Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
When Serbia deemed Slavoljub Muslin’s services surplus to requirements at the end of 2017, most of world football sat perplexed. Sacked, at least in part, for not using the likes of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in qualification, the Belgrade-born coach was refused the chance to see his work through in Russia.
Serbia, who topped their group, looked instead to former international Mladen Krstajic, a managerial tyro who happily welcomed Sergej back into the fold. And look at how that turned out.
Undoubtedly Muslin’s side stumbled toward the end of qualification, losing in Austria before a narrow win over improving Georgia. But the 3-4-2-1 in which the Serbs were then configured looked relatively balanced throughout the campaign, losing just once in 10 games.
Filip Kostic and Dusan Tadic threatened between the lines, aided and abetted by the overlaps of Aleksandr Kolarov and Antonio Rukavina. Holding midfielders Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic provided a double-lock just behind, and Aleksandr Mitrovic’s burly presence the attacking focal point.
Krstajic ripped up that blueprint upon assuming the reins, however, reinstating a more conventional 4-2-3-1 formation. That system, with Sergej playing just off Mitrovic, looked disjointed throughout Serbia’s fortunate opening game victory over Costa Rica. The Balkans side dearly missed Muslin’s dual-threat between the lines. Sergej, more minded to run in-behind than link the play, proved a disappointment in all but the aerial tussles.
Krstajic stuck with the same system against Switzerland, with initially promising results. But the novice manager then showed his inexperience, after Granit Xhaka’s equaliser, by using the bench to chase a victory. Xherdan Shaqiri duly struck a winner on the break, leaving Serbia needing a win, rather than a point, against favourites Brazil.
Krstajic, as such, rang the changes for this one, many of which made sense on paper. With an attack-minded style of play required, quicker defenders in Rukavina and Milos Veljkovic deputised for Branislav Ivanovic and Dusko Tosic respectively. The prospect of Ivanovic, 34, up against Neymar at right-back did not bear thinking about. Although also 34, Rukavina offers far more mobility and, crucially, a greater attacking threat.
Serbia’s plan, therefore, was to move the defensive line higher and apply pressure to Brazil in their own half. Ljajic, fielded here at number-10, sat on Casemiro, forcing Brazil’s centre-backs to find either Marcelo or Fagner; who Serbia’s wingers then quickly closed down. Pressing as a unit proved elusive, however, as Brazil easily picked their way through Krstajic’s poorly-organised ranks.
Key to this ease was Sergej’s deployment; Krstajic’s most glaring error of the night. With a win required, one holding midfielder (Milivojevic) was deemed surplus to requirements. Sergej, therefore, took up the penalty-king’s mantle, forming a double-pivot of sorts with Nemanja Matic.
Fortunately for Brazil, Matic took up his usual left-sided role, leaving Sergej to theoretically defend the pocket in which both Neymar and Coutinho love to do their thing. Of course, in practice, the Lazio man did nothing of the sort. His deeper deployment proved utterly disastrous for Serbia, as Brazil attempted four first-half through-balls from Sergej’s zone, including Paulinho’s opener.
Krstajic’s high-line, necessary to maintain compactness while pressing, offered space-in-behind for Paulinho’s characteristic bursts from deep. Vejlkovic was dragged right by Gabriel Jesus’ intelligent movement, Kolarov failed to cover, and Matic let the Barcelona man go. The Manchester United midfielder, whose main raison d’etre is to track runners, also let Thiago Silva go for Brazil’s corner-kick second. Not a great day at the holding midfield office for Matic.
But at least he had Sergej beat. Owing almost entirely to the 22-year-old’s tactical failings, Neymar finished the first-half with most touches of the ball. An accolade usually held by a holding midfielder or defender, no other statistic better sums up how easily Brazil bypassed the Serbian press. Dribbled also on four separate first-half occasions by Neymar, Sergej looked a complete fish out of water.
Neymar’s complete disinterest in defending did afford Rukavina two big moments after the break. Mitrovic, ever wasteful in front of goal, should have headed in at least one of the veteran full-back’s crosses.
Thiago’s insurance goal killed the game as a going concern, however, ensuring Brazil’s safe passage. Only minor concerns linger over Tite’s system; namely its left-sided defensive fraility. But the balance offered by Coutinho’s midfield craft, dovetailing with Neymar and complementing Paulinho’s running, probably just about justifies that.
The Serbian FA, meanwhile, must count the cost of replacing Muslin with Krstajic. That injustice may not be as keenly felt in the homeland as Mitrovic’s ghost penalty last time out. Nor is it comparable to the perceived wrongs of the Hague war crime trials, so crassly referenced by Krstajic after the Swiss defeat. But it was a mistake nonetheless. Serbia, as a result, go home. Brazil, clear favourites now, march on.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112