Dani Alves rightfully took the plaudits for Brazil’s opener in their 2-0 win over Argentina in the Copa America semifinal, but lost in the trickery was a simple exchange of movement between Firmino and Gabriel Jesus to unlock their opponent’s defensive line. With the scored tied at zero, Alves singlehandedly dribbled through Argentina’s midfield before playing in Firmino, who started as the striker, on the right wing. Firmino then hit a simple cross to a wide open Jesus, the right winger, in front of net to open the scoring. The unselfishness would later be repaid. Jesus recovered a clearance in his own third in the 71st minute and dribbled past three Argentine defenders before crossing to Firmino for the final blow. Nevermind that Firmino scuffed his shot, as he was so open the ball still went in. The two attackers, consistently interchanging from the wing to the center of the field, mirrored each other’s production with one goal and one assist in the match.
Jesus and Firmino stayed consistent in their efficiency in the final against Peru. The two players would again combine for a goal with Firmino tackling the ball back in the middle third and Jesus punishing Peru’s scrambling defensive line. That match-winning goal was Jesus’ seventh in 10 national team matches this season. Nevermind his dismissal later in the match following a second yellow, it wasn’t just the goals he was involved in during the knockout stages, but the manner in which they were scored. We’ve become familiar with the Jesus of Manchester City, tapping in goals right in front of net. But rarely have we seen his ability to carry an attack with his power and dribbling at the club level, with the midfield responsible for moving the ball in that area of the field. Tite added that while Jesus will have to refine his game, his striker’s “quest for something is his trademark.”
Jesus and Firmino, alongside a third winger in Everton or Willian, gave Brazil a balanced attacking identity that gain momentum throughout the tournament. The goal-scoring sequences represented the melding of two worlds, with the directness of European play combined with the dribbling creativity of South American attackers. Brazil gave up just one goal while scoring 13 for the entire tournament. There was an underlying sigh of relief in watching a new Brazil after Neymar was ruled out of the tournament, at least in a lack of on-field theatrics. That realization to search for a new path also dawned on Tite, who admitted following the World Cup that he needed to give Firmino more chances.
Though it would be easy to initially overlook Firmino and he doesn’t fit into the template of what we’ve come to expect from a striker, outside of his no-look goals. His impact lies in where he isn’t on the field as much as what he does with the ball. He is a striker who leads an attack by vacating his space, signaling to his wingers to attack a vulnerable defensive line with their dribbling. His off-ball movement and technical ability are built for the unique triangles and angles of a 433 shape. The battling, tracking back, and defensive qualities are molded by this modern era. While teammates for both club and country have larger profiles, he makes both sides tick by giving and taking away space. He is singular in his essentialness.
In contrast, Jesus came to the footballing world’s conscious in a more traditional manner of impressive dribbles and goals on YouTube compilations. Following his Manchester City debut against Crystal Palace in 2017, Pep Guardiola proclaimed that Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, and Jesus were “the future for Manchester City.” That insistence upon three attackers further cemented the 433 formation in European soccer. One could trace the social media-induced fascination starting with the Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar trio in 2015, which inevitably lead to its facsimiles as teams searched to create space by spreading defenses across their line while maintaining numbers in midfield.
Though rarely do we see that attacking cohesion at the international level. Firmino and Jesus (and Willian) brought their experience with the pace and directness in England back to Brazil. Much like a midfield trio of a destroyer, passer, and box-to-box runner, there are roles within an attacking three to make them function at their peak. There must be some balance between a dribbler, an unselfish player to build up play, and an off-ball runner to stretch defenses. It is why Tite remains insistent on Willian despite his age and how unimaginative that selection may appear. The Chelsea winger has pace, is direct, and can dribble. He can make a front three function.
The 2016 Copa America saw Chile strangle space with a high, energetic press. There was no grand tactical movement this time around. Without Neymar, it was back to basics for Brazil: a counter attacking that worked win and without the ball. Brazil had the best team in terms of talent, but they were also the team that played the best together.
Tite had stripped Neymar of his captaincy back in May following a confrontation with a fan following the French Cup Final. The manager had noted Neymar’s maturity when first honoring his striker with the distinction last September, though it lasted less than a year, without the striker even having an opportunity to lead Brazil in a major competition.
The armband went to the tried and tested Dani Alves, who was arguably the best player in the Copa America. Brazil’s success without their most famous and prolific attacker did not go unnoticed by the public, and it’s easy to ask whether the team play better without one of the best players in the world. We’ve seen how one dominant player can unbalance a side with their personality and gravity. Not only did Brazil show they could win without him, but in a style which showcased the team operate in harmony in possession, defense, and transition.
At 27 years old, Neymar is no longer a player of potential or imagination. Reuniting with Barcelona seems inevitable. Not only from Neymar’s insistence and PSG’s desire to balance their side from large personalities, but also from a perspective of closure. There’s an alternate European footballing timeline somewhere where Neymar never left Barcelona, somehow saving the club from two Champions League collapses, and taking the lead goal-scoring duties from Messi in an acknowledgement of a changing era. When Neymar inevitably returns to Brazil’s lineup, it will be on Tite’s terms. He will have to integrate himself into their existing front three, most likely at Willian and Everton’s expense, instead of bending a style for him. Though what he loses in personal glory he may make up for in international trophies.