The Brazilian Conundrum

Each country has their own special relationship with their respective national teams. From comments on coaches, captains and everything in between, all criticism or praise comes from the deeply rooted love for the country, team and sport.

As theBRKDWN’s resident Brazilian, I’ve found myself naturally aligning with one of the most divisive national fanbases in the world. Thus, within a population of about 209 million self-appointed national team coaches, I enter my position on a newfound dilemma which brings more questions than answers for both the men’s and women’s team. There’s one glaring question that stands above the rest: why do they play better without their best player?

The Women’s Team

We’ll start with the women’s team, as the examples are lower in quantity but much more glaring. It’s nearly common knowledge that Marta has become one of the best soccer players to ever grace the field, and is highly regarded as the best female player since she laced up her boots for the first time. Though Norwegian star Ada Hegerberg deservedly took home the first female Ballon d’Or, many across the game in general still hold great respect for the Brazilian number 10.

Unfortunately, to counteract having an on-field phenomenon within their ranks, the Brazilian Federation hasn’t provided adequate support to their women’s team. For years, the federation just completely terminated support for the women’s team in general. As a problem that plagues most, if not all, women’s programs around the world, this has restricted the Brazil team from becoming a major tournament contender.

Leading into this summer’s World Cup, Brazil seemed even less likely to hold a high standard for success. The Canarinhas lost 10 of their 11 games leading up to the World Cup, and the record spans further if we include one certain factor.

Within Marta’s last nine starts with the national team before the World Cup, Brazil has come away with one win up against eight losses. Over that nine-game stretch, the Seleção averaged 12.5 shots overall while averaging 3.5 shots on target. Despite the moderate amount of shots taken per game, Brazil only registered a mean of 0.77 goals. The lack of goal production obviously played an immense role in the disappointing string of results leading up to the tournament.

With Marta on the field in this span, Brazil also seemed to concede possession, averaging 47% per game in those nine matches. I understand at this point it just seems like correlation. The direct link between Marta’s presence and the poor form lies in her direct involvement in the attack. The forward, regarded as the “Pele in skirts” by the Brazilian icon himself, was directly involved (shot or assisted) in an average of 39% of the shots generated by Brazil in her last nine games.

After years of dominating the women’s game, without the proper investment in development around her, Marta had found herself as the focal point of the Brazilian attack. As teams around the world were able to develop, they found it easier to stifle such an attack at least to the point of earning results against Brazil.

Without Marta on the field, the numbers tell a whole different story on almost all fronts. In the last nine games in which the Brazilian women’s team took the field without their prized number 10, the attack averaged 15.2 shots in total and 6.2 shots on goal per game. The slight bump in total shots and nearly doubling of the shots on target led to a major increase in goals per game as well.

The Seleção femenina stepped up the goal production to average 2.7 goals, which interestingly enough translated to certain better results. Over the nine games without Marta, Brazil earned five wins, in all of which they scored at least three goals.

Of course, all of this could tell a good amount of people that the team is better off without Marta. But for those who dive deeper into the games over the two respective sets of nine games, they will see a difference in opponents. When set to face stronger opponents, like the US, Germany, France, etc., Marta usually gets the call. Thus, Brazil are already prepared to face generally stronger, more organized defenses that call for moments of brilliance  only players like Marta can produce. However, these teams are finding ways to make those moments come fewer and farther between. And that’s the dilemma.

The Men’s Team

Now we move on to the men’s team, who have a plethora of their own problems but we’ll focus on this issue for today. Labelling Neymar as Brazil’s best player just in itself would be regarded as a hot take amongst some down in his home country. But generally, aside from the diving and off field distractions, Neymar also is able to produce individual performances that will leave jaws hanging all around the world.

We could spend all day discussing the enigma that is Neymar, but equally as complex is this shared impasse that the men’s team have regarding their controversial star. In Ney’s last 15 appearances with the national team, they average 17.1 total shots and 6.3 shots on goal per game. The Brazilian attack with Neymar over these matches also generate 1.9 goals per outing, leading to wins in 12 of the 15 matches.

Brazil also sees a fairly strong advantage in possession in these 15 games as well, conjuring up a mean of 61% in that span. In order to also try and clear up the correlation vs causation debate here, it’s important to take a look at Neymar’s direct involvement within the teams attack, which is significant. The PSG forward accounts for taking or setting up an average of 41% of the shots taken over his last 15 starts.

In contrast to the situation with Marta, the positive difference between a full-strength and a Neymar-less Brazil is almost intangible. Rather than the stats having a drastic increase, the tactical approach of Brazil changes, which yields both better results as well as on-field play overall. We’ll take a look as to why that is.

In the last 10 games without Neymar, which admittedly get spaced over the last two or three years, Brazil actually sees a decrease in certain stats. Average total shots dip to 13.9 per game while the mean of possession also takes a slight drop down to 58% in that span.

Where we do see increases in stats is what is important in terms of the success of Brazil. Shots on goal bump up to 7.1 on average among the games without Ney. Along with being more accurate with shots, Brazil in turn also becomes more lethal. Goal production in the games without Neymar rises to 2.9 per game, helping the Seleção find wins in nine of those 10 matches.

There are also certain variables to consider here that keeps this situation from being so black and white. The matches with Neymar, like with Marta, usually coincide with stronger opponents. Also, as mentioned before, it’s been rare to see a Neymar-less Brazil over the past few years, making the squad without him different more often than not. But that leads into this “intangible” claim we said we’d get back to, with a focus on attacking tactics.

The Difference

There’s a stark difference between the effects of not having Marta and not having Neymar, which lies in their individual style and its effect on the team. Marta’s use of pace, strength and skill is usually far more direct, with a preference of running at and through defenders to get to the goal. Her direct style leaves her susceptible to fouls, whether defenders are frustrated or just trying anything to stop her. The noticeable deviation is that Marta tends to want to fight through fouls and get to the goal no matter what.

This unrivaled determination is what sets her apart during the early years of her career, but as defences grew stronger they found ways to take back the ball without fouling. With the dispossession happening more consistency, and factoring in Marta’s heavy influence in the attack, it makes sense that most attacking numbers, as well as possession would take a bit of a hit.

With Neymar, the game is a little bit different. Actually, it’s a lot different. With Neymar’s skill set, he tends to find more intricate ways to build up play towards the goal. One-on-one situations usually have him alternating between stagnant skills and dynamic acceleration, looking to unsettle his opponent. As most of the world sees, Neymar also falls victim to a number of fouls and foul attempts. But unlike Marta, Neymar plays into it, which also seems to explain the changes in stats.

The tendency to draw more fouls does a number of things. Directly regarding the stats, the more Neymar gets fouled the more Brazil are able to retain possession. Most of the free kicks resulting in fouls on Neymar are taken to retain possession and regroup, as it gives the defense time to set up and evens out the numbers for the impending attack. The increase in total shots can also be drawn from this willingness to reset with set pieces. With defenses having more time to set up and organize, as slight as it may be, Brazil are forced to take more shots from unfavorable positions, resulting in off-target attempts.

Without Neymar, who’s even more of a focal point in the attack, Brazil’s play is more spread out and fluid. With chances falling to the rest of a very talented group of players, and a pace of momentum that leaves defenses a lot less organized, there’s more room for Brazil to not only be more selective with shots but to also be more lethal in taking them.

Also, the style of focusing the attack mainly through one player has not been where Brazil has found success as time has gone on. Ever since the times of Pele, Brazil has found ways to make sure they field a solid team rather than build around one. The squad of 1982 is highly regarded as one of the best Brazil has ever put together, despite losing out on the trophy. Yet, you can’t talk about one player on that team without mentioning at least two others. The 2002 WC winning side, though led in scoring by Ronaldo, consisted of several other legends like Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Kaka, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Dida, the list goes on. That style of a fluid, varied approach with contributions spread among the squad is what Brazilians have attached to as Joga Bonito, and is probably why many are so quick to support Marta but hesitant to call Neymar “necessary” to the Seleção.

However, with all this being said, it can be a dangerous dice to roll. Is the sacrifice of these moments of brilliance worth the investment in those production numbers, even when taking the opponent into account? The men’s team will have to find out in this summer’s Copa America, as pressure is heavy as ever to perform at home. On the other hand, with Marta likely to be able to make appearances in the World Cup, the women’s team have more of a choice to make. Regardless, it’s a good problem to have, as Brazil is home to an embarrassment of riches for both sides. All we have left to do is sit back and enjoy the beautiful game.

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