By common consensus, Brazil are back. After 20 years without a World Cup win — normal for pretty much everyone, a disaster for Brazil — they finally have a side ready to conquer the world and are considered clear favourites to lift the trophy in 2022.
There’s some truth to the sense that Brazil are in better shape than in recent editions, certainly in terms of the quality of individual players, and have essentially recovered from a relatively fallow period in terms of genuine greats. But it’s worth considering that, ahead of the knockout stages, Brazil have been favourites at every World Cup going back to 1994.
There’s no conclusive evidence for that, as there aren’t records of bookmakers’ odds at specific points in every tournament, but here’s the logic.
Brazil were favourites from the outset in five of the last seven tournaments: in 1994 (at odds of 7/2, joint with Germany), 1998 (3/1), 2006 (5/2), on home soil in 2014 (3/1) and last time out in 2018 (9/2).
In none of those tournaments did Brazil wobble in the group at all, certainly not enough for them to relinquish their status as favourites. There’s a minor question mark about 1994, as they were only joint-favourites going into the tournament, but they were more impressive in the group phase than Germany, which means it’s unlikely Germany would have been more fancied by the start of the knockout stage. And while they certainly weren’t a particularly talented side in 2014, they had home advantage and were considered a formidable unit.
The exceptions — the two occasions in the last seven when Brazil weren’t pre-tournament favourites — we have to consider others’ struggles.
The first occasion was 2002, when they endured a nightmare qualification phase. Argentina and France started as joint-favourites, yet both exited in the group phase. Brazil were excellent in the group, scoring 11 times and taking maximum points. It’s difficult to work out who else would have been more fancied: Germany had hammered Saudi Arabia but otherwise looked merely OK, Italy were disjointed, Spain weren’t particularly highly rated. The attacking trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho made Brazil the team to beat.
The second occasion was 2010. Spain, the European champions, started as narrow favourites ahead of Brazil. But Vicente del Bosque’s side really struggled through the group stage, losing to Switzerland, playing unimpressively in a 2-0 win over Honduras, and then defeating Chile to pip them to top spot in the group. But Brazil waltzed through, happily playing out a goalless draw with Portugal to confirm their position in the knockout round. It seems likely that Brazil, rather than Spain, were considered the favourites by that stage.
So the question is: what went wrong from this point?
Well, 1994 and 2002: nothing, as they won the tournament.
In 1998, Brazil’s defeat to France in the final can widely be attributed to Ronaldo’s pre-match problems. They played extremely poorly, with Zinedine Zidane scoring two headers from corners.
In 2006, they were defeated by France in the quarter-final, a game most widely remembered for Zidane’s performance, but ultimately Brazil were defeated by a set piece again, with Thierry Henry volleying home Zidane’s deep free kick when Roberto Carlos switched off at the far post.
In 2010 they appeared in complete control in the quarter-final against the Netherlands, 1-0 up at half-time, before having a disastrous second half. Felipe Melo managed to score an own goal and get dismissed for a stamp on Arjen Robben within the space of 20 minutes. In between, Wesley Sneijder headed home the winner from a corner.
In 2014, there was Brazil’s famous meltdown against Germany, losing 7-1 in probably the most shocking result in World Cup history. The absence of Neymar, kicked out of the tournament by Colombia in the previous game, evidently affected them. Marcelo was shocking before half-time, then David Luiz lost his head. But it’s also worth pointing out that Brazil had started the game reasonably well, and Germany got themselves ahead when Thomas Muller turned home a corner.
And then in 2018, Brazil didn’t do much wrong in their 2-1 quarter-final defeat to Belgium. They were the better side on the day. But the goal that put them behind was, once again, a set piece. And there’s an interesting back story to that one.
Brazil manager Tite was a huge admirer of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and marvelled at the fact they conceded so few goals from set pieces despite not being a particularly tall side. So Tite, with help from one of his most trusted players, Fernandinho, decided to copy City’s zonal structure at set pieces.
Fernandinho’s City team-mate Vincent Kompany supposedly got wind of this, and thought he knew a weakness in the structure — it was sometimes vulnerable to near-post runs. And therefore, the first time Belgium got a corner, it was fizzed in towards the near post. Kompany made a run, didn’t quite get to the ball, but it bounced into the net, recorded as an own goal by, ironically, Fernandinho.
So, from these five defeats, there are some common themes.
There are signs of a sudden mental collapse, in 1998, 2010 and 2014.
In two of those games, 1998 and 2014, that can be attributed to issues around their star man. Neymar’s absence from the final two group games means this shouldn’t happen again — Brazil have learned to live without him.
The other important theme is set pieces. In all five fatal defeats, Brazil have gone behind to goals from corners or wide free kicks: Zidane’s two headers in 1998. Henry’s volley in 2006. Sneijder’s header in 2010. Muller’s volley in 2014. Fernandinho’s own goal in 2018.
Thus far, Brazil have defended corners well — 10 faced with no major scares. The structure varies, particularly according to whether they’re facing an inswinging or outswinging corner. They seem particularly wary of defending the near-post zone, and otherwise put zonal defenders roughly along the edge of the six-yard box, with two or three blockers near the penalty spot.
But perhaps it’s about mentality as much as tactics. Brazil have often looked in control, then encountered a sudden period of disastrous football, which has manifested itself in poor set-piece defending.
There’s been little sign of Brazil sloppiness in the group stage. Then again, that’s always been the case.
© 2022 The Athletic Media Company This article originally appeared in The Athletic