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Tuesday’s semifinal matches up two of the pre-tournament favorites, who have a combined eight World Cup titles. And yet in many ways, Brazil against Germany seems like a matchup of weaknesses. Which team can conceal its own flaws while exploiting its opponent’s? Too much is being made of Brazil’s struggles. On the defensive side, Brazil has allowed the fewest expected goals per 90 minutes in the tournament despite playing attacking powerhouses Colombia and Chile in the knockout stages. Fullback Dani Alves made a couple of mistakes and midfielder Paulinho got caught out of position a few times, but the overall defensive performance has been excellent. As this map of chances created and allowed shows, Brazil have consistently had the better of their five matches in the World Cup so far.
Of course, Brazil also has a new problem. Its primary attacking threat, Barcelona midfielder Neymar, suffered a fractured vertebra against Colombia and will not play again in this World Cup. This raises the first question. How will Brazil replace Neymar?
Willian is the best choice for a Neymar replacement. He cannot do what Neymar does in the center of the pitch, but placing the combative, hard-working Chelsea midfielder on the wing would free Oscar to take on his natural playmaking role behind the striker.
While Neymar has been fantastic for Brazil, the system that has freed Neymar has also shackled Oscar. Willian cannot replace Neymar, but it is possible that a system which gets the most out of both Oscar and Willian could replace much of what has been lost.
In league play, Oscar produced more than double the expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes that he has produced in Brazil. While Willian’s contribution in his time with Chelsea does not match Neymar’s contributions to Brazil in this World Cup, the combination of Oscar and Willian creating at their established levels comes close. I have the difference at roughly 0.1 goals per 90 minutes. (This estimate is lower than the range projected by the plus-minus system used by Five Thirty Eight, but higher than that implied by Goal Impact’s plus-minus ratings.)
My current projections give Brazil a roughly 68 percent chance of making the World Cup final. If I slice 0.1 goals off their attacking rating, Brazil’s projected chances drop to 64 percent. This is a loss, but not enough to keep Brazil from appearing to be solid favorites.
Of course, soccer is too dynamic a sport for such an estimate of player impact to be terribly precise. Luiz Felipe Scolari will need to rejigger his tactics around a more balanced attacking plan, and the players will need to learn quickly a new style. But these numbers suggest there would be real upside to a more balanced attacking strategy, if Scolari and his players can make the adjustment in time.
Unlike Brazil, Germany has not faced any major new injuries at the World Cup. But like Brazil, it is not clear which German side will show up to the semifinal. Through most of the tournament, Germany has been a fantastically open, attacking team with some frailties at the back.
But against France, Germany instituted a new system. Jogi Loew brought in a central striker, two natural midfielders in the center of midfield, and a much lower defensive block. This system enabled Germany to shut out France, previously the best attacking side at the World Cup. But the trade-off was that Germany created very little in attack. Germany produced one big chance and 0.8 expected goals, after averaging 3-4 big chances and 2.1 expected goals in its previous matches. It conceded possession readily, completing only 307 passes compared to an average of 590 per 90 minutes previously.
The system was effective defensively and effective in that Germany won a very tough match. But the victory was predicated on an early goal off a set piece that enabled the Germans to sit back and defend. Would it have worked as well if Mats Hummels had directed his header into Hugo Lloris’ arms? Further, how well will this system work against Brazil? Loew recognized that France depended on power and speed in their attack, and by setting his defensive line deeper, he nullified the French advantage. Brazil has a number of attackers who thrive between the lines and can exploit this lower block.
It is not clear to me how Loew should set up against Brazil. Can he count on 70 minutes from 36-year-old striker Miroslav Klose? Will he stick with the pragmatic, defensive setup or return to the more expansive and possession-oriented style that characterized Germany in the group stage? The answers to these two tactical questions may well decide the outcome in Belo Horizonte.
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_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.
More on the World Cup:
Early lead: Beckham knew Neymar as a kid