One of the most beatable Brazil sides in recent World Cup history will face its toughest opponent of the tournament so far in the quarter-finals—Colombia. And even though Colombia might be the team that has shown the most convincing football in Brazil 2014, no one believes the match will be one-sided.
The game is expected to be close; a game that will be decided by a genius play or a moment of lucidity from one of the 22 on the pitch.
In order for that to happen, the player has to have the right tools to perform his best magic tricks. Such tools come from the bench and are provided by Luiz Felipe Scolari on the Brazilian side and by Jose Nestor Pekerman on the Colombian side.
The two masterminds have very different views of the game, and their football philosophies are diametrically opposed—something that is evident in the playing styles of their respective teams.
Felipao isn’t afraid of sacrificing the beautiful style of play that Brazil has been praised for historically. He even left out Ronaldinho and Kaka from the final roster, two players that could have contributed with that dose of magic that this team lacks so frequently.
The No. 10 position, which has also been a trademark in Brazilian club and national teams, isn’t even debatable in Scolari’s tactical scheme. Felipao simply decided not to have one.
However, all that doesn’t matter. Scolari has managed to be successful because of his defensive tactics more than anything else.
When he won the 2002 World Cup, he had Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho shining up top, but let’s face it, those three can shine regardless of the team strategy. Therefore, Felipao relied on them for offensive power. Scolari’s true contribution came on his work from midfield to the back.
It was no coincidence that the 2002 Brazil side only allowed one goal in the knockout stage. And four years later, with a generation of talented Portuguese who had failed in 2002 with its tremendous offensive power, Scolari took them to the semifinals by allowing only two goals (including the French goal in the semis) in six matches.
The 2014 Brazilian team hasn’t been much of a defensive power so far, but it is mostly for the underperformance of its full-backs and defensive midfielders. Basically, with those same players, Brazil managed to allow just three goals and record three clean sheets in its 2013 Confederations Cup campaign.
If anyone can stop Colombia’s offense with its tactics, it has to be Felipao.
And it doesn’t necessarily mean that he has to do it with the back-line men. The defensive work has to start from the top. High pressure up the field gave great results to Brazil against Spain last summer.
Colombia likes to come out playing with the ball controlled all the way from the back, but they leave gaps when their fullbacks go up. And age isn’t helping Mario Yepes with his speed. So if Brazil can effectively pressure up top with fast players like Neymar and Hulk, things will get easier for the Selecao.
The fast transition that James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado give to Colombia’s midfield can be countered by the two Brazilian defensive midfielders if they play up to the expectations, but don’t be surprised if instead Scolari chooses to use Paulinho, Fernandinho and another defensive-minded midfielder all at once as a shield. After all, no one will be missing Oscar or Hulk if they are taken to the bench, especially not if they keep performing as they have done for the majority of this World Cup.
It will also be interesting to see if Scolari keeps Dani Alves in the starting lineup or finally decides to give a chance to Maicon. He could also decide to get Alves in the midfield to strengthen the fast, high pressure up top, leaving Maicon for defensive duties. During Dunga’s time, such a move took place on several occasions.
On the other side, Colombia counts on Pekerman. The Argentinian coach has always been praised for his good taste in building offensive-minded squads. He is a coach who prioritizes playing style over the victory at whatever cost.
Many thought that Pekerman had built a team around Radamel Falcao, a thought that should now not even be considered. He has shown that he built more than that; he built the best Colombia of all time. He built a team that does not rely on just one player.
Colombia’s defensive line can switch from three to four to five men. Its midfield and offensive lines can equally vary its number of players at any given point or switch players from positions. And such changes are not necessarily game to game; they happen in a single match.
As evidence, you can take a look at all four of Colombia’s games so far in this World Cup.
Pekerman has given James Rodriguez freedom and the right players to assist him to show all his capacity. Rodriguez is the talented No. 10 that the Argentine coach loves to use in his tactical schemes.
Back in 2006, he had Juan Roman Riquelme, and now he has found a better version of the No. 10 position, as James is more movable and versatile than Riquelme. Not only that, but Rodriguez has proven to be more effective for this Colombia than Riquelme was for Argentina in 2006.
Jose Pekerman has not only made history with Colombia, he has made World Cup history too. And if he wins the battle against Scolari’s team, he will also be making his native nation proud for more than one reason.
Pekerman could become the second Argentinian coach to ever eliminate Brazil from a World Cup, something that only Carlos Bilardo has done. Pekerman himself has already tasted glory by defeating Brazil. He did it in the U-20 World Cup final in 1995, when he won his first youth championship with Argentina.
It was said that Colombia’s football back in the late '80s and early '90s tried to resemble the style of the spectacular Brazilian game. Ironically, now that Colombia has found its own identity and that Brazil is lacking its own, Colombia’s playing style looks as spectacular as Brazil’s once looked like. This Colombia is more Brazilian in its way of playing than the current Brazil side is.
Nevertheless, going back to the start of this article, the game is even, and the little details are the difference. Those details will be defined by the decisions coming from the two masterminds in the bench.