What are Brazil’s World Cup chances without Neymar?

July 7

(AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Brazil has reached the semifinals as expected. The hosts had the most difficult path of any of the semifinalist to get there. Brazil survived Colombia and Chile, both of whom would have stood a very good chance of reaching the semis themselves if they had been on the other side of the bracket. In both matches, Brazil had by far the better of the chances created. Brazil produced chances worth about 3.1 expected goals, while conceding chances worth about 1.4 xG. Despite the close scores, the underlying stats suggest Brazil has been clearly the better side in both matches.

But against Colombia, Brazil lost its star. Among many hard and dirty tackles in the match, Colombia’s Juan Zuñiga leapt into Neymar’s back knee-first. Neymar suffered a fractured lumbar vertebra and will miss the remainder of the World Cup. While my team-level projections consider Brazil to be solid favorites, this method cannot account for the loss of Neymar.

The most likely switch for Brazil would be to bring in Willian as the left wing attacker and move Oscar to his natural role behind the striker. Willian is not a player at Neymar’s level, but he valued last summer at a fee of more than $50 million and he contributed well to an elite team. Last season by expected goals and expected assists, Willian had similar numbers to Oscar but fell well below Neymar’s contributions to Barcelona.

brazil_neymarxg

Now, separating team effect and player effect is extremely difficult in soccer. Neymar’s shot and assist numbers are surely inflated by the contributions of teammates like Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta. But this data agrees broadly with the subjective evaluation that Neymar is a significantly more dangerous goal-scorer than his likely replacements.

There is one possible positive for Brazil in all this. As I noted before the quarterfinals, the current Brazilian system depends on Oscar to play a mostly defensive role from the wing. No attacking midfielder has put in more tackles in this World Cup than Oscar. These defensive responsibilities have kept Oscar from contributing much of anything to Brazil’s attack. He has taken seven shots, six from outside the box and one from the wide areas inside the box. He has yet to attempt a single shot from the danger zone. Similarly, Oscar has just four key passes, only one for a shot from the danger zone.

During the English Premier League season, Oscar contributed shots and assists worth about a goal every two matches. So far in the World Cup, his contribution has been well under half that rate, with an expected assist or goal every five matches.

In a meeting of traditional soccer powerhouses, host nation Brazil will face Germany in a World Cup semifinal. The Brazilians have played the Germans only once before in a World Cup: the 2002 final won by Brazil. Here's a look at Tuesday's matchup. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

While Willian cannot recreate Neymar’s contributions on his own, the system change that moves Oscar back to his natural role behind the striker should have positive effects as well. Willian is a combative and hard-working attacker, so Brazil should not see any major decline in defensive contribution. If this small change to the system can reintegrate Oscar into the attack while using Willian well, it is possible that Brazil could still win the Cup.

Changing tactics from maximizing a superstar to building around several stars is not a simple task. But this data suggests there may be ways for Brazil to replace Neymar’s contributions, not like-for-like, but by reorganizing the attacking four to return players to their more natural position.

All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_AMy full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.

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