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Tite faces first true tactical test as Brazil meets Belgium

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With the Round of 16 complete, Brazil is one of the few favorites in the 2018 World Cup to have earned that nomenclature thus far. Germany slumped out in the group stage, Spain looked lost without its manager and bowed out in the Round of 16, and France still seems yet to put together a truly complete performance.

Now, staring down a quarterfinal date with Belgium’s “Golden Generation” on Saturday, Brazil faces its first true test. Manager Tite has yet to find himself truly challenged tactically over his two-year tenure with the national team, breezing through CONMEBOL qualification in a South American confederation that appears weaker than usual given its combined performance in the World Cup thus far.

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Brazil sailed through qualification with a week one loss the only blemish along entire way, and to this point in the big dance they’ve done enough to push by Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia, and Mexico with few truly shaky moments. Now, Tite finds himself tasked with halting the seductively free-flowing Belgian attack that has multiple strengths with which to threaten an opposition.

In a vacuum, Tite wouldn’t have much to think about, his first-choice Brazilian side built well to handle an attacking juggernaut like Belgium. However, the numerous circumstances surrounding Saturday’s quarterfinal make this an exceedingly difficult prospect for Tite – his first truly mountainous trial.

The biggest concern Tite must to overcome is the loss of central midfielder Casemiro to yellow card suspension. The World Cup’s excessively strict yellow card policy sees players who accumulate a second caution before the semifinal suspended for the subsequent match, and thanks to Casemiro’s booking in the 59th minute of the 2-0 win over Mexico for a foul on Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Brazil is without the Real Madrid rock.

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Casemiro is essential to Brazil’s structure and shape, and protects a back line better than any number 6 in the world. His performance against Mexico was as stout as any, but it’s not a good illustration of his true abilities given how Mexico intentionally targeted Brazil’s flanks as their preferred outlet of attack. Instead, one should look to Brazil’s comfortable 2-0 win over Serbia to discover Casemiro’s true worth. Against the big, physical presence of Serbia’s attack, Casemiro was vital in preventing them from circulating through the middle. The 26-year-old completed six of eight tackles attempted, contributed four clearances, recovered nine balls, and went toe-to-toe with Serbia’s exceptionally physical presence winning three of his seven defensive aerial duels. He effectively forced Serbia’s attack out wide, where they are not nearly as dangerous. Below is their attacking dashboard, where you can see the void in the middle as opposed to the traffic out wide.

Serbia attacking dashboard vs. Brazil in Group E play of 2018 World Cup (dashboard via StatsZone app, statistics via Opta).

As you can see, they were completely neutralized in the center of the pitch. With this in mind, Serbia was forced to take a mammoth 26 crosses, of which they successfully connected on just four.

Casemiro’s suspension will be a massive loss for Brazil against Belgium’s impressive attacking assualt. In the Red Devils’ 5-2 demolition of promising African nation Tunisia, they were relentless down the middle. Roberto Martinez has Kevin De Bruyne playing in a deeper midfield role with Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens ahead of him in the attacking midfield, and the Manchester City playmaker has been able to marshal the Belgian buildup from deep. Against Tunisia he created five chances and was given free reign through the middle of the field to control the pace of play. That ultimately saw Belgium’s attack bask in plenty of sunlight through the central areas.

 

Kevin de Bruyne’s complete dashboard in Belgium’s 5-2 win over Tunisia in Group G play (dashboard via StatsZone app, statistics via Opta).
Belgium’s attempted take-ons in the 5-2 win over Tunisia in Group G play.
Belgiums attacking third passes in the 5-2 win over Tunisia in Group G play.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With this in mind, Tite will be forced to counter the loss of Casemiro. With Paulinho deployed next to Casemiro thus far throughout the World Cup, it’s unlikely Tite would want to leave him on an island against Belgium. The most likely scenario is the addition of Fernandinho in Casemiro’s place, with the Manchester City holding midfielder a fitting selection to deputize against his Belgian club teammate with the Premier League title winners. Fernandinho was fabulous last season for his club, a big reason why Manchester City was able to win a championship in record-setting fashion. He was the 12th best player in the Premier League last season according to Squawka Statistics as he executed Pep Guardiola‘s tactics to perfection. However, the biggest weakness for Fernandinho is his defensive ability, with the 25-year-old making 5.3 defensive contributions (tackles, interceptions, clearances, blocks) per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season compared to Casemiro’s 9.1 in La Liga play.

Instead of Fernandinho, we could see the likes of new Manchester United signing Fred or veteran Renauto Augusto if Tite wants to be more aggressive, which may be a preferable tactical choice given Belgium’s weak defensive midfield that Japan exploited in the first half of their Round of 16 meeting, before Roberto Martinez shored things up with the introduction of Marouane Fellaini.

Another conundrum Tite must solve is the looming question up front: what to do with Gabriel Jesus. The 21-year-old attacker impressed in his first season in England, but has proven underwhelming in Russia this summer. He has been upstaged by Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino late in World Cup games, most recently watching from the bench as Firmino iced the Mexico game with a late goal. There are calls to replace Jesus with a more centrally inclined striker like Firmino in the starting lineup, and it is Tite’s job to deduce whether Firmino is a fitting replacement for Jesus from the get-go, or if his success is molded by his use as a late sub against tired legs. If his Champions League performances are any indication, Firmino is more than capable of causing problems for opposition defensive structure for an entire 90 minutes at a high level, and his World Cup performances seem to suggest he has a better understanding with Neymar than Jesus has shown.

Finally, Tite has issues to solve on the back line as well. Injuries have decimated the Brazilian full-back ranks, and while it appears those injured may be somewhat subsiding, there are still lingering questions. Danilo was reportedly fit for the Mexico game, but Tite stuck with understudy Fagner at right-back, who was subsequently torn to shreds by Carlos Vela early and Lozano as the game progressed. Vela created four chances throughout the match – three in the first half – while completing 13 of 16 pass attempts in the attacking third. Lozano, meanwhile, completed six of 10 take-ons including five of his first seven before Brazil’s pressure became too much for Mexico to handle. Meanwhile on the left flank, Filipe Luis was troubled by Mexico’s wide attack as well – although not to the extent of Fagner – and while Marcelo’s presence in the Brazilian lineup would seem a given if healthy, some believe Filipe Luis has performed well enough to keep his place in the eleven.

Brazil has passed every test to this point, but in a World Cup full of chaos and upsets, Tite cannot afford to underestimate any personnel choice or tactical decision, no matter how small. His conclusions over the next few days will shape the 2018 World Cup’s first true heavyweight bout.

Nuno demands ‘immediate reaction’ from struggling Wolves

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Replicating the lofty heights of last season has proven a tough task for Wolverhampton Wanderers through the first month and a half of the 2019-20 campaign, both in the Premier League and in Europe.

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines: Week 6 ]

After finishing seventh in their first season back in the PL, Wolves began their first-ever Europa League adventure this summer, largely breezing through the qualification rounds to reach the group stage. That part went swimmingly. Thursday’s group play opener didn’t go so well, as Nuno Espirito Santo‘s side fell to Portuguese side Braga at home, 1-0.

Wolves began the PL with three straight draws, conceding just two goals in total. Since then, they have lost two in a row and conceded eight goals.

[ MORE: Man City’s David Silva in “likely” Inter Miami move ]

Again, we’re not even two months into the season, but Santo knows the next few games are going to be hugely important for his side. Not only does he need to keep his players’ heads from dropping during these trying times, but they also need to begin stringing together results, both in the PL and in Europe. Wolves need to bounce back, and immediately — quotes from the BBC:

“This is important. We face the reality and the reality says we not performing well so we have to analyze it and find solutions in the team to improve.

“We must react immediately. We have to take decisions and find solutions for the team because we have to come out of this situation and improve our performance so we can bounce back.”

“We are all disappointed.”

Up next for Santo’s side is a potentially tricky trip south London to face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, where the Eagles have already drawn top-six hopefuls Everton and beaten newly promoted Aston Villa.

Kaka urges Neymar to stay at PSG, lead Champions League push

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LONDON (AP) From lifting the World Cup to being named the world’s best player, Kaka ascended the highs Neymar is still chasing.

So after more tumult in Neymar’s career, Kaka has some advice for his fellow Brazilian:

  • Stay at Paris Saint-Germain to lead the pursuit of Champions League glory, and the world player of the year accolades will follow.
  • Keep on maturing and maybe the forward can win a World Cup to avoid being viewed as a failure for Brazil.

“Everybody wants to give some advice or an opinion about his life,” Kaka said in an interview with The Associated Press. “He’s just a 27-year-old guy, a lot of people of the same age make mistakes and improve with that.”

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines: Week 6 ]

But Kaka’s opinions and advice could be worth listening to, even for Neymar.

After all, Kaka won the game’s top individual honors in 2007 when he was named FIFA world player of the year and collected the Ballon d’Or after winning the Champions League with AC Milan.

Neymar, the world’s most expensive player, is reeling from being jeered on his return to the PSG side last weekend after sitting out the opening four league games of the season as he pushed for a move back to Barcelona during the summer transfer window. He won’t play in the Champions League until the third group-stage game because of a suspension.

“For him I think it’s good to stay there in PSG for now,” Kaka said at the FIFA20 video game launch. “I think it’s good for him, for the club. I think PSG is always trying to build a great team to win a Champions League, so he can be the leader for this project and in my opinion, it’s good. It will be a great year for him.”

When the FIFA player awards are handed out on Monday, though, Neymar will be far from the Milan ceremony. He has never finished higher than third in the vote for the Ballon D’Or, and still lives in the shadow of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

“What I believe that lacks in Neymar to accomplish the world’s best player award is a big team accomplishment,” Kaka said in London. “When he achieves this big team accomplishment, being the leader of this accomplishment — and he has a big chance for it, I am sure of — Neymar will be chosen to be announced as the world’s best player.”

Neymar is starting a third season in Paris after Barcelona could not strike a deal to re-sign the player it sold two year ago for $246 million.

“Maybe at 27, I could have made the same mistakes,” Kaka said. “And so I think this is a great opportunity for him to improve himself and to be better and mature.”

[ MORE: Man City’s David Silva in “likely” Inter Miami move ]

While Neymar has won the French league twice — the minimum expected for a team with lavish Qatari funding — he has not won a European title with the French capital club as he did with Barcelona in the 2015 Champions League final.

Neymar’s only titles with Brazil so far are gold at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and the Confederations Cup on home soil in 2013. Neymar missed the 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals through injury and was part of the team knocked out the 2018 quarterfinals by Belgium. He also missed this summer’s Copa America, which Brazil won without him.

Kaka was part of the squad that won the 2002 World Cup, and Brazil hasn’t reached the final since then.

“Always for Brazil we have this pressure,” Kaka said. “Because we have won five World Cups, so everyone thinks about the World Cup. So, if you do a lot of good things for the national team but you don’t win a World Cup, maybe you fail.

“I don’t think it’s fair but it’s like this and this is the situation. And Neymar had an opportunity to play in two World Cups and didn’t win one with Brazil. So, our expectation with him is for him to be the guy for the next World Cup for us. I think it’s hard for him but I think every year he’s more mature, he understands his position in the national team better as well and it’s good.”

Premier League Preview: Southampton v. Bournemouth

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  • Early-season mid-table clash on the south coast
  • 10th-place Saints host 9th-place Cherries
  • 0-0, 3-3 draws in PL meetings last season

Matchweek 6 of the 2019-20 Premier League season is upon us, and the proceedings are set to kick off on Friday when a pair of south coast clubs, Southampton and Bournemouth, do battle (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

Both sides enter the clash at St. Mary’s Stadium on the back of a victory last weekend in PL action. It’s Bournemouth whose triumph last time out was wildly impressive, though, as Eddie Howe’s side cruise to a 3-1 win over top-six hopefuls Everton at Vitality Stadium. However, Saints have proven a real nightmare of an away day for the Cherries as they’re in search of their first-ever win away to Southampton (15 previous tries, beginning in 1953 – all competitions).

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Southampton secured their most recent victory when they traveled to newly promoted, 10-man Sheffield United. Home form has been a bit worrying for Saints early this season, until you consider they’ve hosted none other than Liverpool and Manchester United at St. Mary’s… until you look back to last season and realize they have won just five of their last 21 at home. On the plus side, Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s side has been much improved since conceding five goals in the first two games of the season. Since then, just one goal which came in a 1-1 draw with Man United.

Injuries/suspensions

Southampton: OUT – Kevin Danso (suspension); QUESTIONABLE – Nathan Redmond (ankle), Michael Obafemi (hamstring); PROBABLE – Ryan Bertrand (ankle)

Bournemouth: OUT – Charlie Daniels (knee), Lloyd Kelly (ankle), Dan Gosling (hip), David Brooks (ankle), Junior Stanislas (knee), Simon Francis (fitness); QUESTIONABLE – Chris Mepham (undisclosed), Arnaut Danjuma (foot)


Projected lineups

Southampton: Gunn – Bednarek, Yoshida, Vestergaard – Soares, Romeu, Hojberg – Ward-Prowse, Boufal – Adams, Ings

Bournemouth: Ramsdale – Stacey, Cook, Ake, Rico – Wilson, Billing, Cook, King – Solanke, Wilson


What they’re saying

Ralph Hasenhuttl, on Southampton’s defensive improvement: “This season it’s not the case that we don’t give them any chances, they still have chances because it’s very difficult in the Premier League to not give them a chance. Also the goalkeepers Angus (Gunn) and Alex (McCarthy) make a good development this season and the back five were very concentrated. It is good to see things develop that you have been working on. This can hopefully continue.”

Eddie Howe, on the budding south coast rivalry: “It should be a really feisty game, a really good atmosphere and an entertaining match. Southampton have started very well, too. It’s gaining in everybody’s focus. The more games we have, the more the rivalry will intensify I think. We’ve enjoyed the games against Southampton which have been tight and tough, from both clubs’ perspectives. We’re looking forward to another entertaining match.”


Prediction

Southampton have been far more convincing in their defending than Bournemouth on the attack. It’ll likely be a game of precious few high-value chances. In the end, neither Saints get the elusive home win nor the Cherries get the first victory at Southampton. Final score: 1-1.

The 2 Robbies podcast: Champions League, Europa League return

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle reflect on the opening round of UEFA Champions League and Europa League fixtures.

Manchester City bounced back from their defeat at Norwich. Who is ready to step up and lead Tottenham (8:00)? Liverpool slipped up at Napoli (19:00). There was penalty drama at Chelsea (30:00). The Robbies look ahead to the weekend’s marquee matchup: Chelsea v. Liverpool (37:00), before wrapping up with Arsenal (41:00), Manchester United (45:00), and Wolves’ opening Europa League matches (51:30).

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

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