With two weeks of World Cup preparation left, Brazil lined up against Croatia with a midfield three of Paulinho, Casemiro and Fernandinho. There was no Neymar, who was being saved for the tournament, so Philippe Coutinho started on the left wing. What followed can only be described as a struggle. For most of the match, the Selecao were not only unable to break down a stout Croatian defence, but unable to build out from the back effectively.
This, in a way, was a sign of what to expect from the new Brazil. Since being appointed national team head coach two years ago, Tite has instilled a greater defensive discipline, making the team more resolute without the ball in a bid to forget memories of “7-1”. Indeed, the 2018 vintage is arguably the finest defensive side Brazil have had in decades. That, however, wasn’t enough against Croatia, and it wouldn’t be enough for their World Cup group games.
The decision was made to drop Fernandinho and have Coutinho join the central midfield trident within Tite’s 4-3-3 system. The impact of this decision was immediate and obvious. In their friendly victory over Austria, Coutinho added the sort of creativity Brazil’s midfield had lacked for years. Finally, here was a player who didn’t simply shield, or track, or tackle, or run, but one who moved, offered, combined, provoked and penetrated.
Tite was already well aware of the Barcelona man’s qualities – no player, after all, has picked up more caps for Brazil under the 57-year-old’s auspices than Coutinho’s 19, and before the tournament the manager was extremely complimentary of his burgeoning star’s ability. “The whole of Coutinho’s work is very strong,” he told reporters. “He has passing ability, competitiveness, effectiveness from medium distance, speed of thought and execution, assists, and now a greater maturity, which is also important.”
However, the major uncertainty regarded where on earth Coutinho would play. With Neymar nailing down the left wing berth and Willian and Douglas Costa providing options on the right, central midfield increasingly came to feel like his only route into the starting line-up. So that was exactly where he operated for Brazil’s World Cup opener against Switzerland.
Once again, Brazil toiled. Once again, they were pressed high and at times found it difficult to play out. But Coutinho was their bright spark at both ends, moving to offer a passing option to his central defensive teammates and, thanks to a wonderful touch, comfortably receiving in deeper areas of the pitch. He also brought greater incision to his left-sided central midfield role, splitting the Swiss defence open with forward passes, spotting yellow shirts with a vision Casemiro, Fernandinho and Paulinho simply do not possess. And, when his team needed a goal, he stepped up to score it.
After 20 minutes, a hopeful Marcelo cross was headed away to the feet of Coutinho. Just outside the penalty box, he controlled the ball instantly, steadied himself and curled an exquisite finish into the top-right corner of the net. Breaking the deadlock, the 26-year-old had also produced one of the most exhilarating moments of individual inspiration the 2018 World Cup had seen up to that point.
More exciting than the finish was the move which led to it. Coutinho received the ball from Marcelo near the left flank. Neymar came deep in the inside channel to receive a pass from Coutinho, playing a first-time pass back to Marcelo. Coutinho moved into the space Neymar had vacated. Marcelo, overlapping, played a through ball to Coutinho, who turned and fed the forward-moving Neymar inside him. Neymar then set up Marcelo for the cross which was cleared to Coutinho’s feet on the edge of the opposition area.
The story of Brazil’s second group game, against Costa Rica, was similar. They found it tough going against a willingly obstructive defence, only for Coutinho to save them from a second consecutive draw. Another hopeful cross into the box from Marcelo was flicked down by Roberto Firmino. Coutinho had already gambled by the time the ball hit the grass – racing onto his former Liverpool colleague’s header, he poked home from close range, giving the Selecao a lead they would not relinquish.
Tite’s relief was clear for all to see. Scrambling away from the touchline in order to celebrate with his players, he fell and injured himself. “It kind of pulled a muscle – it tore some fibres, I think,” he told the press afterwards when discussing that moment. The reaction only underlined how important the goal was, and by extension how pivotal Coutinho now is for Brazil.
Neymar has, for half a decade, carried the weight of a nation’s expectation on his shoulders. Brazil’s 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany at the last World Cup is still widely accredited to his absence from the side. The pressure told after he scored the second against Costa Rica, sealing the win. His post-match tears gained much of the media scrutiny, though in truth he need no longer feel so burdened. In Coutinho, Brazil has a new hero.
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