Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Knockout football has always been capable of throwing up the odd aberration, but this one takes the cake. Tite’s Brazil created three big chances, and at least four very good ones. Roberto Martinez’s Belgium, at the Selecao‘s mercy on the flanks throughout, created absolutely nothing. And, yet, the Red Devils are looking forward to a World Cup semi-final, while Brazil contemplate the long journey home. Football, eh?
Martinez’s decision to start both game-changers from round-two, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini, came as no surprise. But the unusual system in which the Spaniard embedded his newcomers very much did.
Having watched Japan exploit space behind his wing-backs, and either side of Axel Witsel, Martinez replaced his parlous 3-4-2-1 with a head-scratching hybrid shape. A 4-3-1-2 in defence, with Chadli tucked into central midfield, it morphed into 3-4-1-2 in attack; with the West Bromwich Albion man at wing-back.
In this way, Martinez hoped to have two full-backs in place when defending, denying space in the channels. And, instead of Kevin de Bruyne’s occasional assistance, Witsel would benefit from two partners, in Chadli and Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini would play to the right, fire-fighting in Neymar and Coutinho’s usual zone-of-influence.
de Bruyne, meanwhile, started as a trequartista, pressing through the middle before dropping back behind split-strikers Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. By leaving two players up at all times, Martinez did force Brazil’s third-choice right-back Fagner to stay at home. But Marcelo, as always, advanced freely. And Belgium’s understaffed defensive unit had absolutely no answer to the carnage the full-back engendered.
Defending only with seven — four defenders and three central midfielders — the Red Devils struggled to staunch wide attacks. By the time Fernandinho inadvertently put Belgium ahead, Brazil should, arguably, have been out of sight. Both Paulinho and Thiago Silva, each completely unmarked, failed to finish corner-kicks won from their side’s wide forays. Gabriel Jesus, too, should have equalised with his head, from one of many Marcelo crosses.
The subsequent de Bruyne wondergoal aside, Belgium created absolutely nothing of note before or after taking the lead. Lukaku, whose incredible counterattacking run created the second, was continually bested in one-on-one combat by the imperious Miranda. And, although Hazard regularly outfought either Fagner or Fernandinho to the first ball out of defence, Belgium’s perennial residence under the cosh rendered fast-breaks all too rare.
Martinez’s woes only worsened when Tite wisely removed the underfiring Willian at half-time. Bereft of a genuine right-sided threat before the break, Brazil’s switches of play usually came a cropper. But, with Jesus shifted wide at the start of the second-half, the Selecao could finally go at both underprotected Belgium full-backs with intent.
That dual threat only ratcheted up further on 58, when Douglas Costa replaced Jesus. But not before the Manchester City striker was denied a seemingly clear penalty-kick for a Vincent Kompany lunge.
The chances kept coming for Brazil: a final total of 13 created down the left by Neymar, Coutinho and Marcelo; and two created from the right by Costa. Firmino missed a pair of presentable chances, and Paulinho, always arriving late from midfield, missed one too. His replacement, Renato Augusto, would eventually net, pulling off a perfect Paulinho impression to head home a Coutinho through-ball. Martinez’s inaction was nigh-on criminal; Chadli, who Augusto ran off, was out on his feet long before that late lifeline.
Then, on 79 minutes, with still no sign of any Belgian substitutions in the offing, something barely believable happened. Holding a two-one lead, in the latter stages of a World Cup quarter-final, Belgium allowed Neymar to counterattack in behind right-back Thomas Meunier. That was the second of Firmino’s big opportunities, screwed wide from 10 yards. Martinez was off the hook again.
Incredibly, it took the former Wigan boss all of 83 minutes to enact a change. With his side crying out for two banks of four, to finally staunch Brazil’s wide threat, Martinez instead shifted from 4-3-1-2 to 5-3-1-1 at Thomas Vermaelen’s introduction. But not before Augusto missed a huge chance at a second goal, after Coutinho drifted in behind the spent Fellaini. Chadli, finally removed in favour of Vermaelen, again let the Beijing Guoan midfielder go.
The additional centre-back somewhat shored things up for Belgium, providing another penalty-area body to help repel the never-ending stream of crosses and cut-backs. But it probably wouldn’t surprise the reader to hear that the Red Devils were caught on the break again on 84, when Coutinho somehow skewed Neymar’s pull-back wide.
Costa, too, still tormented Belgium, cutting into the always empty inside-right pocket. Hence Thibaut Courtois’ world-class save at the death, required to deny Neymar’s Costa-assisted curler.
Given all of the above, there really is no way to sugarcoat this: Belgium were an absolute shambles here. Structurally unsound, bereft of defensive solidity, and blessed with precisely zero game-management nous, Martinez’s patchwork quilt somehow rode a wave of luck all the way to the semi-finals.
The contrast between the two sides, in terms of balance, could not have been more stark. But Brazil, arguably the most cohesive side visible at this tournament, go home regardless. Having conceded only six goals in Tite’s first 25 games at the helm, the gods picked this night — of all nights — to have the Selecao ship two. Timing, as they say, is everything.
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