In the proud history of the Brazilian national team, it is difficult to recall a time when they depended so much upon one individual. Usually Brazil boast multiple talented forwards, with Luiz Felipe Scolari’s 2002-winning triumvirate of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho the most pertinent example.
At this tournament Brazil have not been a one-man team, but they have been a one-man attack, so the news Neymar will miss the rest of the tournament with a broken vertebra is a colossal setback. Brazil simply do not have anything approaching an adequate replacement, and Scolari must now completely re-format his side in an attempt to win his second World Cup.
There are two options for Scolari. The obvious choice is to introduce another attacking player, maintaining the 4-2-3-1 system he has played throughout the tournament, with the Chelsea playmaker Oscar brought inside into the No10 role he played at the Confederations Cup last year. His central position makes Brazil more cohesive, and more of a team – Oscar is capable of dropping deep to help the midfield, can drift towards either flank to allow the wingers inside, and he man-marks opposition deep-lying playmakers expertly.
That would mean introducing an extra wide midfielder, and the two options are Oscar’s Chelsea colleague Willian, a hard-working counterattacker, or the diminutive, 5ft 5in Bernard, more of an old-fashioned winger capable of trickery. The former seems more likely.
However, Scolari might decide neither possesses the star quality to replace Neymar, and turn to a more functional system. Fernandinho and Paulinho formed a solid, aggressive midfield partnership in the absence of Luiz Gustavo, and it is not unrealistic that Scolari could keep them both in the side despite Gustavo’s return from suspension.
This could turn Brazil into a 4-3-3, with Oscar and Hulk pushing forward in support of Fred. Chelsea’s Ramires is another option – his versatility means Scolari could switch between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, as he can play an energetic shuttling role in midfield, or on the right.
For those hoping for a more cultured, creative Brazil than we witnessed in the 2-1 victory over Colombia, Internazionale’s Hernanes is another midfield option. A peculiar player – not a No10, not really a deep-lying playmaker but capable of orchestrating play from the centre of the pitch – he is Brazil’s best chance of getting close to joga bonito. Without Neymar, however, it is difficult to imagine Brazil winning the World Cup with anything but aggressive, unspectacular football.