Time for Brazil's other stars to step up with Neymar out
Well before the kick off the 2019 Copa America has already lost what looked like being one of its major themes.
The scene appeared set for Neymar to get his career back on course, shrugging off injury woes, disciplinary problems and controversy about his diving by leading Brazil to victory on home ground. Instead, he misses the tournament -- and the ankle injury he picked up almost came as a relief, allowing him to concentrate on defending himself against the serious accusations he faces.
For a while the coverage of Brazil's Copa America build up was almost entirely reduced to news of developments in the life of Neymar. But team and star striker have now gone their separate ways -- and with David Neres stepping in for Neymar, helping himself to a wonderful solo goal, Brazil completed their preparation with an emphatic, hugely impressive 7-0 win over Honduras in Porto Alegre.
Neymar was never bigger than the team -- and coach Tite is essentially still wrestling with questions, doubts and issues hanging over from last year's World Cup campaign, brought to a close with a dramatic 2-1 quarterfinal defeat to Belgium. The coach clearly came to the conclusion that his side last year lacked the correct balance between attack and defence -- and steps have been taken to improve matters.
Against Belgium they were too open. Tite now looks for a more cautious approach from his full backs. Daniel Alves and Filipe Luis will rarely be seen as auxiliary wingers, flying up the flanks. Brazil have plenty of wingers to carry out this attacking function. Instead the fullbacks will construct from deep, and by staying closer to the centre backs, the defence should be more solid. This switch in emphasis is further emphasised by a change in the midfield.
Last year's central trio featured Paulinho, who operated almost as an auxiliary centre-forward, charging time after time into the opposing penalty area. He has given way to Arthur of Barcelona, who knits the side together from deeper with his passing -- and if the injury he picked up against Honduras proves to be serious, the function can be carried out with more dynamism and less technique by Allan of Napoli.
The central midfield triangle, then, has been reversed. Instead of Casemiro behind and two ahead, Casemiro and Arthur are now behind with Philippe Coutinho ahead. This should free Coutinho to do what he does best; instead of having to cover box to box, he can now focus his efforts on creating and shooting in the final third of the field.
In fact, the absence of Neymar opens up space for a mini-theme in the Copa -- the opportunity that Coutinho has to redeem himself after a disappointing time at Barcelona. These are changes made since the World Cup. But another change that Tite has made takes the team back to Russia 2018. Tite later regretted persevering so long in the competition with Gabriel Jesus at centre forward. He wished he had brought in Roberto Firmino. This was a change made after the World Cup. Firmino became first choice centre forward. But it proved hard to knit the Liverpool man into the team's collective context.
Time on the training ground would have been welcome. But Liverpool's participation in the final of the Champions league delayed Firmino's arrival for national team duty, and in his absence Gabriel Jesus has reclaimed the spot. Where Firmino seeks to drop and combine, Jesus gives the team the option of lengthening the game with his movement behind the opposing defensive line.
His all round play, plus three goals in the two warm up friendlies, would seem to make it probable that he will get the nod for Friday's Copa opener against Bolivia. A further option is Richarlison moving in from his right wing position to a more central role. Tite had a look at this towards the end of the Honduras game, with Firmino operating behind him. By then, though, things had become very easy against opponents long since reduced to ten men, and it is debatable how much could be learned. Brazil also go back, of course, to the scene of the 2014 nightmare.
And they will have to cope with the same cruel dynamic of cup competitions. The group phase should be a breeze -- not only because the opposition (Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru) are hardly the most challenging, but also because eight of the 12 teams make it through to the quarterfinals. But then, very suddenly, the stakes get much higher. The quarterfinals go straight to penalties if scores are level after 90 minutes. The pressure will be on -- and then we will discover the truth about the Neymar-less Brazil.