Brazil sneaked past Chile on penalties in a highly entertaining and intense game in the heat of Belo Horizonte. It was a tactical feast with both teams canceling each other out and penalties were needed to determine the winner.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari persisted with his preferred 4-2-3-1, only Fernandinho replacing Paulinho in the starting XI. Top-scorer Neymar was expected to play in his free role ahead of the midfield in between the lines, while the more workmanlike Hulk and the less-flashy Oscar flanked him. Their was an air of strangeness to the Brazilian setup, a theme of the tournament so far with the attack and defence looking like strangers on occasions.
Chile’s excellent World Cup campaign so far had much to thank coach Jorge Sampaoli for; the Argentine’s tactical tweaks meant that he had another bagful ready for the hosts. Chile lined up in their usual 3-4-3, with the half-fit Gary Medel forming the defensive rock along with Gato Silva and Gonzalo Jara. Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas were expected to play their wide forward roles, with the returning Arturo Vidal expected to link the back with the front.
Brazil knew what they were up against; Chile’s tactical blueprint in the World Cup revolved around their aggressive pressing and reacting immediately to opposition errors. Brazil started flat out, and were all over Chile right from the start. Chile’s success in the tournament so far owed much to their right flank, and Brazil did excellently to target that zone right from kick-off.
Hulk, Neymar, Luiz Gustavo and Marcelo were all over the Chilean right-sided trio of Alexis Sanchez, Mauricio Isla and right-sided center-back Gato Silva. Hulk and Neymar were particularly menacing; they closed down space, pressed aggressively off the ball and attacked relentlessly with it. Luiz Gustavo often found himself quite wide owing to Hulk doing the dirty work on Sanchez; the winger often doubling up on Sanchez with Marcelo.
Brazil’s fluid shape and Chile’s readjustments
Chile’s ploy of using three center-backs to deal with Brazil’s lone striker Fred came as a surprise, but it was actually to have a spare man against the deep runs of Neymar. Scolari had the tactical nous to brilliantly take advantage of this Chilean predictability. Fred dropped deep, taking with him his shadow center-back Gary Medel, which freed up space for Neymar to make runs behind the Chile defence. Neymar was often the most advanced Brazilian attacker, and Chile had to make quite a few readjustments after surviving the initial onslaught.
Arturo Vidal was assigned to play link up with the two forwards, Sanchez and Vargas, but had to quickly shift to a deeper role to cover for a lack of bodies at the back. Vidal got involved in breaking play, and intelligently tried slowing the game up with a more cynical approach (drawing simple fouls and tactically felling opponents). This was all before the Brazilian goal, after which Brazil reverted to type and sat off inviting the Chileans on.
Chile follow suit
As Brazil sat back after scoring their first goal, Chile had the time to force their game on the Brazilians. Chile’s hallmark has been their defending from the front and pressing, and their goal arrived just the same way. Brazil sat back after their goal, and the unexpected Sanchez goal meant that they failed to recover much in its wake. Chile continued their intensity, and had quite a few chances to take the lead.
Chile’s high pressing meant that they were on tight ropes at the back; they afforded Brazil spaces at the back only to be saved by goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. Though they were tactically astute, Chile made basic mistakes at the back and were lucky to get out of jail quite a few times.
Although Brazil’s highly purposeful and intense start merited a goal, their goal came via a set-piece. Chile’s lack of height was exposed, so too was a pitfall of man marking at set-pieces. Man marking is considered to be safer in many quarters due to the markers affording little room for their attackers. Chile with shorter players got stuck in between, and the age-old problem of defenders switching off to the second balls came back to haunt the them. Thiago Silva was more proactive in getting a nod to the first ball, and Gonzalo Jara, marking David Luiz, failed to react quickly to avert the danger. Another mistake by Jara was letting Luiz stay goalside while marking.
Chile’s goal came via their much-preferred right flank, and through their favored high pressing. Chile were growing into the game as Brazil slowed down, and a mistake from a Marcelo throw-in opened up Eduardo Vargas who squared for Sanchez to poke home. A classic Chile goal, even though Brazil had much say about it.
Brazil’s substitutions were like-for-like, and had more to do with personnel rather than altering the overall shape. Their game revolved around the individual abilities of the forwards, and the changes were basically made to bring on fresher legs. Fred’s ineptitude as the lone striker prompted his removal, but Jo was no good either. While Ramires for Fernandinho was expected given Fernandinho’s little contribution, the Willian for Oscar move provided a more energetic approach in the dying embers of the game. Brazil’s lack of tactical flexibility was evident, as they searched for the winner without any alternative plan.
Chile’s substitutions were bold, and Jorge Sampaoli showed his tactical flexibility by not being afraid to take off his trump cards as the game headed for extra-time. The first big change was bringing on Felipe Gutierrez for Vargas, a change that allowed Chile to have more presence in the middle. This stretched Brazil and they resorted to sweeping long balls with the big void between attack and defence.
Chile’s other change was bringing on Mauricio Pinilla for Vidal, a change that almost won the game for them. Sanchez dropped deep and Pinilla played on the shoulders of the Brazilian defence as target man, a change in approach which was understandable given the tiredness of the players and the propensity to play long balls.
Penalty shootouts are harsh for the losing team, but Chile showed immense tactical adaptability even after falling behind early on. Brazil’s plan remained the same: start quickly off the blocks and pressurize the opponent into making mistakes, and score early. But a lack of plan B for the home side could cost them dear in the latter stages. A very entertaining, open match but one that petered out as invention gave way to tired legs.