5 takeaways from Brazil’s World Cup friendlies

Brazil's Neymar during the Bobby Moore Fund International match at Wembley Stadium, London. (Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)
Brazil's Neymar during the Bobby Moore Fund International match at Wembley Stadium, London. (Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images) /

Brazil looked dominant in their last two World Cup warm-ups. Here are five takeaways from their matches against Croatia and Austria.

Brazil enter the World Cup in the best possible form from their World Cup friendlies. In the last four matches, the selecao have scored nine goals and given up none. They exercised some demons from 2014 in a 1-0 win over Germany a few months ago and continued their terrific form in the last couple of weeks, beating Croatia 2-0 and Austria 3-0.

There won’t be many surprises during the group stage for Brazil. Tite tinkered with lineup and formation changes during qualifying, but has all but nailed down his starting XI when the games matter. With the group stage only days away, here are five takeaways from their last two matches.

Neymar is 100 percent

There were a few doubts as to whether or not Neymar would even be able to play in the World Cup after suffering a season-ending injury in February. He experienced a few setbacks on the road to recovery, but eventually got back into match fitness in May.

On his first game back, coming off the bench, he did this:

Starting the second match against Austria, he did this:

If you had any doubts about his fitness, confidence or ability after his injury, go talk to Aleksandar Dragovic, the Austrian defender who found himself on the ground for the second goal.

Brazil would still have a great shot at progressing far in the tournament without Neymar, but they’ll need him to be at his best to win the whole thing. If the last two warm-up matches are any sign, the selecao need not worry.

One starting spot up for grabs?

Tite rolled out a 4-3-3 formation for the last two matches against Croatia and Austria. All indications point to that being his go-to in the group stage.

Allison is Brazil’s keeper for the tournament barring an injury or uncharacteristically poor play. The back four of Marcelo, Miranda, Thiago Silva and Danilo look nailed on. Casemiro and Paulinho are automatic starters in the midfield, as are Neymar and Gabriel Jesus up top. Where the intrigue lies is with Willian, Philippe Coutinho and Fernandinho.

Against Croatia, Tite puzzlingly played Paulinho as more of an attacker on the flank while Willian was tasked with a more box-to-box role. When Neymar started the next match, he took over the left side and allowed Willian to play in his more preferred role as the right-sided attacker. This left Coutinho to play in the midfield three.

One of Coutinho, Willian or Fernandinho will be asked to play off the bench most of the time. If Tite wants a more defensive-minded side, Coutinho is likely the odd man out. Brazil can play with a Fernandinho-Casemiro-Paulinho midfield three with Willian in the front three. When Brazil want to open the match up and go after an opponent, Fernandinho likely drops out to feature either Willian or Coutinho in the midfield three.

Defense is a strength

This isn’t your 2014 Brazil World Cup squad. Not only have their been sweeping roster changes since the last World Cup, it’s clear the selecao have taken their horrendous defensive performance to heart.

Everyone remembers the 7-1 drubbing in the semifinals, but there were signs pointing toward a defensive meltdown before then. The fear of a similar disaster will still be in Brazilian’s minds until the end of this World Cup, but they shouldn’t be. Tite has a system, and has drilled it into his players’ minds. This has been apparent since qualifying, but been shown off even more in the past few matches.

Brazil pressed Austria high up the pitch, never giving them a moment to catch their breath and play easy passes out of the back. The reason this works so well is because of the two, and sometimes three, defensive-minded midfielders that play behind the front three. Casemiro, Paulinho and Fernandinho all possess above-average-to-excellent tackling skills, but are even better at cutting off angles to passing lanes left from the high press and reading where the threat of danger is on the counter-attack.

There will be no 7-1 scoreline this year. In fact, Brazil will probably be one of, if not the best, defensive team at the World Cup.

Brazil will pass out of the back

One of the biggest disadvantages of playing with two or three defensive-minded midfielders is that it means Brazil’s passing ability sometimes is left wanting. That’s not to say that any of the three are particularly bad at cutting through the lines and making forward passes, but it’s not their strength.

Casemiro, in particular, has been criticized for his on-the-ball skills and passing ability. In the Champions League final against Liverpool, Klopp’s pressing focused specifically on closing down the Brazilian and forcing him to make plays. For the most part, before the Mohamed Salah injury in particular, it worked.

Being the center of the midfield three, most of the build-up play can go through Casemiro. However, with two excellent ball-playing and passing center-backs, along with offensive-minded full-backs, play can often simply go through and around him. Austria and, at times, Croatia pressed Brazil high up the pitch to no avail.

The selecao can and will pass out of the back to open up space for their attackers. They have the players to do so, and can take advantage of a high press using this tactic.

Next: 10 players with the most to prove

Paulinho could score multiple goals

Brazil’s attack is just about as strong as possible. Having Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Coutinho, Willian, Douglas Costa and Roberto Firmino in the rotation is almost unfair. The first three all showed off what they could do against Austria, and Firmino got in on the action late against Croatia to put the game away.

What makes this attack even scarier is the threat Paulinho making late, penetrating runs into the box after the attack is deep in opposition territory. The Barcelona midfielder had six goals in qualifying, including at hat-trick against Uruguay in a 4-1 win. Paulinho had multiple opportunities against Austria to get on the score sheet using those clever late runs. He’s given more of a free role to use those traits given Casemiro’s defensive positioning and intelligence.

Opposition will focus on stopping the front three, and rightfully so. They’re the biggest threats to score at any time, and can make defenses look disorganized and disjointed. This just gives the midfield, specifically Paulinho, even more time to pick his spots and pounce on an opportunity to score.