Big Phil enjoyed an ideal start his World Cup campaign following Brazil’s 3-1 victory over Croatia. The importance of getting off to a good start is critical, but as host nation and tournament favourites that importance was probably doubled. Brazil have beaten arguably their toughest opponents in the group and now stand just one win from the 2nd round.
It wasn’t the perfect performance from Brazil by any means. An early own goal from Marcelo threatened to spoil the opening day for the hosts and the Brazilian defence was frequently breached by a Luka Modrić pass or Ivica Olić surge. There were moments where Brazil were shaking but the most important thing was that they got their victory.
Scolari has with him one of the strongest squads in world football, demonstrated by the fact that he left the likes of Lucas Moura, Phillipe Coutinho, Kaka, Robinho, Felipe Luis and Miranda out of his final squad. He’s got a fantastic set of players at his disposal and boasts strength in depth, but these players still need to be managed effectively and the way Scolari managed his substitutes against Croatia really demonstrated his tactical ability.
All three of his substitutes made a huge difference to the match and they changed the match in the exact way in which Brazil needed them to.
The first of Scolari’s three subs came after 63 minutes with the score at 1-1, when Paulinho came off for Hernanes. Paulinho was having an impressive game. His box-to-box style of play with the Tottenham man bombing up and down the pitch allowed a constant source of link-up play for the likes of Ocsar, Neymar and Fred. But as the game wore on and Croatia began to sink back into their box something needed to change.
Scolari acted quickly and brought on Hernanes who supplied Brazil with new-found energy and skill. Suddenly the Croats were faced with one more player who began to run at them, one more player who caused a defender or two to drop off and create space for others. With Croatia sitting back and soaking up the pressure, the bustling style of Paulinho had to make way for the more creative Hernanes and Brazil began to open Croatia up.
The next substitute took place 5 minutes later, when Bernard came on for Hulk. Hulk shouldn’t have started the game in reality – he’s quick but takes a few seconds to get up to speed and needs a lot of space to operate. Croatia didn’t allow him any space whatsoever, and once Hulk’s explosiveness and direct running are taken away, the player is effectively nullified. A change was needed desperately and Bernard supplied it with his agile bursts and weaves. Suddenly Darijo Srna had work to do and his Shakhtar teammate began to cause all sorts of problems. He began stretching the defence allowing Neymar and Marcelo to make runs in behind as the Croatia defence began to tire and, like Hernanes, his ability to beat his defender meant that the Croats dropped off every time he was on the ball, giving him more space to operate and opening up more space for the other attackers. Within minutes following these two substitutions, Brazil had a penalty.
The third and final substitution happened with 2 minutes of normal time to go but still made a huge impact. With Brazil holding on to a 1 goal lead, Croatia finally began to threaten again and with the game running down it was clear Brazil were in for 5 minutes of defending. Off comes Neymar, his job done and uses expired, and in comes Ramires.
Ramires is the furthest from your stereo-typical Brazilian footballer you can get. Compared to his teammates, poor on the ball, very little technical ability, but Scolari played him exactly to his strengths. What Ramires may lack in raw talent, he makes up for in energy and tenacity. With the game in their hands, Brazil didn’t need to play their samba football, they just needed to close the game out, and Ramires will act as a vital cog for whenever Brazil (or Chelsea for that matter) decide to do this. His high-energy and hard-tackling combined with his ability to counter quickly and keep running make him a lot more valuable than perhaps his technical abilities deserve.
In the dying embers of the game Ramires, who had maintained his position in the pivot well for 2 minutes, standing in threatening areas and blocking passes before they’ve been made, surged up the field to make a crunching tackle in Croatia’s half, he then fed the ball to Oscar who toe-poked the ball home to win all three points for Brazil.
Make no mistake, the three substitutes changed the game and Scolari deserves a lot of credit. The timings of all three were impeccable and that cannot be underestimated. Big Phil knows his players well, knows their strength and knows their weaknesses and I expect substitutes to play a big hand in Brazil’s fortunes over the next month.