The gods of football are powerful entities. In Kazan on Friday, they recalled what happened the previous time that Brazil met Belgium in a World Cup. Back in 2002, in a round-of-16 game, Belgium appeared to have a perfectly good goal disallowed at 0-0. They went behind after a vicious deflection, and were probably the better side in a 2-0 defeat. And so the gods of football evened it up.
In a splendid game that could have gone either way, Belgium got the breaks; the balls bouncing around their penalty area that just failed to find a Brazilian foot, the penalty that was not given, and, of course, the cruel own goal by Fernandinho that started Belgium on the way to victory.
This was harsh indeed on Fernandinho. The Manchester City midfielder stepped in at the deep end to replace the suspended Casemiro, and had a thoroughly miserable time. Many in Brazil are criticising him for his failure to prevent the second goal; he should, they argue, have stopped the run of Romelu Lukaku at the start with a tactical foul. But the truth was that he could not catch Lukaku even to kick him.
But the defeat has explanations that go far beyond a poor night from Fernandinho. This might be seen as a match in which the balance of the Brazil midfield was exposed.
Coach Tite has been pondering for some time on the composition of his central midfield trio. The standard during qualification was the tried and trusted idea of one to get the ball, one to give it and one to go; Casemiro protecting the defence, Renato Augusto organising the play and Paulinho bursting forward as an element of surprise.
Renato Augusto lost form, and Tite came up with contrasting solutions. One, theoretically against the stronger teams, was to re-enforce the marking with Fernandinho coming in alongside Casemiro. The other, far more attacking, was to switch Philippe Coutinho from the right flank to the midfield trio – and this ended up becoming the base formation.
It was rolled out for the first time in the final warm-up friendly against Austria, and then used throughout the World Cup. The initial idea was that this would be reserved for weaker opposition, when Brazil were looking to break down deep defences. But it became the go-to lineup against all comers – and Belgium exposed its weaknesses.
The new formation twisted Brazil to the left, where they had an interesting trio of Marcelo, Coutinho and Neymar all working together. On the other flank, Willian was left on his own. Belgium took advantage of this gap, between Willian and the rest of the team. This was the space that Kevin De Bruyne found to run the game in the first half. Brazil were simply not set up to deal with a player running at them from that sector – and with De Bruyne picking his passes so well, Coutinho’s deficiencies as a marker were also exposed. Tite’s team were wide open.
Coutinho did come up with a magnificent chipped pass to set up the goal for Renato Augusto, a moment of fine technique and precision. But it was almost the only time he made an impact on the game. For much of the evening, his game was marked by misplaced passes and sluggish decision making. His performances got worse during the tournament – an excusable consequence of having to play a role to he is not accustomed to, that of a genuine midfielder, having to work up and back during the course of the game. He commented after the warm-up game against Austria that carrying out this function had left him tired. Over the course of the next few weeks, it clearly drained his strength.
In fairness, this is less his fault or that of the coach, and more a structural problem of the Brazilian game, and its incapacity in recent years to produce a midfielder with the talent to run the game from box to box, as De Bruyne did for the first half in Kazan.
And De Bruyne operated in a tactical context cunningly worked out by coach Roberto Martinez. A firm adept of the back-three system, Martinez had the wisdom and humility to perceive that it was not the best way to counter Brazil. The switch to a back four was superbly executed, and after an exhilarating night of football, it helped Belgium over the line and into the semifinals – with a little nudge of help from the gods of football.