World Cup: How Brazil cheated, won & staved off national panic – for a few days | Armchair Analyst
Croatia, by the middle of the second half, were boring the world to death, so I'm not going to shed a bunch of tears about that drawn penalty.
But make no mistake: Fred dove to draw what would turn out to be the game-winning penalty, converted by Neymar in a performance that fell something short of electric but nestled snugly into the realm of "opportunistic." And that was enough, in the World Cup opener, to give a Seleção a 3-1 win over the sloppier-than-they-should-have been Croats.
Here's another angle of the dive, which was unquestionably the turning point of the game:
Here are a few other things to ponder from this one:
1. Compressing along the flanks
It was easy to predict that Brazil would spend a ton of time going down the touchlines, since relentlessly overlapping fullbacks has been a feature of theirs for more than a quarter-century now. Add in the fact that normal Croatia left back Danijel Pranjic missed this one after picking up an injury in the pre-World Cup friendlies – leaving them to play the right-footed Sime Vrsaljko on that side – and "attack the flanks" became more than just a strategy: It was an imperative.
They took what the game gave them:
— Devin Pleuler (@devinpleuler) June 12, 2014
Devin's right in that it was wide, but Croatia did a really good job of keeping the game there, for the most part. So once it got wide, it stayed wide – it didn't zig-zag in and out, the type of ball movement and control that pulls a compact defense apart and creates the types of channels that good teams punish.
While Croatia deserve a bunch of credit, both teams deserve a hearty "WTF?" as well. Early on, neither was able to properly weight the long, diagonal ball that can unpin your attack from the sideline. As the game progressed, neither was particularly willing, either. Croatia's network passing graph tells a particularly ugly tale (click the image to get an explanation of how to read this graph – and bear in mind that you need to have completed five passes for a line to even show up):
It was only late, when the Vatreni were looking for their equalizer, that they started opening up the game and playing over and around Brazil's pressure, rather than through it.
But first, the opening goal...
2. The danger of the high press
Croatia were determined to use the "coil and spring" strategy that is expected to be favored by many, many teams in this World Cup. Partially it's the heat, and partially it's just good strategy when facing a superior opponent.
Even though the final score flattered the hosts, Brazil were, without doubt, the superior team. They set about proving it from the start, pressing Croatia high up the field and hoping to cause the types of turnovers that Neymar could turn into goals.
There is a risk with the high press, however:
That's the sequence starting the game's opening goal, an own goal that you can see HERE.
Everybody focused on the goal itself – the myriad opportunities Brazil had to snuff it out at the end, the missed tackle at midfield that put everybody into emergency defense, and the final touch from Marcelo, as odious an on-field presence as there is in the game today.
But the dislocation here, where Brazil's front six is stretched way up the field and totally out of touch with the four remaining in defense, is the genesis of the goal and evidence of Brazil's iffy qualifications as a high pressure team.
This isn't del Bosque's Spain or Sánchez's Chile. They're not as well drilled, not as positionally sound. And if you play quickly, you can open them up.
3. Oscar cuts in to own the middle
Neymar's going to get the glory and the plaudits because he got the goals, and he was probably the most dangerous man on the field. But Oscar was my man of the match, able to pick his spots to dive inside (he started as the nominal right midfielder, and made several nice plays from that spot) and get the better of the unusually sloppy Croatian central midfield trio in the process.
The first Brazilian goal – scored by Neymar – was an example of just how much Oscar has grown over this past season under José Mourinho at Chelsea. I tend to discount things like "fight" and "will" and all the other cliches that the English media love to spit out there (and I hate Mourinho), but that's what the little playmaker showed. He dug the ball away from Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic to resuscitate a play that looked dead on arrival. Neymar then breathed the final bits of life into it with a seeing-eye, scuffed shot off the post.
It will not be the most beautiful goal of the World Cup. Neither will Brazil's third, courtesy of Oscar himself via the counter on a quick, clinical laced shot from the top of the box.
But it was a gritty and tough goal, the type that Brazil needed in order to both bring the game back to level and **ahem** unclench. They know they can score beautiful goals when the game breaks open and there are lanes. But the question with Brazil – always – is, "What will happen when the game gets compact and the pressure ramps up?"
It seems, in 2014, they have an answer. He wears No. 11.