Just over one year ago, on 7th July 2019, hosts Brazil won their ninth Copa America title following a 3-1 victory over Peru in Rio de Janeiro.
‘La Canarinha’ have won five of the last nine Copa America tournaments and are slowly closing the gap to Uruguay (15) and Argentina (14), who rank first and second respectively for overall South American confederation titles.
Brazil’s success continued a remarkable record where they have gone on to lift the trophy on every occasion they have hosted the tournament, having done so previously in 1919, 1922, 1949 and 1989.
In this piece we look back on the key drivers behind their success last year, highlighting the attacking players who stood up in the absence of Neymar, as well as the collective performances of a miserly back line.
Making Chances Count
‘La Verdeamarela’ finished Copa America 2019 unbeaten, with four wins and two draws. They scored 13 goals, while no other team scored more than seven. Their attacking prowess went hand-in-hand with the quality of their chances, with their goals output closely matching their xG (13.7). The similarity stands up even after we exclude penalties, with 11 goals coming from a non-penalty xG of 11.3.
Brazil attempted exactly 100 shots during the tournament, including penalties, giving them a shot conversation rate of 13%, the highest of any team. This is despite eight of the other nations recording a higher shooting accuracy.
These numbers can be partially explained by the quality of Brazil’s chances, with Tite’s men posting the joint-highest xG per shot ratio (0.14, level with Qatar).
On route to the final, Brazil failed to score in two matches, drawing 0-0 with Venezuela and again with Paraguay in the quarter-finals, where they needed a penalty shootout to progress. However their most difficult game, on paper at least, came in the semi-finals, where they faced Argentina.
This was the only game where the eventual champions posted fewer shots than their opponents – and the difference was huge. Brazil attempted only four, with Argentina managing 14. To put that in perspective, Brazil attempted more than 10 shots in each of their other five tournament games, whilst failing to concede more than 10 shots.
However, despite the difference in total attempts, Brazil’s chances were of much higher quality, so much so that their four shots had an xG total of 1.3, while Argentina’s 14 shots had an xG total of only 0.6, with 10 attempts occurring from outside the box.
Firmino, Jesus and Everton Step-Up
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Brazil came before a ball was kicked. Just a few days before the start of the tournament, Neymar suffered an injury to his right ankle during a friendly against Qatar, ruling him out of a second successive Copa America.
The PSG forward’s place in the squad was taken by Willian, however the Chelsea winger remained a peripheral figure during the tournament, failing to start a game and only appearing in 83 minutes across four matches. He did manage to get on the scoresheet however, bagging a goal in the 5-0 thrashing of Peru during the group stage.
In Neymar’s absence, Brazil’s attacking and creative responsibility was assumed by Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus and Everton, the only three players to have a hand in more than three goals during the tournament. Everton scored or assisted a goal every 85 minutes, while Firmino and Gabriel Jesus did so every 100 minutes.
Having only appeared in friendly internationals prior to the event, Everton ended the tournament as the joint-top scorer, level with Paolo Guerrero, although the Peruvian striker scored one penalty and enjoyed almost 50% more minutes on the pitch than the Grêmio forward. Playing on the left of the front three, Everton also posted an xG output of 1.1, meaning he scored roughly two more goals than an average player based on the quality of his shot locations. Two of his goals came from outside the box, something matched only by Chile’s Eduardo Vargas.
It wasn’t just Everton’s shooting prowess which stood out either. The then 23-year-old had the second-highest number successful dribbles (19) in the competition, behind only Lionel Messi (22).
Operating on the opposite side of Brazil’s attacking trio, Gabriel Jesus made vital contributions during the tournament’s latter stages. He was directly involved in four of Brazil’s five goals during the semi-final and final, scoring twice and providing two assists, as well as netting the decisive penalty in the quarter-final shootout against Paraguay.
After opening the scoring against Argentina, the Manchester City striker assisted Firmino for Brazil’s second goal, carrying the ball from well inside his own half before setting up the Liverpool man in the box. He then assisted Everton for Brazil’s opening goal in the final at the Maracanã, beating his man with a wonderful piece of individual skill before finding his teammate with a cross into the far post.
The other man in this attacking trio, Firmino, had a hand in the most goals at the 2019 Copa America.
He provided three assists, putting him level in the tournament rankings with Charles Aránguiz, however the Chilean midfielder generated a higher aggregated expected assists (xA) output and created twice as many chances (18 to Firmino’s nine) more than any other player.
The pass maps below show how Firmino’s passes with an xA value above 0.1 compared to those of Aránguiz, whose Chilean teammates were unfortunately unable to convert many of his high value passes into goals.
Evergreen Alves and a Robust Defence
Brazil’s then 36-year-old captain, Dani Alves, was named the tournament’s MVP. The right back completed the most passes (370) of any player in the competition, with an accuracy of 89%. He also completed the most passes in the opposition half, 216 (84%), and the most passes in the final third, 102 (77%).
Collectively, Brazil’s defensive line was practically impenetrable throughout. They only conceded once during the competition, a penalty scored by Peru in the final, and their collective expected goals against was only 2.9. In short, Brazil didn’t allow their opponents many clear-cut chances, and when they were able to get shots away on target, they found themselves up against a very solid goalkeeper in Alisson.
The Liverpool stopper faced very few shots on target (nine including penalties, an average of 1.5 per game) and based on our expected goals on target (xGOT) model, where we can predict how many goals the average goalkeeper would be expected to concede, given the quality of the chance (xG) and the end goalmouth location of the shot, he prevented two open play goals being scored. He also made a vital contribution in the quarter-final penalty shootout, keeping out Paraguay’s first attempt, from Gustavo Gomez, with a full stretch save low to his left.
Another outstanding goalkeeper in the tournament was Colombia’s David Ospina, who did not concede a single goal in the three games he played in. He made 10 saves, from shots worth a total xGOT of 1.6, which meant he also prevented close to two open play goals. Despite not conceding a single goal in regular play, Colombia were eliminated at the quarter-final stage, losing 5-4 to Chile on penalties.
Whilst Alisson and Ospina were alert to danger when called upon, the busiest goalkeeper at last year’s Copa America was undoubtedly Peru’s Pedro Gallese. The beaten finalist’s custodian held the distinction of conceding the most goals in the tournament (nine, level with Bolivia’s Carlos Lampe), whilst at the same time making the most saves in the tournament (20). His saves resulted in him posting an overall tournament goals prevented output of three.
Gallese particularly excelled when it came to penalties. In total he faced four spot kicks during regular play and saved two of them. He also made the winning save in Peru’s penalty shoot-out victory over Uruguay in the quarter finals, keeping out Luis Suárez’s effort.
Looking Ahead to 2021
Tite’s Brazil side now have to wait another twelve months before having the opportunity to defend their trophy, where they will be looking to win their first major tournament on foreign soil since 2007 and further narrow the gap to Uruguay in overall Copa America titles.
The competition will be taking place at venues across Colombia and Argentina. By the time the competition starts, Argentina will have gone 28 years without a major title at senior level and fans of La Albiceleste will be hoping that home advantage reaps rewards for Lionel Scaloni’s men, as Lionel Messi, who will be 34 next June, looks to end his career drought of major titles at senior international level.
Success in the tournament has also eluded Neymar, who is yet to add a Copa America winner’s medal to his extensive list of career honours. He will be hoping that it will be third-time lucky when it comes to being eligible, however based on the performances of the Brazilian front three last year, Tite may be faced with some difficult decisions when it comes to choosing his preferred forward line for Brazil’s opening game against Venezuela.
These two icons of the modern game are in good company when it comes to missing out on Copa America success, with Pelé and Maradona also failing to win the competition during their illustrious careers. Will the same fate await Messi and Neymar? Tune in next summer to find out.