Brazil 2-1 North Korea: Exactly what we expected

June 16, 2010

A good game in both tactical and entertainment terms – North Korea defended resolutely and their front two showed their technical quality, but Brazil’s patience was rewarded in the second half.

Firstly, it’s never nice when websites blow their own trumpets, but you can be assured that this is actually a vuvuzela ZM is blowing on:

“With Brazil playing mainly on the counter-attack, and Portugal and Ivory Coast playing systems that rely on pace, North Korea’s ultra-defensive style could frustrate teams early in games – you can imagine one of their opponents struggling to break them down early on, and going in 0-0 at half-time – whether North Korea will be able to defend resolutely for 90 minutes against a top-quality side is doubtful, however.” (here)

“Don’t be surprised if Brazil quietly fight their way to World Cup victory. They’ll keep the ball, tire the opposition but not look particularly dangerous. Then, late in the game, they’ll break at speed, rely on the skill of Kaka and Robinho, and win games comfortably without thrashing the opposition”. (here)

That essentially tells the story of how the game developed, hopefully demonstrating that studying the tactical characteristics of individual sides is a worthwhile exercise. British television broadcasters acted like the scoreline was a shock to the world, when in fact the pattern of the game was logical when considering the philosophy and strategy of Brazil and North Korea.

The line-ups

Brazil set out as expected, with Elano getting the nod over Ramires for the right-sided midfield position. Indeed, the Brazil team was actually set out with the numbers 1-11 on their backs, nice to see in the age of squad numbers.

North Korea’s side featured one change from the predicted side, with Nam Song-Chol making way for Pak Chon Jin on the right-hand side of defence. This was a crucial role, as the freest defender. They maintained their usual formation, a five-man defence with a defensive midfielder just ahead, and the wing-backs got forward increasingly as the game went on.

The general pattern

Brazil struggled to break down the North Korean defence because their system and strategy is based around playing on the counter-attack. They keep possession brilliantly, but can look slightly out of ideas when they get to the final third against teams playing ultra-defensively. It’s in situations like this when you can understand the Brazilian public’s frustration about the use of too many functional players and not enough creators – Melo and Gilberto were possibly doing too much of the same thing tonight.

That said, credit must go for Dunga for persisting with the system, and to Brazil for having the patience to keep on playing short, neat passes across the pitch until they eventually found a way through. A less talented (or less confident) side would have started to hit longer passes into the penalty area, especially with Luis Fabiano a decent target man and towering over the North Korean defenders.

Brazil were outnumbered whenever they attack, because of North Korea’s five-man defence that became a six-man defence when Yong Hak-An followed Kaka deep. Fabiano found it difficult because he was up against three defenders by himself, whilst Robinho and Elano both found wing-backs tracking them when they moved into attacking areas, and the Korean defenders were happy for Gilberto and Melo to have the ball in the centre.

North Korea's shape took on a 5-3-2 shape when not in possession, making it difficult for Brazil to break them down

That didn’t mean that those two players were encouraged the ball by the Koreans. Their two front players, Hong-Yong Jo and Jong Tae-Se, looked to drop in front of the Brazilian holding midfielders, making it slightly more difficult for the centre-backs to play the ball forward towards them.

Full-backs key

As one would expect against a 5-3-1-1, the Brazilian full-backs were completely free, and the breakthrough was always likely to come from one of them. The surprising thing about Dunga’s instructions tonight was that he didn’t push Maicon and Michel Bastos further forward – they were constantly free, and creating an overload on the flanks looked the best way to make the breakthrough.

Amongst their few goalscoring efforts in the first half were long-range shots that went close from both full-backs. This showed that they were the free players, so why not move them higher up the pitch, closer to the goal? They wouldn’t have had quite as much space, of course, but they still would have caused confusion in the Korean defence. Maicon’s goal towards the beginning of the second half demonstrated this well.

Elano’s goal came from a very similar position, and it’s interesting that both the Brazilian goals came from the right-hand side, because that is the side of the pitch they work less often. There is no permanent right-winger – instead Elano and Maicon both look to exploit that space – never at the same time, because they have a good understanding when Brazil have the ball. One goes long, one comes short. One stays wide, one moves central. Robinho stays on the left and Kaka attacks towards the left – those are the two biggest threats, but can often dominate the opposition’s thoughts to the point where they’re oblivious to the threat on the right.

North Korea were impressive on the way they doubled-up on Brazil’s creative players when they got the ball, but it was frantic chasing, closing down and blocking rather than a more intelligent, structured system. We should certainly admire their ability to keep a clean sheet for so long, but there’s probably only a certain amount of time they can keep that up. With the defenders constantly looking to double-up and get in line to block shots, they were prone to the ball being switched across the pitch, and both goals came from left-right balls that exposed North Korea’s ‘weak side’.


The game largely panned out as expected, with Brazil patiently passing the ball and eventually finding a way past North Korea with technical quality in the final third. Brazil’s full-backs were given too much time on the ball, and this is a good example of why 5-3-2 systems died out. North Korea traded ‘pressure on the full-backs’ for spare men at the back – probably a good strategy considering the nature of their defending, but with the talent of Bastos and Maicon, the goal was more inevitable than the half-time scoreline suggested.

This was a rather good introduction to Brazil for those who have yet to see them under Dunga. They’re not the wonderful, free-flowing side they have been in previous years, but they are solid, well-organised, keep possession excellently and generally pick up wins. Whilst the specifics of the North Korean approach should not be copied because their defenders tended to be dragged around, the general defensive strategy worked well (even if it was their natural game rather than a deliberate attempt to stifle Brazil) because Brazil like to exploit space both in front and behind the opposition defence. Deny them space, and you might succeed.

It’s a few times we’ve said that in this tournament. The popularity of counter-attacking football amongst the best sides has bred a fear of attacking among the weaker sides, because they leave gaps at the back. Those hoping for more goals might be disappointed – there’s little to suggest that attacking football is the best way to cause the favourites problems.

More on the first goal here

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