Brazil have tremendous attacking talent on paper, but they have yet to hit upon the ideal winning combination
Today, over 50 years after the event, few remember that the hat-trick hero of the 1966 World Cup final Geoff Hurst was in fact England’s second string striker. But for those who watched football in the 1960s, and indeed as admitted by Hurst himself, he was a mere shadow of the player England’s first-choice centre-forward Jimmy Greaves was.
In fact, Greaves started in all three of England’s group matches, being replaced by Hurst for the quarter-final only due to injury. By the time the final rolled around, Greaves was fit to play again, but the England manager Sir Alf Ramsey chose to retain Hurst due to the chemistry shown by the team in the quarter and semi-final matches.
The rest is history.
It is a truism of football that sometimes the best players don’t make for the best team, and a good manager understands this. France is a good case in point. Few would argue that Olivier Giroud is a better player than either Karim Benzema or Alexandre Lacazette, yet it is undeniable that France play better with him in the line-up.
Similarly, Marouane Fellaini would make no one’s list of top footballers, but Jose Mourinho and Roberto Martinez have both learned how useful he can be to their teams, hence his place in the side. Sometimes, the right combination of players is more important than playing the best eleven you have at hand. In fact, always.
Which brings me to Brazil.
Now don’t get me wrong, they played well against Belgium and were unlucky to go out. But it seems to me that despite their surfeit of attacking talent – or maybe even because of it – that Brazil have still not got their front-line combination right and are considerably less than the sum of their parts.
Consider the fact that their terrifying attack scored fewer goals against Belgium than either Japan or Tunisia managed, and that throughout the competition it was their defense rather than their attack that was their strong suit.
Brazil have tremendous attacking talent on paper, but they have yet to hit upon the ideal winning combination. Part of the problem is that Coutinho and Neymar essentially play in the same position, and moving Coutinho into the middle to accommodate Neymar in the inside left channel unbalances the attack. Especially with Marcelo marauding down the wing, and Coutinho routinely drifting over to the left where he feels more comfortable coming in onto his right foot, there is simply not enough room for everyone to play to the best of their ability.
But there is a more fundamental problem to Brazil’s attack, and that is that their ostensibly best player – Neymar – is untouchable. The truth is that the attack might work better without him. In the quarter-final, Brazil improved considerably when they brought on their substitutes, but they might have done better still to keep Willian on the pitch and to bring Neymar off. Or even Coutinho. But clearly, this was never going to happen.
Brazil were in many ways desperately unlucky. Had Casemiro not been suspended or had they been just a touch more clinical in front of goal, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But even had they won, I think the fundamental problem remains: they might be better off with a forward line that includes the workmanlike abilities of a Roberto Firmino or a Douglas Costa than with one that tries to shoehorn the 100 million Coutinho and 200 million Neymar into the same side.
In fairness to both, had Coutinho slotted home from Neymar’s superb lay-off with the clock running down, then we would right now most likely be applauding their telepathic connection.
But at the end of the day it is hard to argue with the observation that the forward line of Jesus-Neymar-Coutinho-Willian -- for all its abundance of talent and ability -- just doesn’t fire on all cylinders the way that a Lukaku-De Bruyne-Hazard one does.
On paper it is more than comparable. But they play on grass, not paper.