The romance of the free flowing, relatively high-scoring World Cup Group Stage is a distant memory now. At this point, the big boys are playing for keeps, and they are taking no prisoners.
All three of the big boys in the semifinals — Brazil, Germany, and Argentina — won their quarterfinals match by scoring early and then grinding the life out of the opposition — Colombia, France, and Belgium. Only Colombia had anything much to offer by the end.
The upshot of the ugliness, though, is a semifinal round that features three giants of international footbal plus the Dutch, who have frequently made it this far in the past 40 years too. Any neutral soccer fan would have gladly taken this lineup when the tournament began.
Tomorrow, it’s Brazil and Germany. At full strength, I would pick Brazil. But Brazil will be missing their two best players — Thiago Silva in defense and Neymar in attack. The former is suspended for the Germany match; the latter is out of the World Cup due to injury.
Without these two, Brazil has no player that I rate as in the top three in the world at his position. Germany has three such players in my view — Neuer in goal, Hummels at center back, and Muller at forward.
The Brazilians aren’t mugs, though; they have many players in the next echelon. And they have the home nation advantage, which is probably substantial.
What makes the match so difficult for me to predict is that not only do we not know who will replace Thiago Silva and Neymar, we don’t even know what formation Brazil will use.
There are two options. Brazil could keep its 4-2-3-1 formation. Oscar could move from the wing into Neymar’s central role in the “3,” with Willian (say) taking on Oscar’s role.
In this scenario, the four attackers would be Oscar, Hulk, Willian, and Fred (or maybe Jo). The first two are outstanding players who have had their moments in this tournament, though not enough of them. Willian hasn’t received much playing time here, but showed plenty of ability for Chelsea. Fred, who plays up front, was a reliable goal scorer for Brazil until the World Cup began, but has been firing blanks since (when firing at all).
The second option is to replace Neymar with a pure central midfielder and switch to a 4-3-3. The three midfielders would be selected from Luis Gustavo, Fernandinho, Paulinho, and Ramires.
The three forwards would be Hulk, Oscar, and Fred (or maybe Jo). Or, if Scolari really wanted to be bold, he could go without a true “Number 9″ and select Hulk, Oscar, and Willian.
The case for switching to a 4-3-3 is that (1) without Thiago Silva in the back four, Brazil needs extra protection from the midfield and (2) deploying three midfielders could counter Germany’s tactics, as displayed in their 1-0 victory over France.
In that match, Germany brought in Klose (tied for the most prolific World Cup scorer ever) to play forward. Though nominally playing with three up front, Klose frequently paired with Muller in a front two, with Ozil dropping into midfield.
This created two advantages. First, France’s all action midfield of Cabaye, Matuidi, and Pogba was frequently outnumbered by Germany’s 4-4-2 (plus Lahm pushing up from right back). Pogba, one of the stars of the tournament, was largely ineffective. Second, Germany could better implement its short passing game which, as I have noted, is similar to Spain’s “tiki taka.” (Spain too often drops a nominal winger/forward, say Iniesta or Fabregas, into midfield).
By playing three rugged midfielders, Brazil might well be able to limit Germany’s passing game and prevent Khedira and Schweinsteigger from running the show.
The case for sticking with the 4-2-3-1 is the Confederations Cup Final of last year. Using this formation, Brazil was able to rout Spain — tiki taka and all.
As I recounted here, Luis Gustavo and Paulinho provided all the central midfield support Brazil needed in that match. They made Spain’s Busquets and Xavi look lightweight. But keep in mind that (1) Neymar was the star of that match and (2) Germany’s midfielders will likely be more physical and energetic than Spain’s were on that day.
Scolari has been staying that he doesn’t plan to change his tactics against Germany. But the teams are playing for keeps now, so I don’t think you can trust anything a manager says before a match.
The oddsmakers have Germany the slight favorite. But the excellent analyst Nate Silver gives Brazil a 65 percent chance of prevailing — down from 73 percent before Thiago Silva and Neymar were ruled out. He sees the two teams as essentially even on talent now, but with Brazil benefiting big time from the home nation advantage.
Intuitively, one wants to say that the loss of Brazil’s two stars has a greater impact than Silver estimates. But the analysis through which he reached his conclusion seems persuasive, especially as to Neymar.
In any event, tomorrow’s match shapes up as a pragmatic, tactical battle — probably low on jogo bonito romance, but fascinating nonetheless, and with the distinct possibility of producing high drama.
UDPATE: Germany 7, Brazil 1. Brazil stayed with its 4-2-3-1 formation, but abandoned the rugged, cynical approach play it used against Colombia. Both decisions proved to be big mistakes.
Germany had all the time and the space in the world, and knew what to do with it.