Brazil secured a win, and a much-needed one at that, but the 2-0 victory over Costa Rica in their second Group E match at the World Cup raised more questions than it answered.
There is always something to be said for the character of a side that, after battering against resolute opponents for most of the game, eventually finds a way through. As in the draw against Switzerland, there were major issues here, though, most of them surrounding Neymar.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward had been at the heart of Brazil’s problems against Switzerland, the self-indulgence that has become the characteristic feature of his game in France interrupting the flow of the national side. Again and again, he held onto the ball too long, attempted a needless dribble or trick, or threw himself to the ground. Seven times in that game he was dispossessed.
There were suggestions from the Brazil camp that Tite, who has trodden a careful diplomatic line with Neymar, had spoken specifically to the 26-year-old about being more selfless. Tite denied that before the game–“The information you got is not true, it’s not true. It didn’t happen”–but also reiterated the importance of team play.
“All the players have the responsibility of playing for the collective and also being individuals, some with some specific characteristics,” he said.
“Neymar, I’m not going to take away from him this initiative in the last third of the pitch. He’s a genius," the manager added. "You have my word, this is not true. We all have to work as a team, but we have to respect the characteristics. In the last third of the pitch, you have to create possibilities for the finish. I’m not going to take that away from anybody.”
To say Neymar was less problematic against Costa Rica is not to say the issue has been fully resolved. Here he was dispossessed nine times, and again spent much of the game throwing himself to the ground looking for free kicks. He was, eventually, awarded a penalty only for Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers to overturn his decision having checked the video. Having slowly toppled backwards as though clotheslined following the slightest brush of Giancarlo Gonzalez’s hand on his chest, Neymar was extremely fortunate not to be booked for diving–though he was booked soon after for slamming the ball into the ground in protest at another decision, his frustration clearly bubbling over.
There was a general petulance to his display, and that is a major concern for Brazil. After running in to Oscar Duarte near the end, Neymar quite clearly called him a “hijo de p**a.” It’s true that Costa Rica spoiled and time-wasted, and it’s true that on another day, had Keylor Navas not made a string of excellent saves, Brazil would have won comfortably, but to be so obviously and readily frustrated speaks of an immaturity. At the moment, he feels like an eruption waiting to happen.
But Brazil, eventually, did enough, its opening goal the result of a very un-Brazilian deep cross from Marcelo for Roberto Firmino to head down for Gabriel Jesus, who toe-poked into the path of Philippe Coutinho's surging late run. Neymar wound up getting his goal in the seventh minute of injury time as a shattered Costa Rica’s resilience crumbled. Neymar himself crumbled into tears after the final whistle, the emotion of the moment bubbling over.
The Neymar issue is not just one of attitude. He unbalances the whole side. The Brazil left in general as a major concern. Neymar does not defend and often drifts in off the flank. Marcelo is an excellent attacking left back but one who often struggles defensively. Even at Real Madrid, he could seem something of a liability if possession was lost. And that places an enormous burden on Coutinho on the left side of midfield–and he is not exactly natural defender. It was notable how dangerous Costa Rica was down that flank, with Johan Venegas consistently finding space. Perhaps against better sides than Costa Rica, Renato Augusto will return in place of Coutinho to add some stability. If not, any side with pace or genuine quality on its right will cause major problems.
On the right, William looked out of sorts and was never really able to impose himself on the game. In part that was a result of Brazil favoring the left so heavily, but equally that imbalance was far less pronounced after halftime when Douglas Costa came on. The second half improvement was perhaps the most encouraging aspect for Brazil. It showed Tite at work, restructuring, amending and improving, and it ultimately brought its reward.
That was closer to the Brazil of qualifying, the team Tite took over and turned into a modern progressive side that finished 10 points clear in CONMEBOL. But that was a side that had Neymar before PSG, Neymar before he had lapsed into divadom. There were flickers here, at least, of the potential that was so obvious a year ago. But the Neymar-obsession threatens to suffocate all else.