This week, Brazil plays two friendlies—Friday against Japan in Lille (7 AM EDT / 12 PM GMT), and then Tuesday against England in London (3 PM EDT / 8 PM GMT). These are Brazil’s last games until March, and the second-to-last chance Tite has to observe players before he announces his World Cup squad. Unfortunately, he called up a truly dour list of 25 players. If you need a refresher, here they are, copied directly from the CBF website:
The problem here is twofold. First, with perhaps his last real chance to make any real experiments with personnel, Tite didn’t call up anybody he hadn’t called up before. Fabinho and Allan are still out in the cold, and if Jorginho wasn’t just using Brazil’s interest in him as leverage to get called up for Italy, then Tite’s decision not to call him blew our chance to secure his services. If he sees playing time in Italy’s playoff against Sweden (which, admittedly, is hardly a guarantee given that Gian Piero Ventura doesn’t seem to rate him), he’ll be permanently locked down as an Italy international. (If he doesn’t play, though, maybe he’ll be mad enough to actually switch to Brazil for real?)
Second, of all the players Tite had previously called up, he went for seemingly the most disappointing group possible. I love Diego Ribas, and I was thrilled to see him return to the Seleção this year after years of straight-up inexplicable omission, but he’ll be 33 at the World Cup, and he’s far from being in the sort of form that would justify him being included in spite of his age. Giuliano is a good player (he really is! I swear!) but at any of the positions he can play, there are plenty of options who are younger, better, and often have superior pedigree at club level. Taison is good, too, but again, there are a host of players Tite could have picked who are clearly better than him. That Tite apparently considers these players better than the likes of Lucas Lima, Arthur, Dudu, Luan, and Fred (the good one)—all players Tite had previously called up and observed—is really disappointing.1 At least he didn’t bring back Rodriguinho or Diego Tardelli.
The end result of all that disappointment, of course, is that there’s not much of value we might learn from these friendlies. We won’t get to see how an unknown factor like Jorginho or Arthur could change the complexion of the midfield or assert themselves as an alternative to Paulinho or Renato Augusto. We won’t get to see someone like Luan, who has only received single-digit minutes under Tite, get an extended runout to show what he can do. Instead, the reserves are a mostly fairly uninspiring group, and one that has, generally, gotten a decent amount of playing time.
The question, then, is this: what can we actually learn from these friendlies? Here are a few things we might reasonably expect.
What happens if Coutinho and/or Fernandinho starts in midfield?
Probably the single biggest source of dissatisfaction with Tite right now stems from his continued preference for Renato Augusto, a very intelligent but limited player who seems to be slowly declining, as an undisputed starter in midfield. Replacing him with Philippe Coutinho seems like a no-brainer, but at both club and international level, his coaches have been reluctant to move him back from the wing. Tite has given Coutinho a few brief cameos in Augusto’s position, mostly late in games, but that’s it. This week is the ideal time to see how he does in that position from the start.
Alternately, Tite apparently talked to Fernandinho about him starting Augusto’s place one of these days, which would be a welcome development. Even at 32, he’s technically and athletically superior to Augusto, and, more so than Coutinho, he could match or exceed Augusto’s defensive contribution while still improving the midfield’s passing play. Tite might feel this is a better solution than moving Coutinho deeper, considering what he offers on the wing. It might also mean that he finally realizes that Fernandinho’s best served in a more advanced position than defensive midfield, which could open the door for a proper defensive midfielder to back up Casemiro.
Happily, it looks like this question will be answered, at least partially. While Coutinho will start the Japan game on the bench after recovering from an injury that kept him out of several games for Liverpool, Tite’s lineup in training indicates that neither Augusto nor Paulinho will start the game either—Fernandinho will get the nod. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Coutinho will be fit enough to come in during the second half, or that he’ll be ready to start against England, and that his familiarity with the Premier League (not to mention Willian’s, seeing as he’d profit from Coutinho moving deeper) might prompt Tite to start him in midfield upon his return.
Can Willian deliver despite his poor club form?
With Coutinho injured, Willian will take his usual place on the right wing. Willian’s dire recent performances for Chelsea have gotten a lot of attention on the blog recently, to the point that some have called for him to be dropped. Realistically, of course, that’s not happening—Tite clearly values him a lot, and he makes up the core group of 14-15 players who regularly feature as starters or substitutes. But I can’t say that bothers me much. After all, Willian’s poor club form has not wholly translated to Brazil—he’s been decent in his recent appearances, scoring the goal of his life against Colombia and coming off the bench well against Chile. But he’s definitely a player whose utility varies based on the circumstances—he’s better against teams that sit deep than those that expose themselves on the counter, and recently, he’s been better coming off the bench than starting. Depending on Coutinho’s fitness, Willian could be starting both games this week, meaning he’ll have plenty of chances to either allay or deepen our concerns.
Can Danilo adequately back up Dani Alves?
Right-back is Brazil’s single weakest position going into the World Cup, evidenced by the fact that the undisputed starter is Dani Alves—who’ll be 35, and was so bad at age 31 at the last World Cup that he got replaced as the starter halfway through by a past-it Maicon—and his current backup is Danilo, a bench player for Manchester City who spends a good chunk of what playing time he does get at positions other than right-back. Danilo was decent as the regular starter at right-back during Dunga’s first year in charge after the 2014 World Cup, but since then he suffered through two mediocre seasons at Real Madrid before moving to City, and he hasn’t played for Brazil in over two years. That’ll change on Friday, since he’ll start against Japan. It’s the perfect chance for Tite to test whether he has what it takes to back up Alves in game conditions.
Is Douglas Costa back?
Douglas Costa was pretty dreadful the last time he played for Brazil, against Australia. Since then, he’s moved to Juventus and slowly begun to claw back his best form, but his selection this time around was still a bit of a surprise. It’s presented him with a big opportunity—if Willian underdelivers, or if Neymar’s niggling injury keeps him out of the starting lineup, Costa could see significant playing time. If he makes the most of it—and, more to the point, shows that his last performance for Brazil was a fluke brought on by his poor club form—it could send him to the World Cup, particularly since his main competition continues to be Taison.
Let’s… let’s not think about the possibility of Taison getting the nod ahead of him.
Can anybody actually test this team?
It’s a common refrain on the board that Tite’s team hasn’t been properly exposed like it could be against a truly top-tier side. Occasionally, we’ve thought that a team could give us a stern test, only to winning comfortably. Even the two worst results of Tite’s tenure are of limited value: the 1-1 draw against Colombia struck me as a test of whether Brazil could play for the result if needed, rather than Colombia truly putting us to the sword, while the 1-0 friendly loss to Argentina has the “we didn’t have Neymar or a bunch of other starters” and the “we absolutely would have won with better finishing” cards dangling over it. We haven’t really seen this team be overrun in midfield or forced to claw back a deficit, and one of the commonly cited reasons is that, thanks to an unusually poor period for our South American opposition, that we have yet to face any truly top-tier opposition.
Well, I’m not sure that’s going to change this week. Japan is a good side, but hardly a legitimate threat; we’ve won our last four games against them by a combined 15-1. England, meanwhile, look to be entering a golden generation with a bumper crop of talented attackers and midfielders. Unfortunately, we won’t be facing that golden generation, seeing as Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Harry Winks, and Raheem Sterling (not to mention Jordan Henderson and Fabian Delph) have hopped on the always popular I-have-a-bruise-so-I-guess-that-means-I-have-to-drop-out-of-the-England-squad-I’m-really-sorry-no-really-I-am bandwagon. And even if we were, England rarely play anywhere close to their potential. They certainly could provide the attacking and midfield challenge we’ve been waiting for Brazil to face—but seeing that they could only muster a 1-0 win against Lithuania the last time they played at Wembley, do we really think that’ll happen?
How will the games end?
Here’s what I’m predicting…
Brazil 4-0 Japan: Anything but an easy win would be real cause for concern. Hopefully the return of the regular starters means a better overall performance than our rather flat display in our last 4-0 win, over Australia in June. Japan is far and away Neymar’s favorite victim when playing for Brazil—he has a crazy seven goals in three games against them. If his niggling injury doesn’t keep him out, expect him to add a couple to that tally and end a Seleção goal drought stretching back to March. Even if he doesn’t play, though, we’ll play only as hard as we need in order to walk to a 4-0 victory.
Brazil 2-1 England: This’ll be far more of a contest, but with England ravaged by “injuries” and struggling to convince in recent games, I have to think we’ll win this one comfortably, though something tells me the scoreline will be closer than the contest.
 The only saving grace I can think of is that maybe, maybe, Grêmio asked Tite not to call up Arthur or Luan because they wanted the players fresh for their Copa Libertadores campaign. We’ve seen coaches avoid calling Brazil-based players for November friendlies in the past, when the local league enters crunch time. That said, it’s no credit to Tite if he caves in to the clubs like that. The Seleção should be bigger than such interests, especially with just four games to test players for the World Cup.