BRAZIL 3-1 CROATIA
Thursday 12th June, 2014 FIFA World Cup, Group A, Arena Corinthians
Brazil: 12. Júlio César; 2. Daniel Alves, 3. Thiago Silva, 4. David Luiz, 6. Marcelo; 17. Luiz Gustavo, 8. Paulinho (18. Hernanes 63′); 11. Oscar, 10. Neymar (16. Ramires 88′), 7. Hulk (20. Bernard 68′); 9. Fred
Croatia: 1. Stipe Pletikosa; 11. Dario Srna, 6. Vedran Ćorluka, 5. Dejan Lovren, 2. Šime Vrsaljko; 10. Luka Modrić, 7. Ivan Rakitić; 4. Ivan Perišić, 20. Mateo Kovačić (14. Marcelo Brozović 61′), 18. Ivica Olić, 9. Nikica Jelavić (16. Ante Rebić 78′)
Luiz Gustavo was positioned as a holding midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 – of sorts – and retained this role for the full 90 minutes. He rarely crossed the halfway line and frequently dropped between the two central defenders – David Luiz and Thiago Silva. Occasionally, he even acted as a sweeper. Alongside Gustavo for 63 minutes was Paulinho, who was often well advanced. When the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder was replaced by Hernanes, Gustavo had better support when Brazil were out of possession.
Use of the ball
With Croatia sitting deep and not pressing, Luiz Gustavo was afforded time in possession. His use of the ball was very simple, but measured (see diagram below).
The players he most frequently passed to were Thiago Silva (14), Daniel Alves (10), David Luiz (10) and Marcelo (7). Gustavo’s role in possession was simply to keep the ball moving and help the back line players to find a way forward – usually down the flanks – or to create an angle for a longer pass out wide.
With Croatia reluctant to press beyond half-way and instead keeping a compact, deep shape, Gustavo had time on the ball, but few options to pass forward. To combat this, Oscar and sometimes Neymar would come deep to play-make, but it was largely the defenders who played the penetrative passes.
Given that Gustavo was so safe with his use of the ball, it is no coincidence that his pass accuracy was 96% – the best of any player on the pitch – while only Luiz, Daniel Alves and Thiago Silva made more for Brazil.
Luiz Gustavo’s positioning was vital for Brazil. His intelligence and understand of where to be – particularly out of possession – made him in many ways their most important defensive player. His covering of all four defenders was key in blocking out Croatia’s attempts to counter-attack. He offered a protective shield and attempted to close out the space ‘between the lines’. Due to a lack of support from Paulinho and the desire of both Daniel Alves and Marcelo to push forward – often at the same time – Gustavo appeared overstretched, particularly at points in the second half, when Ivan Perišić started moving in off the flank.
When Brazil had the ball, Gustavo often dropped between Luiz and Silva, which allowed them to spread wide and create better angles to play out of defence. Even when Brazil pushed forward, he remained in a sitting role, with often just Luiz and Silva behind him.
Luiz Gustavo’s reading of the game was excellent. His ability to get in position to cut out danger prevented Croatia from being as effective as they perhaps should have been on the counter-attack. No player on either side made more interceptions than Gustavo, while only Luiz and Silva made more effective clearances for Brazil.
What made Gustavo’s work so impressive, particularly in the first half, was his ability to not only cut out an attack, but also keep possession with composed use of the ball.
For two thirds of the contest, Gustavo’s direct opponent was Mateo Kovačić. The 20 year-old was the only player to consistently get in support of lone striker Nikica Jelavić in the centre, with Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić – until the closing stages – remaining very deep.
With just one player to contend with in his zone and Croatia preferring to counter down the flanks where there was room behind Alves and Marcelo, Gustavo was able to control the space in front of Brazil’s back four. As the graphics below show, Kovačić was completely stifled in the final third, where his strong running and dribbling skills could have been dangerous.
Kovačić was replaced on 61 minutes by Marcelo Brozović. It was interesting that Croatia Head Coach Niko Kovač chose him – naturally a holding midfielder – to play in an advanced role, and he initially caused Gustavo some problems with his pressing and energy. To combat Brozović, Hernanes was brought on to sit alongside Gustavo.
Gustavo’s partnership with Paulinho looked uncertain and unbalanced throughout their 63 minutes on the pitch together. The latter’s desire to push forward and slow recovery left Gustavo exposed. When he pressed high to close, there was no cover for him. A further problem came when Gustavo had to move wide to cover behind the full-backs – most notably Alves. With the centre vacated and Paulinho upfield, there was space for Croatia to break into. Fortunately for Brazil, they often struggled to take advantage of it, with Kovačić struggling to pick up good positions.
Gustavo was tasked with covering right across Brazil’s back line, whilst still been expected to track runners from deep. Against better opposition, the adventurous nature of Alves, Marcelo and Paulinho will surely leave Gustavo over-stretched.
Luiz Felipe Scolari attempted to protect Gustavo with the introduction of Hernanes, who replaced Paulinho. He sat alongside Gustavo and formed a more solid bace, but the tiring forward players were struggling to press as fiercely as they had in the opening 60 minutes. This allowed Croatia to push high up with greater ease and stopped Hernanes from taking the sting out of the contest with his measured passing.