By Brazilian national team standards, the past several years have been rough. The Selecao were blown out by Germany in the semifinals of a home World Cup and failed to make the finals of the Copa America in either 2015 or 2016. But the numbers suggest that brief lull is over: Brazil, the favorite to lift the cup in FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, is once again the best team in the world.
Paper tiger or legit contender?
CONMEBOL qualifying is the most difficult of all the regional qualifying tournaments, and Brazil romped through with little difficulty. The Selecao rate as the best defensive team in the world by a significant margin. But the likely back line of Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda and Marcelo has an average age of 31, so they’re not exactly at the peak of their careers. Rather, manager Tite has developed a tactical system that protects the back line with two of the best defensive midfielders in the world, Casemiro and Fernandinho. Both players anchor three-man midfields for their club sides, Real Madrid and Manchester City respectively, where they are largely responsible for stopping opposition attacks in midfield on their own. For Brazil, they can share the load.
Devoting two midfield pieces to defense only works because Brazil’s forward line is so good that it doesn’t suffer despite fewer offensive-minded players on the pitch. The 2014 World Cup was Neymar’s coming-out party on the global stage, and in the years since, he has made a leap to where he’s putting up numbers rivaled only by Lionel Messi. The 2014 team gave Neymar an attacking partner of Fred, who was playing at the time for Fluminense in the Brazilian domestic league. Four years later, Neymar is better, and his teammates are, too. Brazil can choose between Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino and Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus up top. Both players put up more than 0.75 expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes last season. And both are used to playing in support of goal-scoring wide forwards, with Firmino facilitating for Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, while Jesus works with Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling.
And on the other wing is one of the the world’s premier passers, Philippe Coutinho. Since 2014-2015 among players with at least 8,000 minutes played in the big five European leagues,1 Coutinho is sixth in progressive passes per 90 minutes2 — ahead of such world-class playmakers as Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, Spain’s Andres Iniesta and Germany’s Mesut Ozil. On most teams, a player like Coutinho would be the creative hub; here he is a plan B or C who can support Neymar and the striker. Brazil’s talent is so good, and so cohesive, that the team can play two defensive midfielders and still create more than enough chances to be confident of walking through its group and making a deep run in the knockout phase.
Underdog or also-ran?
The other team headed to the round of 16 is likely to be either Switzerland or Serbia. The Swiss have slightly better SPI ratings (2.28 to 2.08 in expected goals scored, 0.69 to 0.75 in expected goals conceded), giving them a 53 percent chance to move on to the knockouts, while the Serbs have a 41 percent chance. The story for Switzerland is tactical — under manager Vladimir Petkovic, the side has developed a distinctive high-pressing style, breaking up new opposition possessions before three passes can be strung together about 57 percent of the time. Even Germany and Spain (at about 53 and 52 percent) don’t press that hard.
By contrast, Serbia will be depending on its stars to carry it through. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is fresh off a coming-out season of sorts for Lazio, where he played almost exclusively in the midfield but still rang up 14 goals and six assists. He plays an unusual function in the team’s ball progression structure, both passing forward and providing an outlet for other midfielders. At 6-foot-3, he can compete for long balls, winning about three aerial duels per match. That’s better than 50 percent more than any other midfielder who scores as much as he does.
It was Costa Rica’s misfortune to be drawn into a group with the tournament’s best team as well as two solid middle-tier international teams without obvious weaknesses. Los Ticos did face a similar problem four years ago when they navigated a group that included England, Italy and Uruguay en route to a surprise quarterfinal appearance. But our ratings gave them a 30 percent chance of advancing past the group in 2014; this year, that number is down to 17 percent. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas’s performances for Real Madrid show he can bail out a defense now and again — it will have to be smash and grab for Costa Rica to repeat its success of 2014.
Player to watch
There is another reason Brazil is likely to win this group, and another reason why the Selecao can get away with playing two ball-winning defensive midfielders. Most teams would struggle to progress the ball with this alignment. But most teams don’t have Marcelo. The Real Madrid left back is the best passing outside defender in the game, leading all fullbacks and wingbacks in progressive passing for three years running.
|Year||Name||Team||Progressive passes per 90 min|
|2016-17||Vincent Le Goff||Lorient||3.32|
|2015-16||Jonathan Martins Pereira||Guingamp||3.27|
|2017-18||Joshua Kimmich||Bayern Munich||3.23|
|2015-16||Philipp Lahm||Bayern Munich||3.23|
Marcelo is famous for his aggressive runs to the penalty area, but he reveals his ability most clearly when he tucks inside and starts picking passes to the forward line. He doesn’t have the elite speed he had in his 20s, but now he doesn’t need to risk getting caught upfield in order to push Brazil forward. On a whole roster of superstars, Marcelo is still worth special contemplation.
CORRECTION (June 12, 2018, 12:45 p.m.): A table in a previous version of this article referred to Brazilian defender Rafinha as playing for club team Internazionale. He plays for Bayern Munich.
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