circumstances, Luiz Gustavo would have been the obvious choice to keep a close eye on Rodriguez. The Wolfsburg man is a pure defensive midfielder and has done a good job of clearing up in front of the Brazilian defence during the World Cup.
He reads the game well, and, as per WhoScored.com, has made more than double the number of interceptions of any other Brazilian player. Tall, strong and surprisingly quick, he could have gone toe-to-toe with Rodriguez.
Gustavo is, however, suspended for the quarter-final clash after picking up his second yellow card of the tournament in the round-of-16 victory over Chile. As Zico notes in his aforementioned column, the midfielder’s absence represents a big blow for Brazil.
Luiz Felipe Scolari elected not to select Lucas Leiva in his final squad, so there is no obvious like-for-like replacement for Gustavo.
Paulinho and Fernandinho are the most likely midfield pairing for Friday’s match, but while they both have the necessary physical attributes for a defensive-midfield role, neither possesses Gustavo’s positional awareness. Ramires likewise.
David Luiz has played in midfield for Chelsea but is more effective when employed alongside a dedicated holder—such as Nemanja Matic—than when expected to maintain station himself. That leaves Henrique, who played as a defensive midfielder/auxiliary centre-back under Scolari at Palmeiras but is yet to receive playing time at the World Cup.
While aware of the threat posed by Rodriguez, Fernandinho does not see the lack of a dedicated holding player as a significant issue.
"Wherever I have played, man-marking does not exist anymore," he told FIFA.com. "It needs to be done zonally."
Fernandinho was absent from the Brazil team when they last faced Colombia—in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey in November 2012. With Mano Menezes in the dugout, Paulinho and Ramires were the central-midfield pairing.
Rodriguez was part of the Colombia starting XI, but he was not as heavily involved as he is likely to be on Friday.
Colombia’s players generally looked to Macnelly Torres as their primary creative outlet, but Rodriguez still impressed with some neat touches and dribbles. He found space between the lines, even if he was not regularly found by his teammates.
In a match in which he was not a consistent threat, he was still the architect of the superbly worked Colombian goal—playing a nice one-two with Torres before laying in Cuadrado with a no-look pass to finish.
Brazil have generally been a lot more compact under Scolari than they were under Menezes. Still, without a dedicated holder, Fernandinho and Paulinho will have to communicate clearly and stay alert in order to prevent Rodriguez from finding pockets of space in dangerous areas.
During the World Cup, Uruguay have so far been the most successful side at limiting Rodriguez’s overall influence, if not his goalscoring ability.
They sat deep, providing him with few chances to spring teammates in behind. In Egidio Arevalo Rios they had a disciplined and tenacious defensive midfielder adept at patrolling the space in front of the back four. Others engaged Rodriguez, while Arevalo Rios stood guard behind, ready to step forward and make a tackle if required.
Compare Rodriguez’s passes against Ivory Coast, courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone, which featured a number into the final third.
With those in the match against Uruguay.
Brazil’s full-backs will also have to be aware of the lofted balls out to the flanks that have proved successful for Rodriguez so far, most notably in releasing Cuadrado down the right in the build-up to Colombia’s opening goal of the tournament against Greece.
The space in behind Brazil’s full-backs was exploited by both Croatia and Mexico during the group stage. Daniel Alves and Marcelo were more disciplined in their defensive work against Chile and will have to replicate that performance in Fortaleza on Friday.
Finally, Brazil will have to be alert to the neat little corner routine Colombia have already tried on a couple of occasions during the World Cup.
One player goes over to take the corner, nudges the ball out of the quadrant and then waves Rodriguez over as if he is to take it. Rodriguez then takes control the ball, which is already in play, and dashes in toward goal.
The officiating teams blew up and ordered a retake both times, but it is technically within the rules—as long as the signal has been given for the corner to be taken—and is something Brazil should look out for on Friday.