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

3 Comments

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.

Belgium goes to World Cup without Nainggolan

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

BRUSSELS (AP) Belgium left midfielder Radja Nainggolan out of its World Cup squad despite a standout season with Champions League semifinalist Roma.

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has long had a difficult relationship with the stormy midfielder. But after being called up for a warm-up game in March against Saudi Arabia, expectations had been that he would be on the 28-man roster announced Monday.

[ MORE: No World Cup for Chelsea trio ]

On top of the troubled relationship, Nainggolan was also the victim of the unparalleled wealth of talent the small nation has produced over the past few years.

Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were all named in the squad, which will be cut to 23 before the World Cup.

Nashville MLS expansion club snares ex-Liverpool CEO Ayre

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Former Liverpool CEO Ian Ayre is moving from Merseyside to the Music City.

The Tennesseean’s Joe Rexrode says Ayre is set to take the reins of Nashville SC as the first CEO in club history when it makes its debut in the 2020 MLS season.

[ MORE: No World Cup for Chelsea trio ]

Liverpool hired ex-EA Sports executive Peter Moore to replace Ayre in 2017 after the latter, 54, spent six years with the club as managing director and then CEO.

From the Tennessean:

“The MLS has huge ambitions to be one of the biggest and leading leagues in the world, and is on that trajectory,” Ayre said. “Both as a soccer fan and an executive in the industry, it’s something I’ve had my eye on because it’s important. … You talk about MLS and its growth, I think it’s becoming easier and will become easier to attract the right talent to something that’s exciting and developing. And if you have a reputation of being involved in a club like Liverpool, you hope that stands for something when you start to try and attract talent.”

The timing of Ayre’s addition hearkens back to that of former Tottenham executive Darren Eales at Atlanta United. If it has the same success, Nashville will be proud.

Report: Lampard interviews twice with Championship club

Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Steven Gerrard‘s longtime England midfield mate Frank Lampard could soon be joining him in a management.

While Gerrard is tasked with rebuilding Rangers’ Scottish title push, Lampard’s reported new gig would entail leading Ipswich Town back to the Premier League for the first time since 2002.

[ MORE: No World Cup for Chelsea trio ]

Sky Sports says Lampard has already interviewed twice with Ipswich Town ownership in a bid to earn his first senior management gig.

Lampard, 39, played for Chelsea, Man City, New York City FC, West Ham United, and Swansea in a sparkling 20-year playing career.

Town finished 12th in the Championship, 15 points back of a playoff spot and 19 clear of relegation.

No World Cup for Chelsea’s Spanish trio

AP Photo/Tim Ireland
Leave a comment

Spain has left Chelsea trio Alvaro Morata, Marcos Alonso, and Pedro off its World Cup squad.

Also omitted were Napoli’s Jose Callejoin and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin.

[ MORE: MLS Things — The Archive ]

Manager Julen Lopetegui did include Blues defender Cesar Azpilicueta and ex-Chelsea man Diego Costa, as well as Manchester United’s David De Gea, Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal, and Man City’s David Silva.

Spain is expected to contend for the tournament crown in Russia, led by a stellar midfield which includes Silva, Andres Iniesta, Isco, and Thiago Alcantara.

Spain is in a group with Portugal, Iran, and Morocco.

Spain’s World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: De Gea, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Pepe Reina

Defenders: Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Azpilicueta, Nacho, Alvaro Odriozola, Jordi Alba, Monreal, Dani Carvajal

Midfielders: Sergio Busquets, Asensio, Iniesta, Isco, Saul Niguel, Thiago Alcantara, Koke, Silva.

Forwards: Diego Costa, Rodrigo, Iago Aspas, Lucas Vazquez.