Five goals down by half-time. A 7-1 loss over 90 minutes. The devastating denouement to Brazil’s last World Cup campaign will not be forgotten in a hurry, not least because the Selecao’s dream of a triumph on home turf remains unfulfilled.
But it would appear from their 2018 tilt so far that lessons have been learned from that humiliation against Germany, and from their generally slapdash approach to defending throughout their 2014 hosting.
The 14 goals conceded in those seven games in Brazil fell just short of South Korea’s long-standing record of 16 goals against in 1954, but this time around they are made of much sterner stuff.
As they head into Friday’s quarter-final against Belgium in Kazan they do so with the joint-best defensive record at this year’s World Cup alongside Uruguay, having allowed only one goal against Switzerland in their opening Group E fixture. Even that Steven Zuber header came with a tinge of controversy thanks to his nudge on Joao Miranda to gain leverage as he rose.
Overall, Brazil look far more compact and organised without the ball under Tite than they did in that unforgettable tournament four years ago under Luiz Felipe Scolari. Zuber’s goal for Switzerland is the only one they’ve conceded in their last nine games since November 2017 and in all they have shipped just five in 23 matches going back to September 2016, shortly after Tite’s arrival as head coach, and have yet to concede twice in a match in two years under him.
Such a record is nothing new for Brazil, with their defence having long been one of their keys to success at World Cups. Over the course of history Brazil have played just one game fewer than Germany in World Cup finals football and yet have conceded 22 fewer goals, while only Italy have a better goals-per-game defensive average. Such has been the mesmerising effect of their attack, their stoic back line has too often been overlooked.
The stylish Eden Hazard and Belgium are the next group deployed to break down this Brazilian defence, but the changes Tite has made mean they are as difficult to breach as at any time in their recent history.
One of the first things the former Corinthians boss did after taking over was to employ a much higher defensive line, and while there had been some concern regarding the space allowed in behind Brazil’s full-backs, the injuries to Dani Alves and Marcelo have allowed the fresher legs of Fagner and Felipe Luis to address the issue to some extent.
While they were stretched as a defensive unit at times by Mexico in the round of 16, their scramble defence is far more effective than four years ago. Thiago Silva has reacted well to his reintroduction as a first choice alongside Miranda after displacing Marquinhos in Tite’s attempt to add a counter threat at the heart of defence.
Throw in the form of Alisson Becker between the sticks, after Tite stuck with him even when he was playing no club football, and you have a far more Brazil-like defence. It has truly been one of the stand-out features of this World Cup so far, and Hazard et al are going to have to be at their dazzling best to get the better of a side who look to be peaking just as they need to in their quest for a sixth world title.