Argentina are trying to take some comfort from having lost to the World Cup champions. In truth, though, there is little comfort to be found. Both of Sunday’s finalists produced by far their best attacking display against the Argentines, which says as much about the defects of Jorge Sampaoli’s side as it does about the virtues of France and Croatia. Argentina were a shambles. There are no what-ifs about their campaign.
There are plenty, though, for the other South American sides to dwell on. In the case of Peru, it is that missed penalty from Cristian Cueva. The opening game against Denmark always looked likely to determine their fate, and was goalless when Cueva sent his spot kick over the bar. Losing 1-0 sabotaged Peru’s ambition to get out of the group.
Both Colombia and Uruguay will rue calf injuries to key players. James Rodriguez missed Colombia’s second-round tie against England, while Edinson Cavani sat out Uruguay’s quarterfinal with France. Had these players been present, the South Americans’ chances of victory would have been better.
But most of all, there is plenty for Brazil to ponder. They were by some distance the continent’s finest side in the qualification campaign, and after going down to Belgium in the quarterfinal, the game of the tournament so far, they can look back with regret and wonder how things might have been different.
There were three main question marks hanging over the Brazilians’ challenge to win the World Cup in Europe for the first time in 60 years.
Firstly, how would the coach handle Neymar? Indeed, it appeared that, while defending his No. 10 in public, Tite worked behind the scenes to exert some influence and rein in the excesses of his antics. He backed up Neymar’s individualism — providing he was looking to dribble in the final third. He defended Neymar against criticism for his antics while tacitly admitting that something was lost when the focus was not exclusively on football. And Neymar became less histrionic over the course of the campaign. But by then it was too late. His theatrical diving had already transformed him into a global figure of fun. And while he came up with some glorious moments on the field, he overshadowed the team in a manner that was not healthy.
The second question was whether Philippe Coutinho could thrive as a genuine midfielder. Here the answer is clear. The need to work up and down the pitch sapped the Barcelona star of his strength. He grew worse as the tournament wore on. In the end he was neither making much of a defensive contribution, nor attacking with efficiency. Aside from a wonderful pass to set up Renato Augusto’s goal, Coutinho had a very poor game against Belgium.
The seeds of that defeat were probably sown in the warm-up friendly against Croatia in Liverpool. In qualification, Brazil’s central midfield trio had Casemiro to win the ball, Augusto to organise the play and Paulinho to bomb forward. Augusto’s loss of form prompted a rethink. The more defensive formation had Fernandinho and Casemiro together. But against Croatia in that friendly Brazil were unable to play the ball out of their own half for the opening 45 minutes. And so the more attacking version was chosen, with Coutinho switching from the front line to the midfield, alongside Paulinho and Casemiro (or Fernandinho against the Belgians). This had originally been seen as a plan to break down weaker, defensive opponents. But it became the default formation — and, as proved all too clear, it left Brazil exposed against a side with the skill of the Belgians. In retrospect it may have been better to have persevered longer with Augusto. But it’s fair to wonder why they do not have a genuine midfielder capable of organising the game from box to box like Kevin De Bruyne or Luka Modric.
The third question about Brazil going into the campaign was whether they were too lightweight up front. Many column inches were given over to the choice of centre-forward; should Gabriel Jesus retain his place against the challenge of Roberto Firmino? But maybe there should have been a bigger, target man-style striker in the squad. Might Brazil be lacking this Romelu Lukaku-type of player should they be desperate for a goal in the final few minutes?
Tite flirted with the idea of taking Wilian Jose of Real Sociedad, who was added to the squad in March but not given a game. He may have been an interesting option against Belgium. But the truth would seem to be that centre-forward remains a problem position for the Brazilian national team, and that no genuinely world-class performer with all-around pace and physicality has emerged since the great Ronaldo, who spearheaded Brazil’s (and South America’s) last successful World Cup challenge back in 2002.