What happens when a superstar forward, with the weight of a nation on his shoulders for the third World Cup running, sustains an injury in match No 1? After the period of mourning, there is discussion. 40 minutes of it.
Brazil’s pre-match press conference on Sunday – involving manager Tite, defender Marquinhos and Tite’s assistant Cesar Sampaio – was mostly devoted to the world’s most expensive player and the effect of his absence for the rest of the group-phase. “Football’s about context and sometimes we have to be strategic,” said Tite. “We have to think outside the box but we’re very confident we have the right replacement.”
So, who would it be? An abundance of terrific depth in attack, deeper than any other team in the tournament, should cover for the loss of the prodigal son. So, would it be one of Arsenal’s dynamic duo: Gabriel Jesus or Gabriel Martinelli? Maybe Manchester United’s £85m signing Antony? Or Real Madrid young gun Rodrygo? Or how about… Fred?
Manchester United’s puzzling midfielder has a knack of being a manager’s man to turn to. Both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick favoured selecting the 29-year-old in the face of fierce criticism. At international level too, Fred is a firm favourite of Tite’s.
Yet from the get-go the absence of their 75-goal star – an astounding tally in just 122 games – was felt. A Neymar-less Brazil looked devoid of much-needed stardust and zip.
Fred’s first involvement of note, five minutes in, was a misplaced pass to Eder Militao – in at cover for the also-injured Danilo at right back – out for a throw-in. Shortly after, in the opposition half, a simple pass infield went astray, gifting Switzerland possession.
As the first-half against Serbia showed, with or without Neymar, Brazil seem to start matches in steady fashion, if not a tad slow. On Thursday they were reliant on their No 10 quickening the pace single-handedly. Today, up against a midfield marshalled by Granit Xhaka and Remo Freuler, the Selecao missed his influence immnesely.
It was a stuttering opening 45. Bar a clear opening for Vinicius Jr, Switzerland were comfortable in managing the front-three of Raphinha, Vinicius and Richarlison. Out of the midfield trio behind them, Lucas Paqueta was the biggest threat going forward as opposed to the Manchester United duo of Fred and Casemiro. At half-time, in the face of a complete lack of imagination and creativity - attributes so synonymous with Brazilian football - Switzerland were supremely comfortable.
Yet as the players emerged for the second period, Paqueta was the man shipped in favour of the more-advanced Rodrygo – with Fred playing further forward as Casemiro occupied the single deep-lying pivot role.
That move forward saw Fred caught wrong side as he brought down Djibril Sow to earn a booking in the 52nd minute. Six minutes later, with less than an hour on the clock, he was replaced by Newcastle playmaker Bruno Guimaraes. The experiment had not worked. That being said, Fred had done his job: broken up play here and there. Passed the ball sideways repeatedly. No more, no less.
What was notable and undeniable was that Brazil’s brightest moments - first Vinicius’ goal ruled out by VAR and then Casemiro’s blazing winner eight minutes from time - took place without Fred on the pitch and with Bruno looking to play positively, with his head forwards, in the Swiss half. Rodrygo, the half-time substitute, created the winning goal too.
While Brazil have progressed to the knockout-stages with two wins from two - their best start to a World Cup since their triumph in 2002 - there is room for improvement. Tite’s assistant Sampaio noted yesterday: “Neymar has the leading role but often, as we see with the movies, someone who is not the protagonist steals the scene.” Fred’s deputisation against the Swiss did not work and in the hunt for that protagonist in their final group game against Cameroon on Friday, and in the last-16 tussle to follow, Tite would be wise to look elsewhere.