Brazil raise their game vs. Serbia, show why they're World Cup front-runners
MOSCOW -- Did they take it as an omen?
News of Germany's shock World Cup exit would have echoed around the Brazil squad as they arrived at the Spartak stadium for their Group G clash with Serbia. Favorites, like the very, very rich, have something in common even when they are so outwardly different.
Germany falling could have been a sign. Was the ancient order about to be subverted? With Italy not even qualifying and Germany saying "Auf Nimmerwiedersehen" to Russia, were Brazil next? Would the knockout stage really be played without the winners of 13 of the past 20 World Cups? Were those villagers with sharpened pitchforks and flaming torches at the gates?
Not on Wednesday night, they weren't.
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In what was fundamentally a knockout game -- loser goes home -- Brazil rolled past Serbia, 2-0. More importantly, they raised their game several notches from the nervy, inconsistent displays we witnessed against Costa Rica and Switzerland, none more so than Neymar, who looked a different player entirely. (More on him later.)
The win also epitomized the balance Tite is trying to strike in the Selecao side he has built: a team that excels in transition, isn't afraid to counter-press at the right time and is water-tight at the back: the only goal they've conceded in the past eight games was against Switzerland and a different referee might well have disallowed it for a shove. But also, they're a team that channels technical and creative superiority towards concrete results: creating better chances to shoot at the opposition goal. (In this regard, they are firmly above all the sides left in this tournament, with the possible exception of Spain and Belgium.)
Tite has pushed these concepts from the moment he took over but the journey has been far from straightforward.
"I had a lot of sleepless nights when I became manager," he said. "I asked myself how I could harmonize this team, how I could turn a group of athletes into a unit, all with so little time. It was a challenge, to be sure."
For a long time Brazil were stuck between the legacy of the oft-stereotyped "jogo bonito" of the 1950s and '60s, and its resurgence under Tele Santana, and its few-frills counterculture epitomized by Sebastian Lazaroni, Felipe Scolari and Carlos Dunga, the supposed "European style" where substance trumped flair.
It's an over-simplification, of course. Even the Brazil 1970 side, arguably one of the greatest ever, wasn't a continuous feast of flawless technical football and Scolari himself found a way to accommodate Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho in the same side. But that nagging belief that the Selecao were always somewhat out-of-step with the tactical cutting edge (and, really, had been since the days of the "diagonal") never quite went away.
By whatever metric you choose, this Brazil are a modern side. You could plaster a sponsor on their chest, plunge them in the Champions League and they would not look out of place in the latter stages. There is a cohesion and a tactical nous you rarely get in international football, mainly because managers have little time to work; instead, coaches usually chop and change and instant results are often more important than chemistry.
This team's defensive prowess was evident in the previous two group games. The great leap forward came in the final third. Against Switzerland they created little, against Costa Rica they only got going in the second half (after Douglas Costa and Roberto Firmino came on). Tite however kept faith with his XI, perhaps because he knew it was the best way to counter a physically stronger (if a bit more ponderous) Serbian team, but also because he values chemistry and cohesion.
The front four shifted the ball quickly every time they won it back and off the ball, they moved with pace, precision and purpose. Willian was heavily involved down the right, limiting Aleksander Kolarov's forays and stretching him wide. Gabriel Jesus was the usual pressing machine -- useful even when his aim is wayward -- while Philippe Coutinho ensured the ball circulation remained sharp and provided the kind of vertical incisions box-to-box midfielders fantasize about at night. (The way he spotted Paulinho's sprint and teed him up for the opener was textbook stuff both in terms of technique and speed of thought.)
And then there was Neymar. His previous outings saw him try to do too much on his own, resulting in a game of "Whack-a-Ney" against Switzerland and peak psychodrama, replete with dives and tears, against Costa Rica.
Tite would not be drawn on whether he told Neymar to dial it down a notch but against Serbia he was disciplined and direct, happy to be a cog in the machine while distilling his game down to the essential parts. He hugged the touchline, opening space for Coutinho and Paulinho. He sent laser-guided passes into space for Gabriel Jesus. He played more first-time passes than he did in the first two games combined (at least, it felt that way). When he got fouled, he got up and responded with a hug (Adem Ljajic) or a pat on the back (Dusan Tadic).
The magic was still there, of course; it's just that it came at the right time. He uncorked a sombrero on Sergej Milinkovic-Savic while running at full speed on the counter, which is when these tricks actually are useful, and his incessant running resulted in two good chances late on.
This is the Neymar Brazil needs right now and it's exactly what they got.
The Selecao is also transitioning at the back. This was a team predicated upon Dani Alves and Marcelo to provide creativity cutting inside. The former was lost before the tournament, the latter after 10 minutes against Serbia on Wednesday night. With Fagner and Filipe Luis on the flanks, it's a far more workmanlike set of full-backs but that's just fine. If anything, it gives the front four more license while ensuring holes are plugged at the back.
Thiago Silva and Miranda -- if Brazil go on to win the World Cup, they will be the oldest center-back pairing to become world champions -- have the experience and savvy to snuff out most danger. Other than a spell around the hour mark, they were rarely stretched.
Indeed, the way this Brazil side can absorb pressure is another ace up Tite's sleeve. They don't disdain playing on the counter when they need to and in fact, these two center-backs are even more comfortable playing deeper than they are in the open field.
If Serbia wasn't a one-off, things are definitely coming together and are doing so in the way Tite wants, as as a sort of trans-oceanic hybrid predicated not upon individuals (and not on that individual, at least for now) but on a collective ethos. Brazil can score goals like this but they certainly don't need to. In fact, if they only score on set-pieces, transitions and the odd Coutinho strike from distance, that's just fine. As long as they score, and continue not to concede, Tite will be happy. Oh, and Brazil will be on their way to being Hexacampeaos.
Asked about rising expectations for Brazil now that Germany are out, Tite smiled. "We don't live in expectations, we live in reality. And reality says we are strong and getting stronger."
Nobody was going to argue with him on Wednesday night.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.