Men's finalists under the experts' microscope

6 Aug 2021
  • FIFA’s experts highlight Spain’s strong team ethos and Brazil’s quality in transition

  • High full-backs a threat on either side

  • Goalkeepers Unai Simon and Santos assessed by Pascal Zuberbühler

Brazil and Spain will contest the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament gold medal match in an enticing encounter between two international heavyweights.

Ahead of this eagerly anticipated Tokyo 2020 decider, the technical experts at FIFA have shared their take on the two finalists and the core elements that have taken them this far.

Christian Gross (FIFA Technical Expert)

Although the four teams in the semi-finals looked tired, I am expecting an exciting final on Saturday due to Brazil and Spain’s positive approach to the game. Both sides will undoubtedly try and build up from the back, with full-backs playing a pivotal role. Big personalities will be on the pitch too: Dani Alves, having won over 40 titles throughout his career, is the prime example. He will certainly set a good example for his team-mates.

Spain’s success is a result of great team spirit and a mentality that prioritises the collective ahead of the individual. These characteristics are complemented by excellent guidance from their coach.

Technically, the final will be played at a high level. Tactically, there will be no surprises as both teams will opt for a back four. Due to the length of the tournament and difficult weather conditions, I think this will be one of those games where players will need to go the extra mile to come away with the gold. It is unlikely that they will feature in another Olympic final, and the players will be conscious of this. I also hope all games of this magnitude can be played in front of a full stadium again in the near future.

KASHIMA, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Dani Alves #13 of Team Brazil shoots from a free kick during the Men's Football Semi-final match between Mexico and Brazil on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kashima Stadium on August 03, 2021 in Kashima, Ibaraki, Japan. (Photo by Hector Vivas - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Steve McClaren (FIFA Technical Expert)

Spain will try to dominate possession, as they have done throughout the competition. This starts with the build-up which will go through the two centre-backs and the No6 (defensive central midfielder). Spain’s two No8s (attacking central midfielders) will try to play between the lines of the opposition midfield and defence, while the Spanish full-backs will position themselves high up the pitch. One unknown is whether Spain will pick target-man Rafa Mir or opt for a false 9 at the heart of their attack. The chosen player will play a lead role in providing goals, along with the two No8s and either the No7 or No11 (wingers), as their penetrating runs will be crucial for breaking through the Brazil defence.

Crosses and cutbacks from the full-backs, especially the high-positioned No3 (left-back), are other areas where Spain can threaten their opposition. It is essential that these deliveries are met by enough Spanish bodies in the box. Additionally, La Roja have demonstrated that effective counter-pressing from the high- and mid-block can provide goalscoring opportunities. One vulnerable area for this team, however, is in transition: the quality of the Brazil side in this respect can exploit the spaces to the side of the centre-backs. How Spain grapple with the physical element of Brazil’s game will also be interesting to watch.

Brazil will set up with their standard 4-2-3-1, with the left-back pushing high to sometimes change the formation to a more offensive shape. They will need to choose between pressing in their high block or in their conventional mid-block. This decision could be consequential, as Spain have yet to face a side willing to press them high. The centre-backs will look to play long balls behind Spain’s defence to make the most of the mismatch in pace between Spain’s central defenders and the Brazilian frontline. The South Americans’ goals are most likely to come from their more dominant transitioning; various combinations around the box such as dribbles, one-twos, and third-man runs; or crosses and cutbacks from both full-backs – especially the No3.

SAITAMA, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Unai Simon #1 of Team Spain claims the ball as Ayase Ueda #18 of Team Japan reacts during the Men's Football Semi-final match between Japan and Spain on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Stadium on August 03, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Masashi Hara  - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Pascal Zuberbühler (FIFA Goalkeeping Specialist)

To play in a European Championship and Olympics during the same summer is an impressive accomplishment. Unai Simon’s ability and potential was on full display in the EURO, as he helped his team reach the semi-final. Since then, Simon has continued to prove himself a valuable asset for Spain, playing a key role in their journey to the final in Japan.

His positional play and anticipation are where he truly comes into his own. He possesses a great ability to intercept long balls out of reach of his defenders, as well as the courage to come out to sweep them up. The harmony he has with his defence is also evident; he communicates well and acts as the focal point when playing out from the back. Simon is not known for big saves, but by the way he goes about his trade it is clear that he is a top goalkeeper.

Brazil’s Santos has also demonstrated that he is a top-level goalkeeper capable of performing in big games. His vital penalty save in the shootout against Mexico in the semi-final exemplifies his shot-stopping ability and showed that he can step up for his team in crucial moments. Santos, having already experienced a shootout in the previous round, could have the psychological advantage should the final go down to the wire.

KASHIMA, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Antony #11 of Team Brazil is closed down by Jesus Angulo #4 of Team Mexico during the Men's Football Semi-final match between Mexico and Brazil on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kashima Stadium on August 03, 2021 in Kashima, Ibaraki, Japan. (Photo by Alex Livesey - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Javier Mascherano (FIFA Technical Expert)

Overall, I think the two best teams in the tournament have made it to the final.

Spain set out to play offensive football, trying to control games by keeping possession and then unlocking the opposition through slick combinations. This style of playing is part of the long-standing footballing identity of the Spanish national team, and it is unlikely that they will stray too far from it. If Spain can create more of their combinations in the final third and be clinical with the chances that arise from them, they will be difficult opponents to face in Saturday’s final.

Brazil are a very offensive team with high-quality players and experience. They have shown excellent defensive security, impressive potential in their attacking line and the capability to be strong and robust. Another important aspect of their team is that it consists of players that have played in a final many times before. Having this experience in a squad is priceless, as these players can lead their less experienced team-mates during crucial periods of the match. It would be interesting to see a dynamic where Brazil are willing to press Spain’s backline, which has not been tested in that way so far. Should they try and contest Spain for possession high up the pitch, the game could unfold beautifully.

I’m sure we are going to witness a fascinating final between two teams that are always looking to score goals.

SAITAMA, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Rafa Mir #9 of Team Spain celebrates after victory in the Men's Football Semi-final match between Japan and Spain on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Stadium on August 03, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Alex Grimm - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)