Willian, Hulk, and Fred: What Neymar’s absence means for Brazil

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When Neymar emerged in the Brazilian national team, he was a wide attacker that served as more of an outlet than a focal point.  Over time, that outlet’s slowly developed into a playmaker, one that Brazil head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari moved to the middle of the attack before the World Cup. A text book number 10, he’s not, but by the time the team kicked off its tournament against Croatia, Neymar certainly had become the focal point of his country’s attack.

Without him, Scolari needs to re-think how his team generates chances, and while we shouldn’t expect a huge shift in formation or style, a deep attack will have be creative with its options to replace the Neymar’s impact.

Here’s what might change in Brazil’s Neymar-less world:

1. Willian will likely come into Scolari’s team – There’s also a chance Ramires, who started for Hulk in the team’s second group stage match, could move into Scolari’s starting lineup. Bernard, a slight but quick 21-year-old winger is an option, too, but given the type of player Brazil has lost, Willian’s the more likely choice.

An attacking midfielder who moved to Chelsea last summer, Willian can play anywhere across the three in Scolari’s 4-2-3-1, though he’ll likely be deployed wide. Highly skilled, intelligent in possession, and a great striker of the ball, the 25-year-old also offers a high work rate, something that could prove especially valuable if he’s played opposite Phillip Lahm. If that happens, Hulk will be allowed to move back to his preferred right side, with a centrally deployed Oscar allowing the team to more-easily shift between a three- and two-man midfield. Against possession-hogging Germany, that could prove especially valuable.

A former standout at Shakhtar Donetsk, William offers a different type of creativity to Brazil’s attack, albeit at the expense of Neymar’s goal scoring. His familiarity with club teammate Oscar will help as the 22-year-old becomes more of a focal point in the team’s attack, while his crossing could get more out of Fred in the middle. In the space in front of the defense, he’ll provide a second player able to play a final ball, putting more pressure on Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger to pick him up when he comes off the wing.

With both Willian and Oscar capable of attacking across the width of the field, Brazil can target specific weaknesses in the German defense. Scolari may not need to return Dani Alves to the team to outnumber left back Benedikt Höwedes.

Downgrading from Neymar to Willian certainly hurts, but the true impact of that swap will likely be felt elsewhere. Few nations are lucky enough to have a player like Willian in reserve.

source: AP
Brazil’s Fred holds off Colombia’s Mario Yepes during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Brazil and Colombia. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

2. Fred’s role may change – Brazil’s heat maps showed something that’s confusing, if you think of Neymar as his team’s central playmaker. Often over the course of 90 minutes, his average position rivaled Fred’s, Brazil’s forward. While Scolari moving Neymar to the middle allowed his best player to play a bigger part in Brazil’s attack, it allow allowed him to push forward and play along the line when Fred dropped back to win and hold up the ball.

That dynamic changes if Willian comes in. For all his talents, he’s not someone plays along the defense. Neither is Oscar. Fred can continue to drop back to help Brazil get out of their own half, but there’s no Neymar to burst forward to fill that space.

Ideally, instead of playing as much with his back to goal, Fred would stay higher, trying to push central defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng. Regardless, is movement will become much more important. As Germany’s fullbacks have to deal with Hulk, fullback Marcelo, or possibly Alves, his ability to exploit the channels could be the difference between merely having Oscar and Willian’s skills and truly leveraging them. If he can’t, we may see Jô come on earlier than usual.

3. Hulk’s movement will matter more – In that same vein, Hulk’s ability to play higher and provide an option for Oscar and Willian’s creativity could be more important. Whereas with Neymar it was more important to read defenses as they reacted to Brazil’s focal point, creating options for the team’s playmakers may prove more important against Germany. Instead of waiting for Oscar and Willian to generate space, Hulk and Fred will need to read the defense and adjust. As the German’s adjust to Brazil’s two creators, Hulk could have space to exploit.

There’s also the chance Hulk can see more opportunities isolated against defenders if his team becomes less worried about maintaining space for Neymar. If Oscar and Willian team up toward the left or middle, Hulk may have room to take on Höwedes and cut onto his favored left foot. Clearing their right side for Hulk may also give Scolari reason keep Maicon at right back, knowing Alves will only be blocked fi he tries to get forward.

source: Getty Images
Hulk has failed to score in four games, but with Neymar out, his production could prove vital in the World Cup’s semifinals. (Source: Getty Images)

The undercurrent here, though, is the importance of replacing Neymar’s scoring. With four goals in five games, Neymar was responsible for 40 percent of his team’s production. Hulk, who has failed to score thus far, is one of the few players who can replicate that threat.

He needs to be put in positions to succeed. Against a team of Germany’s caliber, he may also need to deliver.

4. Will Scolari be tempted to use Paulinho – If Scolari’s looking for other way to replace Neymar’s goal scoring, restoring Paulinho to the starting XI could work. The Spurs midfielder was back in the team that faced Colombia, but only because Luiz Gustavo was suspended due to a second yellow card. With the Wolfsburg midfielder available, it’s expected he’ll partner Fernandinho in the middle.

Paulinho, however, provides more of a threat going forward, with his ability to read a defense from deep and exploit available space, particularly valuable if Oscar and Willian can play well. Whereas Gustavo is a pure destroyer and Fernandinho’s more comfortable in a deeper role, Paulinho’s main value is his ability to be that extra man in the box.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t played very well this tournament. Though his showing against Colombia was an improvement on what we saw in group stage, he still wasn’t as good as Fernandinho, who took his spot in the starting lineup before the knockout round. On performance alone, there’s almost not augment for choosing Paulinho over one of Scolari’s two other options.

But with Oscar potentially augmenting that two-man midfield, Brazil may be able to sacrifice one of Gustavo or Fernandinho. If, however, he feels Scolari thinks his team is capable of generating chances with just his attackers, Paulinho should be on the bench when the teams kick off on Tuesday.

Barcelona plan Cruyff tribute at club’s training center

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) One year after his death, Barcelona says it will name the future stadium at its training center after Dutch great Johan Cruyff.

The new stadium at Barcelona’s training center just outside the Catalan city will be called “Johan Cruyff Stadium” in honor of the club’s former player and coach.

Barcelona says in a statement that “the most emblematic building in the facility where future Barca players are coached is to be named after somebody who played such a central role in fostering youth talent at the club.”

Barcelona also says it will commission a “commemorative sculpture” of Cruyff, who died of lung cancer on March 24 last year at age 68. The statue will be placed at Barcelona’s main Camp Nou stadium.

Cruyff is largely credited with launching Barcelona’s era of trophy success, both as a player and a coach.

As a player, Cruyff joined Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.

He later returned as a coach and guided Barcelona to four consecutive Spanish leagues from 1991-94 and the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

“I think the tributes are very warming,” said Cruyff’s son, Jordi Cruyff. “It sort of changes the sadness that we might feel as family to lose a father, a husband and a grandfather. It changes to a certain kind of pride to understand that he left something behind.”

MLS Snapshot: Defense optional — Crew SC outlast Timbers, 3-2

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The game in 100 words (or less): As far as teams who get out in the open field and score the lion’s share of their goals on the counter-attacking, there aren’t many MLS teams better than Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers. The two sides met Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium, site of their MLS Cup 2015 clash, and lived up to their reputations. Of the five goals scored, two were notched on flat-out counters and two more came to pass through quick transitional movements. Portland (9 points) dropped their first points of the season, falling 3-2 to goals scored by Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Niko Hansen, while Crew SC have back-to-back wins and find themselves level on points (7) with the New York Red Bulls with each side having played four games.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS (afternoon) roundup ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

4′ — Asprilla opens the scoring early on — 2017 Crew SC defending, same as 2016 Crew SC defending.

11′ — Meram fires home the rebound for 1-1 — One of Portland’s biggest weaknesses last season was their set-piece defending. Looks like not much has changed.

19′ — Higuain feeds Kamara for a 2-1 lead — The question mark that Portland will eventually have to answer is this: How much, if at all, have they improved defensively in the open field? Based on this Crew SC counter-attack, the answer might be “not much.”

45+3′ — Adi recovers to make it 2-2 — Everything Adi does these days (even the bad things, like this first touch) ends up being good.

84′ — Hansen cleans up at the back post for 3-2 — Jake Gleeson made a spectacular reaction save to deny Kamara his second goal of the game, but the rookie, making his MLS debut, was in the right place at the right time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Asprilla (4′), Meram (11′), Kamara (19′), Adi (45+3′), Hansen (84′)

Andorra’s 11-year, 58-game losing streak is over

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Rarely has a scoreless stalemate in front of the home fans tasted so sweet.

But 11 years of nothing but losing will do that to a team.

Andorra’s 0-0 draw with fellow minnow Faroe Islands in World Cup qualifying on Saturday ended its run of 58 competitive defeats.

It was the first point in qualifying for the Pyrenees mountain principality, population 80,000, since a scoreless draw with Finland in 2005.

Faroe Islands finished with 10 men after Joan Edmundsson was booked a second time with 15 minutes to play.

World Cup qualifiers: Dutch disaster persists; Greece hold Belgium

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s World Cup qualifying fixtures, as Groups A, B and H hit the halfway point in Europe…

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Bulgaria 2-0 Netherlands

Spas Delev scored both Bulgarian goals (5th and 20th minutes) to secure all three points and send Danny Blind’s Netherlands side (7 points) into fourth place in Group A, six points back of leaders France and three back of second-place (qualifying playoffs) Sweden.

17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt was handed his international debut for the Dutch; he was ultimately at fault for both of Delev’s goals; he was subbed off at halftime (as was Georginio Wijnaldum).

Luxembourg 1-3 France

Olivier Giroud scored twice (28th and 77th minutes) for France, and Antoine Griezmann added the other (37th minute – penalty kick), as Les Bleus maintained their three-point lead in Group A. Kylian Mbappe, Monaco’s 18-year-old rising star, made his international debut in the 78th minute, when he replaced Dimitri Payet.

Portugal 3-0 Hungary

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged the 69th and 70th goals of his international career (36th and 65th minutes), as Portugal (12 points) kept pace with an unbeaten Switzerland side (15 points) which managed a 1-0 victory over Latvia to keep their 100-percent record intact. Andre Silva scored the opener (32nd minute) for Portugal, the 21-year-old Porto striker’s fifth goal in six international appearances.

Belgium 1-1 Greece

Romelu Lukaku‘s 89th-minute rescued a point for Group H leaders Belgium (13 points), but it did little to mask an otherwise uninspiring performance from Roberto Martinez’s side. Kostas Mitroglu put Greece ahead in the first minute of the second half, but Panagiotis Tachtsidis saw his second yellow of the game in the 65th minute, and that was the start of Greece’s unraveling. The draw was just enough to keep Greece (11 points) in second, ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose 5-0 thrashing of Gibraltar moved them to 10 points with a superior goal differential.

Elsewhere in UEFA’s World Cup qualifying

Group A

Sweden 4-0 Belarus

Group B

Switzerland 1-0 Latvia
Andorra 0-0 Faroe Islands

Group H

Bosnia-Herzegovina 5-0 Gibraltar
Cyprus 0-0 Estonia