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.

Luan, Gremio looks to dethrone Real Madrid at Club World Cup

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“He’s a wonderful person. He’s got lots of titles, so maybe he can just leave this one to us.”

That’s Gremio youngster Luan after being told Real Madrid star and countryman Marcelo said he has a huge future in the game.

Luan and his teammates could make a lot more noise with a win in Saturday’s Club World Cup final against Real.

[ MORE: Galaxy to acquire Bingham? ]

Gremio edged Pachuca in extra time of its semifinal after Real came back to beat Al Jazira, and now hopes to become just the second non-European club to win the Club World Cup since 2007.

Brazilian clubs won the first three CWCs between 2000-06, but Corinthians claimed the lone Brazilian title since when it beat Chelsea in 2012.

Spanish clubs have won the last three finals, with Real sandwiching two around Barca’s 2015 win over River Plate.

The 24-year-old Luan won Olympic gold with Brazil in 2016, and has two caps with the national team.

Still waiting for these Premier League summer transfers to hit

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They seemed like hits at the time, but some significant summer transfer buys are are struggling in the Premier League.

[ MORE: LAFC close to signing third DP ]

Whereas Mohamed Salah, Nemanja Matic, and Alvaro Morata have been solid pickups, and even lesser moves like Kurt Zouma to Stoke and Grzegorz Krychowiak to West Brom have hit the spot, some purchases just have not panned out at their new clubs.

Some aren’t getting playing time, while others aren’t hitting their stride, but here are some moves which just haven’t paid off (yet).

Andre Gray, Watford — The striker has two goals and two assists, but has had problems keeping hold of the ball and has the same amount of goals as defender Daryl Janmaat and midfielder Will Hughes despite playing about 300 percent of their minutes.

Marko Arnautovic, West Ham — The ex-Stoke player was a menace in a midweek draw against Arsenal, but Arnautovic has managed just one goal for the Irons this season. That’s equal to his amount of red cards.

Renato Sanches and Roque Mesa, Swansea City — Sanches hasn’t been able to get into the squad despite being one of the more talked about loans of the summer; Mesa may be coming around in recent weeks, but was an unused sub or not in the squad in 10 of Swans’ first 13.

Jese, Stoke City – The Real Madrid attacker was almost certain to take time to adjust to the Premier League, but his match-winner against Arsenal on Opening Day remains his lone marker.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Liverpool — His deadline day move to join Liverpool, supposedly to play centrally, seemed a head-scratcher. He’s only recently seen consistent minutes in a more central role despite Liverpool having loads of problems there. Maybe that’s on Jurgen Klopp, but we’re still scratching our heads.

Report: Galaxy close to scooping up thrice-capped USMNT keeper

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The LA Galaxy may be turning to its Cali Clasico rival for a new goalkeeper.

Reportedly denied in its pursuit of longtime Vancouver backstop David Ousted, the Galaxy are said to be close to scooping up thrice-capped USMNT keeper David Bingham from San Jose, according to ESPN.

[ MORE: LAFC close to signing third DP ]

The deal would reportedly cost LA between $200,000 and $250,000 in TAM.

Bingham, 28, lost his starting gig to Clemson product Andrew Tarbell this season, and the latter looks intent on keeping the position.

The Galaxy have not had a long-term answer in goal since Jaime Penedo left the club in 2015 (though 24-year-old Jon Kempin showed some very good things last season). Bingham would be a fine addition for a Galaxy team that hemorrhaged the second-most goals in MLS.

FIFA worried about government interference in Spain

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation, FIFA said Friday it will send a delegation to the country to investigate government meddling.

FIFA said in a statement written in Spanish that it had recently sent a letter to the federation “expressing our concern for the situation that the federation is going through and reminding (its officials) that, according to the Statutes of FIFA, all member federations must manage their affairs independently and assure that there is no interference by third parties.”

Spanish newspaper El Pais reported earlier Friday that the FIFA letter warned of a possible suspension because of the government’s push to hold elections following the arrest of federation president Angel Maria Villar in July on suspicion of corruption.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

According to El Pais, FIFA is concerned that the government’s interest in federation elections could be considered outside meddling and break its rules. If the national federation were to be suspended, Spain’s team would not be allowed to play at next year’s World Cup.

FIFA’s statement made no mention of a suspension or other punitive measures.

But the scare was big enough for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to say that Spain will not miss soccer’s biggest event.

“I am sure that Spain will go to the World Cup in Russia and that it will win it,” Rajoy said at a news conference in Brussels.

FIFA added in its statement that “in the coming days” it will send a delegation, which will include representatives from UEFA, to Madrid to “observe and analyze the situation” of the Spanish soccer federation.

The federation said in a separate statement that its interim president, Juan Luis Larrea, had spoken with FIFA and UEFA officials at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 and that he had passed on their “enormous concern” to Spain’s minister of education, culture and sport.

The Spanish federation said it was waiting for the ministry to set a date for a meeting.

Spanish police arrested Villar, his son, and two other soccer officials in July on suspicion of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar was replaced by Larrea, the body’s treasurer for three decades. Critics of Villar argue that elections are needed to make a clean start for the institution that has been tarnished by the scandal.