In a World Cup full of upsets, one thing remains consistent: Brazil is the best soccer team in the world. The Selecao came into the tournament playing like the best team in the world. Through four games in Russia, they’ve played like the best team in the tournament — both in the way they attack and in the way they defend. As other favorites have fallen by the wayside, Brazil just keeps getting it done, and there’s reason to believe the team hasn’t peaked yet.
But since its opening draw with Switzerland, the team has been mostly been the subject of negative press (some of which is warranted), which makes it easy to overlook the fact that this is still very much the team to beat in Russia, as is the case in most World Cups.
There’s plenty of reason to criticize Brazil. For instance, some feel the team is playing the wrong striker. The team’s starting striker, Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, has yet to score a goal, and while his Brazil teammates are defending him, Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino scored late in the game against Mexico and has looked dangerous in his limited appearances. Jesus is only taking 1.72 shots per 90 minutes. That’s almost a full shot less than the 2.71 per 90 minutes he took during World Cup qualifying games. His expected goal numbers have dropped accordingly. He was a major scoring threat when Brazil was on its path to the World Cup with 0.59 expected goals per 90, but he’s now down at 0.14.
Brazil has also gotten a lot of negative press related to this now-universal opinion: Neymar is a flopper. After Brazil eliminated Mexico in the round of 16, Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio was livid over Neymar’s antics, focusing on a sideline incident where Neymar rolled on the ground theatrically after contact from Mexico’s Miguel Layun. More broadly, Neymar, who is coming off a long injury layoff, has received mixed reviews for his performances over the first four matches. He has an undeniably flamboyant and ball-dominant style, which frequently means that even when Brazil wins, as it has in three out of its four games so far, questions get asked about whether what Neymar brings to the table is worth enough to make up for what he takes away.
Despite Jesus’s struggles and the criticism directed at Neymar, Brazil has been the best, most balanced team at this tournament. In attack, the team scored a relatively modest 1.61 goals per 90 minutes, a lower rate than all of its fellow quarterfinalists except Sweden, but its expected goals total is a robust 2.05 — only Belgium is higher, with 2.44. It’s likely that the only reason Brazil hasn’t scored more is that the finishing gods haven’t smiled down upon them. That expected goal total is built on a high volume of shots — 17.66 per 90 minutes — a rate that trails only Germany (who fell behind in three separate matches and was desperately chasing goals on its way to crashing out of the tournament) and Belgium.
On the defensive side of the ball, Brazil’s dominance has been even more obvious. The team has conceded one total goal, a set piece header against Switzerland in their opening match. Brazil’s 0.23 goals conceded per 90 minutes is tied with Uruguay for the fewest of any team in the tournament, and its 0.64 expected goals conceded ranks third, behind France and Uruguay. Brazil is the only team in the tournament that has performed at elite levels on both the attacking and defending side of the ball.
Whatever problems Jesus and Neymar might be having, they simply aren’t slowing Brazil down. In fact, Brazil is playing better so far at the World Cup than it was during qualifying. Despite scoring half a goal less per 90 minutes — 1.61 during the World Cup, as opposed to 2.16 in qualifying — the team’s underlying statistics have all improved. Its expected goals have increased from 1.59 to 2.05, its shots per game has jumped from 14.15 to 17.66, and its shots on target rose from 5.54 to 6.65. Defensively, it’s the same story. The team is allowing fewer goals (0.23, down from 0.58), fewer expected goals (0.64, down from 0.73), fewer shots (7.57, down from 8.76), and fewer shots on target (0.92, down from 2.32). This is a team that came into the tournament ranked No. 1 in the world, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, and then upped its game.
As for Neymar, while the way he plays might draw criticism, it’s important not to confuse his style with what he actually produces on the field. His numbers have been simply astounding. And it’s not just his bottom line of two goals and one assist: His 0.80 non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes is second in the tournament behind only Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku (among players with at least 135 minutes of playing time). It’s also double the 0.40 non-penalty expected goals he averaged per 90 minutes during qualifying. He’s also an ample creator, mainly thanks to his set piece ability. He’s created 3.67 chances per 90 minutes, fifth most in the tournament among qualified players,1 with 1.38 of them coming from corners (third most among qualified players) and 0.69 coming from free kick passes (tied for sixth most). And Neymar is doing all that while getting the snot kicked out of him. He’s being fouled 5.27 times per 90 minutes, the highest rate of any player who saw at least 135 minutes in any of the last three World Cups — he may have a habit of exaggerating the severity of the contact, but there’s no denying that he takes a lot of hits.
Scratch the surface of the criticism against Brazil and you’ll find it’s all stylistic. Sure, maybe Jesus is shooting less, but it isn’t hurting the team. It’s true that Neymar is spending a lot of time rolling around on the grass, but it’s also true that he’s getting fouled more than anybody else and he’s still putting up huge numbers. The criticism of how Brazil is playing is obscuring just how well it’s playing. Nobody else pairs a top-notch ability to suppress opponent’s shots with the ability to generate a boatload of their own. And nobody else has Neymar, the most dangerous winger in the world.
Brazil are clearly favored to win the World Cup. The only question left is, if they do, will the trophy finally put a stop to the criticism?
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.