Brazil Break Free From the Neymar Imbalance to Win Copa América
Brazil winning a Copa América at home cannot be said to be a surprise. They have hosted the tournament five times and, after beating Peru 3-1 in the final on Sunday, they have won it five times. But to suggest this was some sort of procession, a pacing out of the inevitable, would be misleading, and would ignore why, 12 years after Brazil’s last success in a major competition, this felt so significant.
It is not just that this showed Brazil could handle being favourites, that they did not choke on the expectation as they did so spectacularly in the World Cup five years ago. It’s that they won with a largely modern, progressive style of play and, most importantly of all, that they did so without the injured Neymar. This was a victory for Tite and all for which he stands.
Brazil’s defeat against Peru in Foxborough three years ago, which eliminated them from the Copa América Centenario at the group stage, was the beginning of Brazil’s belated shift into modernity. Out went Dunga and in came Tite, who had none of his predecessor’s insularity. He studied others, went to Europe to learn, and adopted a form of pressing.
And yet the sense at the World Cup was always that he was hampered by Neymar, a galactic ego who could not be relied on to press and slowed the game down. There were moments in Russia, notably against Mexico in the last 16, when Brazil showed what they could be but the Neymar imbalance did for them against Belgium as Thomas Meunier’s unchecked sallies on the right placed an intolerable pressure on Philippe Coutinho, who was probably being asked to perform a role more defensive than he was comfortable in anyway.
Without Neymar in this tournament, Brazil became fully Tite-ist. It took a bout of mumps for Richarlison and a misfiring performance from David Neres for him to happen on his front three but once it came together it knitted together superbly, with Everton and Gabriel Jesus cutting in from the flanks and Roberto Firmino dropping deep from a central position. Against Peru, Gabriel Jesus set up the opener for Everton, whose run also led to the late penalty while the second, scored by Gabriel Jesus, came from Firmino winning the ball deep and a forward surge from Arthur.
The Barcelona midfielder had a vital role shuttling between Casemiro at the back of midfield and Coutinho as a playmaker and was probably the sort of player Brazil really missed at the World Cup – although before criticising Paulinho, the man Arthur replaced, too strongly it should probably be noted his role was made easier by the way Coutinho was allowed to play more centrally because he was not always covering for a vacant left flank.
Tite’s mastery was confirmed after Gabriel Jesus’s 70th-minute red card. Briefly it seemed that Peru, who had been starting to threaten anyway, might be able to mount telling pressure but he acted decisively, taking off Firmino for Richarlison who held the ball up superbly and, with Dani Alves pushing into midfield after Éder Militão came on for Coutinho, the shift in momentum was checked.
At the World Cup, Tite often seemed the calmest man in the Brazil camp and here he was again, decisive and rational. The result was a Brazil who seemed smarter and more ruthless, less hysterical and less jingoistic. Perhaps not unrelated, the victory was not the propaganda triumph for the president, Jair Bolsonaro, that might have been expected.
High ticket prices meant the crowd was widely assumed to be made up of the idle classes who make up the bulk of his support and there has been a growing association between the yellow national team shirt and his far-right movement. But whenBolsonaro stepped on to the pitch for the trophy presentation, he was greeted with widespread booing.
Even more telling, when the squad paraded along the line of dignitaries to collect their medals, Marquinhos ignored him entirely, Coutinho visibly squirmed in his presence and Tite skilfully fended off his attempt at a hug.
Brazil were not perfect, by any means. They struggled to break down Venezuela and Paraguay. They were perhaps overly conservative against Argentina in the semi-final when refereeing decisions went their way. But Brazil conceded only one goal in six games and looked as coherent as a unit as they have for years – probably since even before the 2007 Copa América when they were wildly inconsistent.
Tite’s position, though, is far from certain. He is frustrated that various members of his coaching staff, among them the former Arsenal players Sylvinho and Edu, have been allowed to leave. Last week the Brazilian federation, the CBF, issued a statement insisting that were he to go it would be of his own volition. Had he become the first manager to fail to win the Copa for Brazil on home soil, though, there would undoubtedly have been pressure.
As it is, Brazil go on to World Cup qualifying and yet another Copa next year, in better shape than they have been in for a long time. The biggest question now is what happens when Neymar returns.
The Guardian Sport
The Guardian Sport