Last month in the 2021 Copa America, Brazil faced Colombia in the group stage in what was a highly anticipated match. Brazil, the host nation and the reigning Copa America champions, had to come from behind to controversially win 2-1 after Colombia took the lead with a world-class goal from Luis Diaz. However, this was also particularly interesting for several other reasons as well. Colombia was the first real test that Brazil had to play thus far, and the way this match panned out was very similar to Brazil’s Quarterfinal match against Belgium at the 2018 World Cup. Overall, this game between Brazil and Colombia was a perfect showpiece for how this Brazilian team plays under their manager, Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, otherwise known as Tite, and how opposing teams attempt to counter their system.
Heading into this match, Brazil had opened the 2021 Copa America with a 3-0 rout over Venezuela before smashing Peru 4-0. In both of these games, Brazil was head and shoulders above their opponents. Venezuela are historically the weakest team in South America, and while they actually have a decent squad in the current era, a COVID outbreak among their squad meant that 13 of their players, most of them starters, were unable to play. As for Peru, they were going through a transitionary phase where the manager was trying to phase out old players and integrate new players into the team. While Peru ended up doing well this tournament, their first match against Brazil occurred before the new squad fully settled into the team.
Colombia on the other hand, was to be Brazil’s toughest opponent up until that point. Even though Brazil are still a clearly a better team, the gap is much smaller. That being said, Colombia were not in the best of form — at least offensively, as they had beaten Ecuador 1-0 in a very drab game before being held to a 0-0 draw by Venezuela — so Brazil were obviously the favorites. The rivalry between Brazil and Colombia, which had been reinvigorated in recent years, was also another factor of interest in this match.
And now in the 2021 Copa America, the trend continued. The match started out equally, Brazil had more possession, but Colombia looked to create dangerous chances. But 10 minutes in, the Colombian veteran, Juan Cuadrado received the ball out on the wing and sent in a wicked looping cross. The ball was served slightly behind everyone so in a moment of genius, the winger, Luis Diaz, leaped in the air with his back to goal and unleashed a catapult of a bicycle kick, scoring with a rather unorthodox two-footed jump. Easily the goal of the tournament.
The Brazilians were in utter shock — they were on a 10-match winning streak going back two years, and this was the first time they were trailing. Without the match in their control, they looked lost and disoriented. Colombia were even getting into some dangerous positions on the counter, trying to increase their lead. Quickly though, Brazil collected themselves and looked to crawl their way back into the match; for the first time at the 2021 Copa America, they had a real challenge on their hands. But even as Brazil dominated possession and backed Colombia far into their own half, they didn’t create enough clear-cut chances, forcing Tite to make some substitutions at halftime, aiming for a more direct approach. The most effective of which; the introduction of Roberto Firmino.
Then into the second half, it looked only inevitable until Brazil found their equalizer. But to be fair to Colombia, it wasn’t until late in the match when Brazil found their goal, even though they had several close chances beforehand. Neymar da Silva Santos Junior played a pass that accidentally hit the referee, Nestor Pitana, 78 minutes in. Usually, the referee stops play and does a drop ball if the ball hits him, but he decided that play advantage as Brazil still retained the ball. However, one or two Colombian players waited for Pitana to blow the whistle, which he never did, and in the confusion, Lucas Paqueta passed the ball to Renan Lodi, who crossed it to Firmino, who headed it home. The Colombian players were furious because they argued that play should not have continued after the ball had hit him, but regardless, Pitana said it was a fair goal and now the score was 1-1. A subsequent video assistant referee (VAR) check and further protesting from Colombia saw the play delayed several minutes, meaning a whopping 10 minutes of stoppage time was added by Pitana, much to Colombia’s dismay. Then in the 100th minute, Brazil were awarded a corner:, Neymar sent in a driven cross and poor marking saw Carlos Casemiro storm into the box and head in the ball with seconds left on the clock. The center-back pairing of Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez which had been unbreakable throughout the match, made one vital error, costing them the match as Brazil won 2-1. Though controversial in their manner of victory, one cannot say that Brazil were undeserving of the win as they had dominated the overwhelming majority of the match.
One cannot help but notice some very strong similarities between this match and Brazil’s Quarterfinal tie against Belgium at the 2018 World Cup. The script went almost exactly the same save for a few differences.
Both teams went toe-to-toe in the opening minutes, which heavily worked in Brazil’s favor as they had the much better chances to score. Thiago Silva even hit the post after he tried to volley in the ball off a corner, then Paulinho Bezerra Maciel Junior miskicked a tap-in off another corner moments later.
In the 13th minute however, Belgium had a corner. The ball was lashed in and three players jumped to head it, all three of them missing and the ball then unfortunately ricocheted off Fernandinho Luiz Roza’s shoulder and into his own net. Seemingly out of nowhere, Belgium had the lead despite Brazil’s dominance. But from that moment on, the Brazilians frantically tightened the vice-grip around their opponents as Belgium’s goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, was forced into several saves to stop shots or crosses from Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Willian Borges da Silva, Marcelo Vieira da Silva Junior and Philippe Coutinho. It must be said though, that Belgium looked extremely dangerous on the counter and Brazil were playing with fire by having their two fullbacks, Fagner Silva da Luz and Marcelo so high up on the pitch.
That approach came back to bite them as about a half-hour into the match, Brazil had been caught in transition with Fagner up in Belgium’s half, meaning the entire defense had to shift over, leaving a wide-open gap on their left flank. Then Romelu Lukaku raced forward with a quick counterattack as Fernandinho and Paulinho failed to steal the ball. Lukaku passed the ball out to Kevin De Bruyne, who was unmarked on Brazil’s left side, and was met by Marcelo, who did not close him down. With all this available space, De Bruyne ripped a hellfire shot which flew past Alisson Ramses Becker and into the net. Despite not playing bad overall, Brazil found themselves 2-0 down.
The Selecao continued to push forward in the remaining minutes of the half but were thwarted by a pair of brilliant saves from Courtois and an off-target header by Jesus, leaving Tite to attempt to calm the situation and roll out a new battle plan at halftime. At halftime, Tite subbed on Firmino and shortly after he would also sub on Douglas Costa, meaning Brazil had essentially a five-pronged attack. As a result, they continued to have the lion’s share of possession and shots on goal. They even had a penalty shout, which should have been given in my opinion. Like the future match against Colombia, Brazil would find their goal with less than 15 minutes left when a diagonal cross from Coutinho was headed in by Renato Augusto. Unfortunately for Brazil, and unlike that match against Colombia, a second goal would not follow as Neymar’s beautiful curling effort was batted away by Courtois in the last minute of the game. And just like that, Brazil were dumped out of the World Cup in the Quarterfinals despite being the favorites at that point of the tournament and Tite was handed his first loss in a competitive game as manager of Brazil.
Brazil under Tite have a very distinct style which they employ every single game. Unlike Brazilian teams of the recent past, the spine of the squad is built upon a strong defensive solidity in the backline and midfield. This way, it allows the flair players to do their magic and create chances, but when needed, everyone helps out on defense. Tite also sets up his team to play the game in sections. In the opening minutes, Brazil look to overwhelm the opposition and grab a goal or two, if not, at the very least, assert dominance on the match. Then after about 45-60 minutes, they slightly ease their foot off the gas, allowing the opposing team back into the match. However, it is sort of a false hope as they cede possession but protect the 18-yard box, restricting any definite clear chances. What this actually does is just tire out the other team while allowing Brazil to conserve energy. Then, in the last 15-20 minutes or so, after the other team is now fatigued, Brazil go in for the kill, scoring a goal or two more, finishing off the game. This is when Brazil really let loose and play their most aggressive football. They have been characterized as a second-half team and the stats back this up as they have scored eight of their 12 goals at the 2021 Copa America in the second half, four in the 89th minute or later. Seven of their 13 goals at the 2019 Copa America and five of their eight at the 2018 World Cup were also scored in the second –half.
And overall, this strategy works as Brazil have only lost two competitive matches under Tite since he took charge in 2016. They easily won the 2019 Copa America, and despite not winning the 2018 World Cup or the 2021 Copa America, they still played well and made it far. Several perfect examples of Tite’s strategy working are Brazil’s group stage match against Serbia at the 2018 World Cup and their Semifinal meeting against their heated rival, Argentina at the 2019 Copa America.
Versus Serbia, Brazil pushed the Serbians deep into their own territory, having lots of dangerous chances before grabbing the lead when Paulinho poked in a looping through-ball from Coutinho. Then into the second half, Serbia grew in confidence and created a few half-chances, but none really that troubling. Then, just as Serbia thought they were inching closer and closer to an equalizer, Brazil raced forward on the counterattack and earned a corner. Right at the near-post, Thiago Silva headed in Neymar’s cross and Brazil killed off the game, winning 2-0 comfortably.
It was a similar story at the 2019 Copa America Semifinals when they played Argentina. Just like the others, the match started out with both teams going in for the kill but marvelous build-up play between Dani Alves and Firmino saw Jesus smash home the opener for Brazil 20 minutes in. From that moment on, Argentina tried desperately to grab an equalizer. Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero even hit the post but nothing went in. Then, as the game started to wind to a close, an Argentinian corner led to a rapid-fire counterattack from Brazil where Jesus dribbled through Argentina’s defense like practice cones, allowing Firmino to easily slot in the second to solidify Brazil’s victory over their archenemy.
When Brazil are able to employ this strategy, they never lose. However, when things don’t go their way, that is when their underbelly is exposed. Brazil are at their weakest when they are not in control. That is what happened against Belgium. Despite dominating the match, Brazil were behind a goal early on due to unfortunate luck, which can happen often in football. Belgium were then able to gain a strong enough lead by picking their moments and rely on their goalkeeper and some more luck to keep them in front.
One can suspect that Colombia’s manager, Reinaldo Rueda, studied the match tape of that Brazil-Belgium game under a microscope. Just like Belgium, Colombia raced to an early lead through unconventional circumstances throwing a wrench into Brazil’s plans. However, there were some very clear differences between these two matches. Firstly, Belgium were continuously dangerous on the counter whereas Colombia heavily dropped off by halftime. Part of this is because of Colombia’s attack which was very disappointing at the 2021 Copa America. With Duvan Zapata, Rafael Santos Borre and Miguel Borja all in poor form, Colombia lacked a powerful striker like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, who would just run straight at Brazil’s defense. Furthermore, Rueda’s controversial choice to leave home Colombia’s star playmaker, James Rodriguez, meant that they were heavily missing that creative spark to unlock Brazil’s defense like Belgium had in the form of De Bruyne. If Colombia had James and if at least one of their strikers had been in form, maybe the story may have gone differently.
That is unlikely, though, given the biggest difference between these two matches, and that is Brazil themselves. Probably no one on Earth watched the match replay of that Belgium Quarterfinal more than Tite, as it was the sole blotch on his perfect record up until that point. He knew exactly why and how his team lost, and he made sure it was to never repeat itself, which is why Brazil was able to overcome Colombia. Throughout the match this time around, Brazil quickly recollected themselves and calmed the nerves after going behind, even as the match was nearing its end; the players didn’t seem phased, as if they, and Tite, knew they were still going to win. Beyond the further mental fortifications, Tite also tweaked the system tactically. The main reason De Bruyne was able to score that second goal was the free-flowing nature of Brazil’s fullbacks; both Fagner and Marcelo were caught in transition and out of position. After that match, Brazil’s fullbacks still go forward, but are far more conservative, prioritizing defense. Marcelo, who can occasionally be a liability tracking back, was replaced by the defensively stout, Filipe Luis. Other fullbacks with more defensive capabilities such as Alex Sandro, Danilo Luiz da Silva, occasionally Eder Militao and many others have been used, making it even harder to poke holes in this Brazilian defense.
Overall, all this tinkering has led to clearly successful results, with the victory over Colombia righting all the wrongs and serving as the completion of the arc. Now all Tite needs to do to be written into Brazilian folklore is to capture the “Hexa,” Brazil’s long-standing quest to win their sixth World Cup, which I’m sure is definitely an easy task.