If you made a list of everything you’d want from a favorite to win the World Cup, Brazil would tick every box.
Want a great defense? Brazil have one of the strongest and most well-rounded in the tournament, with maybe the best left back of all time in Marcelo, a trio of exceptional central defenders who are all big, strong, quick, and good on the ball in Thiago Silva, João Miranda, and Marquinhos, and (the one weakness in the starting lineup) a merely pretty solid right back in Danilo.
Looking for a good midfield? Well, what kind of “good” are you after? If you’re interested in a group of lung-busting, hard-charging, muscly guys to dominate the center of the pitch physically, then you won’t find a better combination in the world than Casemiro, Paulinho, and Fernandinho. In search of more creativity from the midfield, someone who can crack the safe of a deep-set defense with guile rather than power? Then just drop Fernandinho and play Philippe Coutinho in his place and you immediately have the best of both worlds, Coutinho as the lock pick and Paulinho as the sledgehammer.
Would you want this team to have a deadly attack? Players who can create scoring opportunities all by themselves with long solo dribbles and worldie goals? Dead-eye finishers to make sure every time the opponent gives up a big chance they will be punished on the scoreboard? Speedy guys who can threaten on the counter? Artist types who can thrive while maintaining extended stretches with possession of the ball and the delicate skills to turn those long possessions into killer chances on goal? Forwards who are committed enough defensively to protect the players behind them and maybe cause a couple dangerous turnovers with some high pressing? A single superstar with the personality to say “Fuck it, I’m gonna go win this for us” and the talent to actually do so? Brazil’s forward line of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Willian, and Coutinho can be and do all those things and more.
Ah, but is there depth to compensate for any inopportune injuries or drops of form from the starters or just to switch things up tactically? Why yes, Brazil have players like Ederson and Filipe Luís and Marquinhos and Fred and Roberto Firmino, all of whom would be surefire starters for almost every other national team, waiting on the bench waiting to offer their own particular talents when they are called on.
How about the coach? Is he smart enough to draw up sound, flexible tactical systems that get the best out of his best guys? Has he been around long enough to do so? Yep, Tite is Brazil’s manager and he’s one of the best in the game. He came along two years ago when Brazil were really floundering with ill-conceived tactics and no playing identity and righted the ship almost immediately. His Brazil are tough, tenacious, smart, aggressive, versatile, and well balanced—things Brazil haven’t been for a long time.
As you can see, on paper Brazil have everything anyone could reasonably ask for in a national team coming into a World Cup. Germany and Spain also check most all these same boxes, but their flaws (Germany’s central midfield is sort of weak, Spain’s likely starting lineup is a little old and slow, and both countries lack truly world-class forward lines) are noticeably more prevalent than Brazil’s. Brazil are the best team in the field, and all those objective measures of squad and managerial strength will only be magnified by the intense drive on the part of all the players to erase the memories of the 7-1 nightmare, and to end the country’s 16-year World Cup drought (an eternity to the winningest national team in history) by lifting the trophy this summer. For all those reasons, no team is better positioned to get their hands on the World Cup this summer than Brazil.
Goalkeepers: Alisson (Roma), Cássio (Corinthians), Ederson (Manchester City)
Defenders: Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain), João Miranda (Inter), Pedro Geromel (Grêmio), Filipe Luís (Atlético Madrid), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), Danilo (Manchester City), Fagner (Corinthians)
Midfielders: Casemiro (Real Madrid), Renato Augusto (Beijing Sinobo Guoan), Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), Paulinho (Barcelona), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk), Willian (Chelsea)
Forwards: Douglas Costa (Bayern Munich), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk)
A Seleção (The Selection)
More than anyone other than maybe Lionel Messi, Neymar needs to win this World Cup. To validate his abilities as a player, his choices about the direction of his career, and his place in the standing of all-time great players, Neymar really needs to end this summer with either the Jules Rimet trophy in hand or a string of performances so fantastic that the takeaway from the World Cup is “Boy, how on Earth did Brazil not win when Neymar played like that?” No pressure, Neymar!
Neymar has just recently returned from an injury he suffered in February that not only prematurely ended his club season but also put his playing career’s mortality in full view. Neymar made the understandable and even laudable but also risky move of leaving Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain last summer. After his injury led the team to a Champions League Round of 16 exit, the man everyone once so confidently decreed would be the next king of the sport’s bright future suddenly looked more cloudy than it ever had before. No longer the precocious youngster with the world at his feet and plenty of time to conquer it, Neymar is now 26, at the full peak of his powers, and without the kind of self-determined success he so clearly covets.
Neymar left Barcelona to validate his legacy by becoming the decisive player in a team that won important trophies—something that was never going to happen any time soon if he remained in the shadow of his then-teammate, Messi—and in the process solidify himself as the best player in the world, one of the greatest ever. He probably didn’t expect PSG to be so far away from legitimate contention for the Champions League, or that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would still look as good as ever as they ventured past 30 years old, treating the limitations of age the same way they have so many other perceived barriers. Unless he starts winning the club silverware and individual awards and worldwide reverence he’s after soon, Neymar’s future is going to start looking more like something to dread than something to anticipate.
This is why the World Cup means so much. If Neymar wins it, the joy he’ll feel could only be matched by the relief that comes with it. Winning the World Cup as the best player on the team would itself be an accomplishment worthy of legendary status, and would be the kind of feat everyone dreamed Neymar could pull off back when he burst on the scene as a youngster with a sky-high ceiling. Suddenly, the pressure to win the Champions League again wouldn’t be as intense, the Ballon d’Or would probably be his to lose, the argument about whether he made a mistake by joining PSG wouldn’t hold as much weight, and he would have a resumé worthy of putting himself in the conversation for the best player in the world. The Next Big Thing will have finally become The Big Thing. Lose the World Cup, though, and all the questions about Neymar’s past decisions and future prospects will only intensify. There is so much at stake in Neymar’s World Cup, for himself and for the game as a whole. (For example: do you think it’s more or less likely that Neymar would try to force himself out of PSG in favor of a move to Real Madrid, as has been rumored for months now, if Neymar won the World Cup this summer?)
Thankfully, Neymar is more than up for the challenge. Nobody in soccer can match what Neymar does on the pitch—the way he completely dominates the attacking side of the game—other than Messi himself. He is an absolute terror when playing, and is flat-out great at every aspect of attacking play. Combined with his unreal skills at their peak power is a Brazil team full of world-class talents all tasked with facilitating his greatness. It is as ideal a situation as he or anyone else could ask for. Neymar, in the thick of his prime, is the second best player in the world and plays on the best team in all of international soccer. For Neymar, whom so many people expected so much from, that shining future of his needs to begin now.
Nobody grows up dreaming about becoming a fullback. Fullback is the least influential outfield position, is the easiest position to pick up without knowing much about it, and generally is where the least skilled players on any given team can be found. Most of the good ones are players who couldn’t hack it at the highest level at a more important position as youngsters. A good fullback runs forwards and runs backwards, never wanders much from a narrow band on the right or left edges of the pitch, thumps the ball toward the opponents penalty area or thumps the ball out of their own penalty area. If there is any position a team can afford to skimp on, it’s those wide defender ones. There is almost no glory in being a fullback.
Marcelo is one of the exceptions. He plays the ignominious position of fullback with a flair and technique and skill almost unknown to the game. Whereas the typical fullback—even a good one—has at best an ancillary role in a team’s attack, Marcelo is a crucial component to the process of scoring goals in any team he plays for. Nowhere is this more true than the current Brazil squad. Because the most common Brazil lineup lacks midfielders who build attacks with patience and passing, Marcelo is arguably the single most important player in the Seleção’s efforts to safely escort the ball from the defense’s territory up to the attackers. He and his Brazil teammates rely on the Real Madrid left back’s dribbling, passing, speed, and intelligence to contribute to the attacking end, and the fact that a goddamn fullback has skills in such abundance to make it all work is totally crazy.
Where most fullbacks like to stay deep and wide and pick their moments to get forward carefully, Marcelo likes to be in the middle of things—literally. He’s the only fullback who’s made a habit out of cutting inside from his starting spot on the left flank and charging forward and centrally with the ball to the point where he sometimes looks more like a No. 10 than a left back. His touch and technique with the ball is flawless. His ability to read passing angles and execute cutting passes on the fly rivals many team’s designated playmakers. He’s a beast when showing off his speed by flying down the wing, and the tricky dribble moves he sometimes tosses off almost as an afterthought would turn more than a few full-time wingers green with envy.
Marcelo is the rare fullback who’s a legitimate star by any reckoning. At this World Cup, he’s primed to demonstrate just how bright a star like his can shine, even when positioned way back and in the corner of the pitch.
The best part about Brazil is that they can play any way they want, and barely have to make any changes to their personnel to do so. In the big games against elite competition, the Seleção will rely on what is probably their preferred lineup and tactics, running out the Casemiro-Paulinho-Fernandinho triumvirate in midfield, Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, and Philippe Coutinho in attack, and counting on their back four of Danilo, Silva, Miranda, and Marcelo plus their ridiculously physical midfield to form an impenetrable defensive blockade while giving their lethal front three license to stream down the pitch on counterattacks in search of a couple goals. This lineup does lack a touch of passing quality—which is why the injury to Renato Augusto, who would start over Fernandinho in midfield if he were completely healthy, hurts so much—but that’s a relatively minor concern with such imposing midfield and defensive lines. That starting XI is capable of holding off any attack they’ll face all tournament, of killing anyone on the counter to the tune of two or three goals, and of maintaining possession to build more structured attacks and keep the opponent off the ball. It is the most big game-ready starting lineup in Russia.
Against smaller teams, the ones Brazil expect to bunker down and try to fend off Neymar and Co., Tite can drop Fernandinho, slide Coutinho a little deeper into a central midfield spot, and throw Willian onto the right wing. This lineup improves Brazil’s creative passing and goal-scoring threat from deeper positions while still offering nearly the same defensive cover of their less attacking XI. And regardless of who exactly starts, every player Brazil will feature will be one who is very responsible defensively. Brazil can afford to press from the front with each of their forwards because each of their forwards is good at it, has the stamina to maintain it for as long as they’re on the pitch, and has been coached on how to press as a team to make it more difficult for opponents to circumvent. Playing this Brazil team is like playing rock-paper-scissors with someone who always knows what you’re about to throw. It’s no guarantee that these tactics will ensure victory in the tournament, since they aren’t that much better than the other favorites. But if you should expect any one team to do so, it should be Brazil.
All times Eastern
June 17, 2 p.m.: Brazil vs. Switzerland at Rostov Arena
June 22, 8 a.m.: Brazil vs. Costa Rica at Saint Petersburg Stadium
June 27, 2 p.m.: Serbia vs. Brazil at Spartak Stadium