The secret behind Brazil's high pressure success

Posted by Tim Vickery

SALVADOR -- Three wins in three games, safely through to the semifinals and with star man Neymar on fire, Brazil have used the Confederations Cup to make nonsense of the FIFA rankings. Whatever happens in the final week of the competition (and at the time of writing it looks like a semi full of historical resonance against Uruguay, followed by a long awaited clash against Spain), Luiz Felipe Scolari's side have shown that they will be a force to be reckoned with in front of their own fans at the World Cup.

- Bennett: Brazil finish atop Group A with win
- Coelho: Brazil is becoming an adult

(That is, of course, if it does indeed happen in front of their own fans. No one foresaw the protest movement, and no one knows exactly how it will end. The official line is that the idea of taking the tournament elsewhere has not even been considered. Whispers and rumours hint otherwise -- but that is a subject for another day.)

On the pitch, meanwhile, Scolari and his team are doing what the doctor ordered for the month of June. They are building up confidence, winning over their fans, consolidating an idea of play. This might not be anywhere near the finest team ever to represent Brazil, but there have been many worse. In any game, against any opponent, there will be moments when they make the opposition suffer.

And plenty of moments when they will give the referee a headache. Taking charge of Brazil games in the World Cup will likely prove a real handful for the matchday officials, for two different reasons.

The first is that Brazil are so deadly from set pieces. Free kicks were the source of the first two goals scored against Italy. The second one grabs the headlines -- a glorious cross shot, punishing Gianluigi Buffon's decision to inch behind his defensive wall and flying into the far top corner. But the delivery of Neymar's free kick for the first goal was equally impressive. The old rule applies -- the longer the ball takes to get into the box, the easier it is for the defence. Neymar whipped in his cross with pace, centre forward Fred won the header and Dante rolled the ball over the line after Buffon had parried.

These free kicks, then, are a fruitful route to goal for the Brazilians -- which gives them an extra incentive to win them. Slight of build, Neymar goes to ground very easily -- as do several of his colleagues. The referee will have to work extremely hard to determine whether a foul has in fact taken place, or whether he is being fooled by some crafty simulation.

A fascinating piece of information from Saturday's game: The player who the most suffered fouls was Neymar. But he was also -- together with teammate Oscar -- the player who committed most fouls. Indeed, one of the reasons that Neymar was withdrawn with more than 20 minutes left is that he had picked up a yellow card and was flirting with a red -- moreover, he was fortunate not to have picked up a yellow in the previous game against Mexico.

All of this is no coincidence.

One of the trademarks of the current Brazil side is the high pressure marking they carry out, especially in the opening minutes of the game. Both Mexico and Italy found themselves smothered close to their own penalty area in the initial stages.

This kind of marking is not a historical trait of the Brazil side, who have usually preferred to drop behind the line of the ball when they lose possession. This has been an especially strong tendency in recent years, since it has shown off Brazil's strength on the counter-attack.

The switch began under Scolari's predecessor. Mano Menezes has been much-maligned for making a dignified attempt, while blooding a new generation of players, to modernise the side. Back in 2010 he identified a key problem -- the aging side which Dunga took to the South Africa World Cup had been very reliant on the counter-thrust. But on home soil in 2014 such a strategy would be of limited use. Opponents will sit back, denying Brazil the chance to launch their favourite weapon.

Menezes introduced the tactic of pressing the opposition in their half, and Scolari has continued on the same lines. But, a safety first coach, Scolari is concerned about the space that his team is forced to leave behind the defensive line. By pressing high, Brazil run the risk of playing into the hands of the opposing counter-attack. The solution? Stop those attacks at source. If necessary, commit a foul, and use the stoppage in play to get men behind the ball.

The first time I spoke to Scolari, back in 1999, he stressed that good, well played football contained moments when committing a foul was a necessary means of preventing the opposition from organising a quick attack. Therein lies the explanation for the fact that the two players who committed most fouls in the game were Neymar and Oscar -- playing behind the centre forward, they are in the front line of the battle to ensure the opponent cannot strike quickly from deep. Brazil had more possession but out-fouled Italy 27 to 18 -- and in the first half, when their pressing game was at its most active, they picked up three yellow cards. This is a team, then, that will force the referee to make plenty of decisions.

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