Brazil in 2018 is better without Neymar than Brazil in 2014 was with Neymar.
Under Luis Felipe Scolari, the Seleção relied far too much on their No. 10, asking him to be the emotional catalyst, the conduit of attack and creator-in-chief. Neymar may not have worn the captain’s armband, but he was Brazil in 2014.
Consequently, a break in Neymar’s vertebrae fractured Brazil.
In 2018, Brazil is unquestionably better with the most expensive player of all time on the pitch than without him, but Brazil manager Tite has built a side that is the antithesis of the side that required Neymar to function.
In 2014, Brazil without Neymar was a car without petrol. Oscar’s frail frame couldn’t keep the engine running, while Fred couldn’t even know how to turn the key. Four years later, Philippe Coutinho may be even more of a creative threat than Neymar, while Gabriel Jesus’ movement and finishing makes one wonder how Brazil couldn’t find better strikers than Fred and Jo only four short years ago.
Now, a double-digit Champions League scorer in Roberto Firmino can’t seem to get a start, while Willian only looks set to start due to injury concerns surrounding Renato Augusto. Fernandinho may yet get the nod over Willian depending on the opponent, while the sparkling speed, form and intensity of Douglas Costa is reserved only for the latter stages of matches.
In 2018, a knee to the Neymar’s back wouldn’t fracture Brazil’s World Cup hopes. It wouldn’t help, of course. However, the current assortment of yellow shirts and blue shorts has been assembled with balance and depth that ensures the loss of any one player won’t cause the ship to capsize and sink instantly.
Four years on, Brazil is far less reliant on one man, even if he is arguably the most talented player on the planet.
Of course, Brazil was without both Neymar and Thiago Silva when the 2014 team cracked and crumbled in a 7-1 loss against Germany’s brand of Jogo Bonito. Four years on, Tite has constructed a side where Silva is not even a guaranteed starter. Inter Milan central defender Miranda has the captain’s armband, and Paris Saint-Germain’s Marquinhos was his partner throughout a qualifying campaign that featured Brazil only losing one time in 18 matches — with the backline conceding a South American-best 11 goals.
Excluding the host nation, Brazil was the first team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and it dominated the harshest qualifying campaign on the planet through structure and discipline far more than it did by relying on the talents of a once-in-a-generation player.
It bears repeating that Brazil is best with Neymar, especially if he’s at his best, but the 2018 version of the Seleção seems to have been constructed specifically to withstand the type of a tournament-ending injury that occurred in 2014.
In truth, Tite has built a team where seemingly every area of the pitch can suffer a major injury without causing Brazil to fall off a cliff and transform into a crippled side. Fernandinho can take over for Casemiro; Firmino can replace Gabriel Jesus; Willian can sub for Coutinho; Silva can cover for Marquinhos; Felipe Luis can come in for Marcelo; Fred (not the one from 2014) can relieve Paulinho; Ederson can trade gloves with Alisson; and so on down the list.
Four years on from an unmitigated disaster on home soil, Brazil has learned from its overreliance on Neymar and built a balanced and stable side designed to withstand even the harshest casualties. Brazil in 2018 is better than the squad that was marked as the favorite to win 2014, and that remains true even if Neymar were to suffer a serious injury.
As the general, Tite has fortified the troops, assembled capable reinforcements and constructed an army set to do what even Napoleon could not do: conquer Russia.
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