By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (May 31, 2012) US Soccer Players — What does it take to beat Brazil? We're going to leave out 90 minutes of luck and focus on what would give a capable team the advantage.
First off, expect nothing from the officiating. This isn't just about Oguchi Onyewu's inadvertent contact with the ball. Brazil inhabits a distortion zone that even the match official is unlikely to maintain immunity. They are Brazil after all. Play expecting nothing from the referee. More to the point, play expecting the worst.
Is that really possible in a high level professional soccer game? Yes, the ability to absorb missed call or a wrong call counts. Getting caught up in trying to reverse time loses games. It also plays to the advantage of a team that starts with a sizable one.
Next is avoiding the idea that you can disrupt Brazil. That can work for long stretches, but it's more of a distraction than a strategy. Running into Brazil's passing lanes and lumping the ball away means very little tactically. If anything, it works to disrupt whatever tactics your team is supposed to be using to… you know… beat Brazil.
There's another way a team disrupts themselves against Brazil. It's the half chance, the almost goal that creates the idea that a shot will fall. It might not. In fact, it probably won't. Brazil plays to that advantage. USA National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn't the first coach and he certainly won't be the last to describe a different game than the one that actually played out on the field. In this alternate time line, the officials didn't call for a handball, noticed a later penalty against Brazil, and correctly interpreted the offside rule.
Give up midfield. This Brazil squad treats the middle of the field like an interstate that leads to about thirty yards out from goal. On defense, they'll happily and effectively man mark through the middle of the field. This creates the illusion for the attacking team that they've figured out a way forward. They haven't, not really. Brazil's defense is one of the most pragmatic in world soccer. Under successive coaches they defend when they want. The hope is that want doesn't overlap with need and it results in a goal. The reality is more often than not the attacking team simply falls for the trap of the half chance.
This is where statistical models become suspect in soccer. There is no set of numbers I've ever seen that explain how to overcome what Brazil does. I would argue it's almost unique in world soccer and I don't think a lot of people would disagree. It's not at all similar to Spain or Argentina, and it's not replicable. We've seen discount versions of Barcelona and Spain's passing game. There are MLS coaches that seriously talk about mighty Barca's influence. But Brazil? Come on.
My insistence on comparing boxing to prize fighting annoys even me on occasion, but it's the closest thing I've got to try to get across what Brazil is doing. They expect their moves to work in a way that isn't at all common. It's across the squad, not just highlighting whoever their latest superstar might be.
Neymar scored from a penalty where his run up was quite honestly as ridiculous as the goal celebration that followed. The concept of friendly is lost in the moment. This isn't a pure expression of soccer in the Eduardo Galeano sense. It's not even a moment for the away fans in attendance and watching on TV. It's another tool to use, a way to dispirit the opposition.
Brazil doesn't just allow for moments of skill on the ball. They're just as adept at shifting around moments of gamesmanship. Marcelo put on a class of how to frustrate the opposition in the second-half. This seemed to gnaw at Klinsmann in his post-game comments.
In the heated moments following the loss, he told the media that what he wanted was the cynical style of soccer we see from teams who never have a call go against them that isn't worth arguing. That those teams regularly include the best in the world isn't lost on him. After all, Klinsmann helped win a World Cup by what we'll politely refer to as drawing the referee's attention. He did what his team needed, knowing the risk he was taking.
Would it have made a difference in the game that had just finished? Again, that's a trap Brazil creates for their opponents.
There was a little overlap run right outside the USA box in the 39th minute that was practically useless. It led to Brazil's version of a half chance, the ball headed out by a defender who easily read the play. That wasn't the point. It was Brazil, picking up the game, a not at all subtle reminder that there's no such thing as a let up. The United States cut the lead in half a few minutes later, but Brazil had already put in the work.
What becomes most deceptive about Brazil is the illusion that it wasn't the other team's night. They operate in a way that can make teams think that on this night there's just no way no how. It's what lets them play with a safety that other teams simply don't have.
It's about as unfair of an advantage as one can get in world soccer. Brazil doesn't have to pass the ball around while some statistician enthusiastically keeps count. They don't have to develop a player over and over until the opposition gives. They simply have to avoid getting in their own way, the biggest difference for the squad in the latest coaching transition. On most nights, that's enough.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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