After a dream start as Brazilian national team coach, Tite leads his team into his second World Cup qualifying double header this week. Brazil face Bolivia on Thursday evening at the Arena das Dunas in Natal, before travelling to Mérida to take on Venezuela on Tuesday.
While this may have been unthinkable a few months ago, Brazil are going into these two matches with their eyes on first place in the qualifying pool. In March, under former coach Dunga, the Seleção scored two late goals to squeeze out an agonising draw away to Paraguay, a result that left Brazil outside of the World Cup qualification spots for the first time in their history. Now, however, after six points out of six in September’s qualifiers, Tite’s side catapulted up to second place, only one point behind leaders Uruguay.
This is symbolic of the significance of Brazil’s last two results, but also of the competitiveness of South American World Cup qualifying, one of the most difficult tournaments in world football. At the halfway point, five points separate the top seven sides. There is still a year of matches left to be played and much can (and will) change.
For this particular international break, Tite has been vocal about striving for continuity and allowing last month’s positive performances to be repeated. Despite this discourse, he has made significant changes to his squad, although some of them were forced.
The three main call-offs were Douglas Costa, Casemiro and Marcelo. Bayern Munich’s Costa was forced out of last month’s squad through injury and has since picked up another problem in his thigh and was cut once again. He has yet to play for the national team under Tite and will hope not to be forgotten for the next round in November. Real Madrid duo Casemiro and Marcelo, standout performers in Brazil’s 2-1 win over Colombia, are also injured.
Meanwhile, central midfielder Paulinho, formerly of Corinthians and Tottenham Hotspur, maintains his place in the squad despite being suspended for the match against Bolivia.
Of the players brought into the fold, the big name is certainly the return of Thiago Silva. As a former Brazil captain and still one of the best centre-backs in the world, Thiago being kept out of the Seleção by Dunga is regarded one of the biggest recent travesties in Brazilian football. Tite had wanted to select him in September, aiming to distance himself as much as possible from the reign of his predecessor, but was unable to due to fitness concerns surrounding the Paris Saint-Germain defender. Thiago has now returned and he is here to stay.
Also handed recalls were Fernandinho (who looks a transformed player under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City), Oscar and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino. Tite brought in two debutants, Bayer Leverkusen full-back Wendell and Flamengo’s in-form goalkeeper Alex Muralha (Alex the Wall).
Despite the turnover of personnel, Tite is adamant that Brazil’s system will not change. The unavailable players will be replaced with three fairly straight swaps: Filipe Luis will stand in for Marcelo at left-back; Fernandinho will attempt to emulate Casemiro’s crucial midfield role in front of the defence, and Zenit’s Giuliano takes Paulinho’s spot, a position that he could well take for himself. There is an outside chance Thiago Silva will come straight back into the starting 11 and play alongside Miranda, though Thiago’s PSG team-mate Marquinhos is far more likely to hold on to his place for the time being.
There will be one strategic change, unrelated to selection problems, with Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho starting on the right side of midfield ahead of Chelsea’s Willian. The latter was underwhelming in what were two good team performances from Brazil in September, and in both matches he saw Coutinho replace him in the second half and make a decisive contribution. This will not be a straight swap, however, as Tite is fully aware of the different playing styles of the two players.
Coutinho (L) starts on the right midfield for Brazil on Thursday, Willian (R) misses out. Photo: MoWA
Upon discussing Willian and Coutinho, the Brazil boss compares them to Jorge Henrique and Jadson, two players he worked with at different times while managing Corinthians. In Tite’s 4-1-4-1 system, Jorge Henrique and Jadson embody the two archetypal footballers he looks for to fill his two wide midfield positions.
Jorge Henrique is (was?) quick and direct. He gives depth and penetration to the team, as well as a crucial injection of speed on attacking transitions. Jadson, on the other hand, is a wide playmaker. He floats into central areas and constructs attacking moves with the rest of the midfield. The Jadson role is just as important on attacking transitions, but more for his ability to spot through balls against recovering defences.
Tite almost always plays a “Jorge Henrique” on one wing and a “Jadson” on the other. With the Seleção, he is aware that Neymar can play either role, and against Ecuador and Colombia he started with Willian as the direct right-winger. When Coutinho was brought on, the Jorge Henrique Role was passed to Neymar and Brazil’s attack appeared to be more effective.
Barring any late surprises, Brazil will line up against Bolivia with Roma’s Alisson in goal, a back four of Dani Alves, Miranda, Marquinhos and Filipe Luis, Fernandinho screening the defence, a midfield of Coutinho, Renato Augusto, Giuliano and Neymar, with Gabriel Jesus at centre-forward.
Of course, as is the case whenever Brazil face smaller nations in South America, Bolivia and Venezuela are both going to be extremely motivated for these matches. Bolivia in particular will be looking to spring a shock, having picked up two positive results in last month’s qualifying round – an expected home win against Peru and a huge draw away to continental champions Chile. After a string of ineffectual managers, chosen by a national FA in disarray, Bolivia finally have a credible leader in brave, ballsy Argentinian coach Ángel Guillermo Hoyos, and they will look to make it very difficult for Brazil on Thursday.