Brazil produced a very efficient performance to overcome one of the most tactically impressive sides in the World Cup so far in the form of Juan Carlos Osorio’s Mexico. A goal and an assist from Neymar put the Selecao through to the quarterfinals of the World Cup and deservedly so. The match was characterised by an opening which saw a bright start from Mexico, gradual growing into the game by Brazil and further consolidation of it by the scoring of the goal by Neymar early in the second half. I shall try and deconstruct the tactics employed by both sides here.
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Brazil (4-3-3) Manager: Tite
Alisson; Fagner, Silva, MIranda, Luis; Casemiro, Paulinho, Coutinho; Neymar, Willian, Jesus
Mexico (4-3-3) Manager: Juan Carlos Osorio
Ochoa; Alvarez, Ayala, Salcedo, Gallardo; Marque, Guardado, Herrera; Vela, Lozano, Hernandez
Mexico’s bright start and high pressing:
Mexico looked to take the game to Brazil in the opening stages of the match instead of sitting back in a low block and trying to hit them on the counter. Their high press was aimed at forcing turnovers by inviting second ball situations or creating a man advantage to outnumber and win the ball against the ball carrying Brazilian player.
The pressing was hugely man oriented from Mexico with both Vela and Lozano tasked with marking Fagner and Luis respectively. Both Lozano and Vela started on their natural footed sides, rather than being inverted, presumably to whip in crosses and run down the flanks. This move by Osorio was intriguing as they have usually been deployed on opposing sides throughout the tournament. Guardado and Herrera took upon their direct opponents in midfield, usually Paulinho and Coutinho.
The major talking point about Mexico from this tournament is their adaptability in situational encounters and how they adjusted according to them. As illustrated below, despite their man marking scheme, which became apparent as the game wore on, the players adjusted themselves exceedingly well to press Brazil high up the pitch. Casemiro was taken out of the game by forcing the game wide and blocking the lanes to him so that he could progress the ball forward. This should not be mistaken as a ploy to take Casemiro off the game, who does not excel in ball playing duties. Rather, this was a measure to avoid Brazil taking easy routes into midfield and bypassing the high press from Mexico.
Withdrawn fullbacks- the feature of the game and how they shaped proceedings:
As was explained here, in the tactical snippets written by me in the immediate aftermath of the game, deep positioning of the fullbacks from either side was the standout feature of the game. Tite was aware of the dangers posed by the likes of Vela and Lozano in counters, hence he instructed Luis and Fagner to stay deep and avoid being caught out in transitions- something that Joshua Kimmich and Germany were at fault for in their group game fixture earlier in the tournament. I shall get to this in a bit, after explaining how Mexico made use of this to ensure that they restricted the space for the likes of Willian and Neymar to work with.
Alvarez and Gallardo, the Mexican fullbacks, were also found deep in their own half along with their centrebacks. This was to ensure that Neymar did not find space in behind their back line, as was the case with Willian as well. Once Brazil did have the ball in and around the half way line, Mexico dropped into a 4-1-4-1 shape with Marquez holding the midfield. Both Vela and Lozano showed great industry to fall back into the midfield line and help out with defending. Whenever Neymar received the ball, Lozano exhibited backwards pressing and helped his fullback out to outnumber the winger.
The same case can be seen below here, with Vela doing the same to win the ball off Willian while he is being covered by Gallardo. The intensity that Mexico showed in the first 20 odd minutes was brilliant as Brazil could not have control of the ball. Advancing the ball into the final third was a difficult task as well with Mexico holding their shape well with such discipline and industry.
From a possession’s perspective for Mexico, the positioning of the Brazilian fullbacks deep in their own half was exploited well by Vela in particular. With Willian joining the midfield line to form a 4-1-4-1 shape off the ball, there was space in front of the fullbacks to move into. Mexico accessed this space intelligently by having one of their centrebacks (Salcedo in this case) to dribble with the ball and move into midfield. This would attract the ball near opponents, before releasing the ball to Gallardo. Gallardo could now find Vela in space with the passing lane directly to Vela well and truly open, while Vela was free of any marker as he was initially positioned high up the pitch near his opponent fullback, Fagner. The initial positioning is crucial here so that Willian cannot pick him up and he can receive the pass from Gallardo in space, free from any sort of pressure.
Brazil grow into the game:
For all of Mxico’s good work in the starting stages of the game, they had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard. This can be attributed down to some very poor choices made by the Mexican players during counterattacks while the centre of the pitch was well congested by the Brazilian midfield so that they could force Mexico wide and win any crosses into the box. As the game wore on, especially around the 30 minute mark, the intensity from Mexico began to deteriorate rapidly. Gaps began to appear and Brazil were able to stretch the game well. Casemiro was almost devoid of any sort of pressure on him now and he could keep changing the direction of play. Also, Neymar began to have more influence in the game, mainly because he was a bit free of the strict attention on him. Lozano could not keep up with the falling back to help his midfield out, as was Vela and this allowed Neymar to cut inside at will and switch play to the far side.
As I explained here in my article immediately, post match, Brazil grew into the game as the game wore on with Mexico unable to maintain their intensity in their defensive shape. Paulinho and Jesus were crucial in Brazil gaining entry into the final third through the centre and laying it off to the onrushing Neymar and Coutinho.
The reason as to why the intensity drop affected Mexico that much was the man orientations they assumed. Once an individual duel is won or overcome, due to multiple reasons, gaps appear on the pitch and the individual quality of the Brazilians becomes too much to handle. Once Brazil started getting a foothold on the game, their counterpressing efficiency became much better and they stared cutting the Mexican counterattacking chances at their buds.
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The use of dribbles and switches in play:
To put it roughly, these were the two strategies that Brazil employed to beat Mexico. Of course, the increased efficiency of the counterpressing, the drop in intensity from the Mexicans and much more played a part in deciding the fate of the match. But to tilt the scales in their favour, Brazil made use of dribbling and switches in play to assert their dominance in the match. With the likes of Neymar, Coutinho and Willian in your ranks, it makes sense that dribbling will be used as a means to break the opposition lines and evade any close attention on the players.
Both these factors culminated in leading to the opening goal scored by Neymar. Casemiro had much time on the ball initiate a switch in play to a Coutinho, who was totally devoid of any Mexican player marking him. This followed by a very clever dribble and layoff by Neymar near the penalty area that led to the goal being scored by Neymar from a well hit cross by Willian. The drop in the intensity levels was apparent from the Mexican contingent and it was punished ruthlessly by Tite’s well-oiled machine.
Casemiro feeds the ball to Coutinho, the game is switched to the other side, free of pressure
The next frame, after Coutinho having passed to Neymar.
Osorio had made a change at half time, bringing Miguel Layun instead of Rafael Marquez, shifting Alvarez to holding midfield and Layun taking the right back spot. After the goal, the game was well in Brazil’s control as they ceded possession to hit Mexico on the counter. Tite has instilled great defensive discipline in his side and they demonstrated with efficient ease as they saw off Mexico’s attacks and countering at will. After the goal, Mexico started to push their fullbacks forward. This left huge spaces in behind that Mexico could not defend, leaving Willian with ample space in front of him. He duly exploited them with his pace, dribbling constantly and winning fouls to kill any sort of momentum in the game that Mexico could make use of.
The final nail on the coffin was effected by Firmino, who had come in place of Jesus up front. The goal was a good indicator of where the game was exploited and looked to be played at. A pass to the centre was picked off by Fernandinho, who played Neymarvin down the left channel. Layun had moved forward to attack, leaving Neymar free to move into the box.
It was a thoroughly deserved win for Brazil, who managed to soak up the pressure at the starting of the game before they grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. The goal early in the second half killed off any chance of an upset while it gave us a good demonstration of the game management qualities of Brazil. They did not panic and closed the game out very professionally. The marks of a potential champion are there in this Brazil side, but a game against Belgium will pose a threat to those credentials. One would still put Brazil in as favorites for the match, who seem to possess the perfect balance in their squad, in all areas of the pitch.