It’s World Cup year!
It’s still weird to say that. It feels like there’s remarkably little hype surrounding the coming tournament, even though we’re just a few months out. Living in the United State probably skews that perspective, given how the USMNT hilariously wasted their chance to go to the World Cup. But here on the blog, even though Brazil is arguably in better shape than in 2014 or 2010, there’s just not a lot of hype. The 7-1 loss to Germany in 2014 seems to have instilled a newfound trepidation, a fear that Brazil still has yet to fully overcome the faults that made that embarrassment possible and that something similar might happen again.
With all that said, today’s subject is a simple one. We’re four months out from the World Cup, more or less, and probably about three months out from Tite announcing his final squad for the tournament. One last pair of friendlies, against Russia and Germany, looms at the end of March. Tite and his staff are embarking on what very well might be their last round of scouting before the tournament this month. We know, if not his exact selections, roughly what his team will look like. Four months out, where does that leave us? I’m going to go through it position-by-position, building from the back.
In a far cry from 2014, our options here at the back inspire some genuine confidence. Alisson and Ederson are two of the best young goalkeepers around, and both are seemingly secure as Tite’s first- and second-choice options, respectively. They’re both excellent shot-stoppers who are superb with the ball at their feet, both capable of signlehandedly creating scoring chances with long, accurate balls forward. As Alisson is, in my estimation, marginally better when facing shots and less prone to the sort of extremely risky forays forward that have occasionally caught Ederson out, he is rightly the starter. Really, though, we can’t go wrong here. In terms of talent and depth, those two alone would form the strongest roster of goalies we’ve enjoyed since at least the 2006 World Cup.
As a result, the third-choice goalie position is, even more than usual, the most irrelevant position in the side, and whatever Tite decides to do with it (short of picking Muralha, maybe) will probably be fine. Alisson and Ederson are both under 26 and will surely feature in several World Cups each, so blooding a youngster in the third-choice spot isn’t really a priority; indeed, it might be best to have a veteran presence on the bench to help in the locker room. Tite seems to be leaning towards his longtime Corinthians charge Cássio for that reason, though Marcelo Grohe made a strong case for himself with some wonderful saves in Grêmio’s Copa Libertadores run, and Diego Alves has a case on the grounds that he could pull a Tim Krul and excel in a penalty shootout. Ultimately, though, this should be an inconsequential position everywhere but the locker room.
Marquinhos, Miranda, and Thiago Silva have surely secured roster spots for themselves at this point, and no surprise—there’s nobody else available who I’d unequivocally take over any one of them, and on their day, they’re each world-class. The one hiccup is that “on their day” bit. Each of them carries some sort of flaw, exploitable though slight. Marquinhos has a tendency for getting caught out on defensive set pieces; Miranda is very shaky if he has to pass the ball out of pressure; and Thiago Silva, though he should probably be starting ahead of Miranda, carries the unavoidable sense that his best days are behind him, that he is less sharp and more error-prone than when he was the best center-back in the world. (Doesn’t help that he’s constantly getting injured).
But here’s the thing: Tite has done a very, very good job of building the team to cover for these weaknesses. Brazil routinely ships fewer goals (5 in 17 games under Tite compared to 17 in 25 league games this term) than does PSG, Marquinhos and Silva’s club side; while Miranda has occasionally struggled when passing the ball out of the back for Brazil, his errors haven’t led to goals, and he’s made fewer of them over time. Only the set-piece weakness—Brazil’s biggest, most glaring defensive vulnerability—remains a truly unsolved problem. If there’s any point at which it might be solved, I’ll hazard that it’ll be during the training before the World Cup, when Tite finally has a few weeks to work nonstop with the players, not during the March friendlies.
One more question remains: who will be the fourth-choice center-back? Tite has shown a preference for youngsters Rodrigo Caio and Jemerson, though plenty of talk continues to swirl around Grêmio stalwart Pedro Geromel and Tite’s former Corinthians charge Felipe, while rumor has it he’s also looking at Naldo, Schalke’s 35-year-old behemoth. My personal preference would be for one of the younglings, on the grounds that they’re more likely to return and feature more prominently in 2022, and that the fourth CB spot was utterly wasted in 2014 on Henrique, an unremarkable 27-year-old, when the far more promising 20-year-old Marquinhos was available. I’ve made my personal admiration for Rodrigo Caio’s absolutely gobsmacking tackling technique repeatedly clear, and his Olympic experience and partnership with Marquinhos make him my clear choice. That said, neither Caio nor Jemerson had a great 2017 (Jemerson in particular had a hideous end to the year), while Geromel and Naldo are both great players in great form who bring an important dimension: height. (Not only would the 6’6″ Naldo almost certainly be the tallest outfield player at the World Cup, he’d instantly become Brazil’s best option from long free kicks.) I don’t think any one of these four (or even Felipe, whom I rate a little lower than the others) is a truly bad choice—or, at least, I’d rather have any of them ahead of the uninspiring Gil or, God forbid, David Luiz.
Djalma Santos. Carlos Alberto. Nelinho. Josimar. Jorginho. Cafu. Maicon. Dani Alves. And now… 35-year-old Dani Alves? For some reason, Brazil’s production of quality right-backs has ground to a screeching halt, to the point where Alves, so bad at age 31 in the last World Cup that he was replaced by a past-it (and not even 33 at the time) Maicon, is, at age will-be-35-by-the-World-Cup, quite unequivocally our best option in the position, and enjoys one of the most guaranteed starting positions in the entire lineup.
Now, I will admit that I have warmed to Alves somewhat recently. He has aged very gracefully, continuing to play at an extremely high level at one of the most athletically demanding positions in the game, and he even seems to have gained in the past four years a better grasp of his own limitations, such that he is less of a liability now than he was in 2014. He remains a tremendously gifted player going forward, and he can defend very well—witness how he totally shackled Alexis Sanchez in our last World Cup qualifier. But his age means he is often exposed when he has to do both. He can shut down a winger one-on-one, but if the opposing player has some space to run into, he can get totally eviscerated. And that means that in a setup like Brazil’s, where his ability on the ball in advanced positions is a critical part of the team’s attacking setup, the team must be geared to cover and compensate for his substantial shortcomings. That’s a tradeoff that looks less and less appealing as his physical powers decline.
Unfortunately, it’s still probably our best option, because the list of potential replacements is unbelievably thin. Tite has tried two alternatives, Fagner and Danilo. Fagner looked quite good against Paraguay but utterly overmatched against Argentina; Danilo gave a solid showing against Japan in his one start for Tite (though he generally played decently when Dunga was in charge) but has a long history of making grotesque defensive errors. Perhaps more damningly, he’s spending most of his time these days playing at left-back for Manchester City (that is, on the rare occasions when he does play). No wonder we on the blog are calling for Fabinho as a substantially better option, even though he hasn’t played at right-back for a good two years.
If our depth at right-back is akin to a kiddie pool, at left-back we have a veritable Challenger Deep. We have the best left-backs of any country, bar none. Marcelo reestablished himself in 2017 as the best attacking left-back on the planet, while Filipe Luis and Alex Sandro are among the very best in the business when it comes to balancing defense and attack. Behind them in the pecking order, we’re absolutely stacked: Alex Telles, Jorge, Wendell, and Douglas Santos are just some of the names hoping to seize the second-choice spot once Marcelo and Luis age out of the team, but unless something goes horribly wrong over the next four months, none of them are going to Russia. That leaves three players of incredible merit competing for two positions. And my personal preference is to bring Marcelo and Alex Sandro to Russia. I feel for Filipe Luis, who’d become one of the best Brazilians to never play at a World Cup (though what was Scolari thinking taking Maxwell ahead of him in 2014), but his age makes the difference—he’s 32, while Marcelo will be 30 and Sandro 27 at the World Cup. At such a physically demanding position, I want players in their physical prime.
There is one substantial wrinkle in this, and that is Marcelo’s dubious physical condition. He has played an unbelievably grueling schedule over the past four years with Real Madrid, with three Champions League titles (and the associated extra games in the Club World Cup every time) and one semifinal appearance adding a huge number of games to the workload of the club’s undisputed first-choice left-back. That may be taking its toll on him now, as he has been below his best for much of the current campaign. It brings back shades of 2014, where he came into the World Cup having just recovered from an injury (he was only fit enough to start the Champions League final on the bench), and his lack of fitness may have contributed to his poor play, particularly against Germany. Fingers crossed that Real Madrid lose to PSG in the Champions League round of 16—if he doesn’t get a break before the World Cup, physical burnout may take a similar toll in 2018 to what lack of fitness took in 2014.
Defining the different midfield roles in Tite’s system is a challenge, because they can sometimes be so rigidly defined as to be built entirely around the skillset of just one player and other times be so flexible as to accommodate players of very different skillsets.
One such example is the defensive midfielder, the “1” at the base of his 4-1-4-1. The undisputed starter in that position is Casemiro, one of the very best defensive midfielders in the world. I only have two worries around him. One is the same question of fitness as for his Madrid teammate Marcelo. The other is that he’s very likely to be suspended at some point during the World Cup for yellow card accumulation. Tite has favored Fernandinho as his backup for some time, and he’s done fine, but he’s not a defensive midfielder. He’s more comfortable in a more advanced role, and the team would be better served if he were considered a backup for Renato Augusto or Paulinho. Tite seems to be moving towards this conclusion, too, but that doesn’t fully solve the problem of what to do if Casemiro has to sit out a game. Arthur and Fred, two players far more in Fernandinho’s mold than Casemiro’s, are as close as Tite has come to calling up a genuine defensive midfielder. Perhaps it’s a calculated gamble, forgoing a proper backup for Casemiro in favor of a player who can offer more utility in more different scenarios. Certainly, the available options are solid—Luiz Gustavo, in particular, is having a stonker of a season for Marseille, while DM is in my opinion the best position for the endlessly versatile and criminally overlooked Fabinho. Alternately, a center-back like Rodrigo Caio could deputize there without taking up a midfielder’s spot on the roster.
The Paulinho Role
Paulinho is an extremely unusual player. This tweet sums it up:
The degree to which Paulinho’s job is to try really hard to never touch the ball and just hang out and pick the right moment to storm the box is really funny to watch.
— Mike L. Goodman (@TheM_L_G) January 28, 2018
The Brazil World Cup Blog readership have coined the term “deep-lying poacher” to describe this, and it’s incredibly apt. Paulinho functions less as a midfielder than as a covert attacker, and he’s very good at what he does. For Brazil, though, that may not be enough. The tweet nails it: outside of the box, Paulinho doesn’t do a whole lot. He’ll hold and circulate the ball, but rarely do anything to advance it into dangerous territory (though he’s improved substantially in this respect since moving to Barcelona), and defensively, he’ll flit around and harry opposing players without seriously challenging them for the ball. He is, while not a passenger in midfield, a player who does nothing outside the final third that cannot be done better by a host of other Brazilian midfielders. Allan, Fabinho, Fernandinho, Fred, hell, arguably even Coutinho—all are superior players technically and can either match or exceed Paulinho as a defender, dribbler, passer or long shooter.
The problem is that there’s no one who can bring to the table quite what Paulinho brings, that acumen for bursting into the box as a surprise element to score goals or set up teammates. Allan, stylistically, is maybe the closest. He matches or exceeds Paulinho when it comes to shuttling up and down the pitch, and brings better technique, is a better defender and more aggressive tackler, passes the ball better—but since this time last year, he has scored three goals for club and country.
He may be limited otherwise, but no midfielder can match that goalscoring figure, and that means he’s a mainstay in Tite’s setup. With that in mind, I’m glad to see him at Barcelona, which seems to have had a genuine and substantial positive impact on his touch, technique, and passing. If we have to live with his limitations, at least they’re being reduced as much as possible.
All that said, much like Casemiro, it’s not clear who Tite would choose to replace him if the need arose. In the past, he’s gone with Giuliano, a more attacking midfielder who sacrifices some of his box-to-box nature in favor of that goalscoring knack, but he never built on a promising early showing against Bolivia—and if we’re going to replace Paulinho with an out-and-out attacking midfielder, why not go with Coutinho, our one world-class player in that position? The World Cup squad will likely have a host of different skillsets available to fill in, especially if the likes Arthur, Fred, Luan, or (unlikely but pleaseeeeeee) Fabinho or Allan make the cut ahead of Giuliano, Diego, and their ilk. It all comes down to whether Tite takes advantage of the depth and variety of talent available at his disposal.
Unlike in 2014, though, when he came into the World Cup woefully out of form for club and country, I don’t see Paulinho losing his starting spot halfway through the tournament, no matter what happens.
The Renato Augusto Role
I’ve come to Renato Augusto’s defense in the past, but Brazil’s recent games have made it particularly obvious that he doesn’t bring enough to the table. He’s an extremely intelligent midfielder, very good at winning and maintaining possession, but he falls far, far, short when it comes to being the ostensible creative link in the Augusto-Paulinho-Casemiro midfield. He has shown that he has the range of vertical passing to advance the ball quickly and supply the forwards, but he is rarely quick or ambitious enough to take advantages of space or disarray in the opposing team’s ranks, and he almost never provides a really incisive pass, preferring to feed it to Neymar or Coutinho, who can unlock the defense with one ball in behind.
There are two potential ways to address this problem. One is to bring in Fernandinho (or a holding midfielder in his mold, most likely Fred or Arthur). He can match Augusto for intelligence, versatility, and defensive nous, while also being a more mobile player, a better dribbler, and far more capable of the defense-splitting pass. He brings the sharpness of playing against much better competition in England than Augusto does in China (arguably, this is the main contributor behind the latter’s decline from his promise at the Olympics). He’s already come on for Augusto in some games for Brazil, so this seems like a potential option.
The other option is to bring Coutinho inside from the right like we’ve all been begging Tite to do for ages (or keep him on the right and bring in another player of similar style, who I hope wouldn’t be Giuliano or Diego). In fairness to Tite, his experiments in this regard have been mixed—against Ecuador, Coutinho came on for Augusto to game-changing effect, but after that he played several underwhelming games in a row. Given that it’s still not clear how his move to Barcelona is going to affect his play, I doubt we’ll see Tite give this experiment any more than the customary 20 minutes in next month’s friendlies, which in turn means we’re probably not going to be seeing Coutinho starting in the center at the World Cup, at least not right away.
One last concern to mention here, particularly if someone like Coutinho, Arthur, or Fred were to substitute Augusto, is the team’s relative lack of physical presence. Augusto is 6’1″ and 190 pounds, and while he does not impose himself as much as his size suggests, most of the alternates we’re considering are five to six inches and thirty to fifty pounds smaller than him. Size is hardly the be-all and end-all, but it’s always good to have some (particularly when your team is already having trouble defending set pieces), and Brazil could use a little more of it, particularly as an option on the bench. This helps Fernandinho’s case in this particular position (he’s 5’11”, though his biggest advantage over Coutinho is that he offers much more defensively in Augusto’s stead), and elsewhere on the pitch it could inform some personnel selections: the 6’6″ Naldo quite literally rises above all the other center-backs; the 6’2″ Fabinho can play in multiple positions (though he continues to be outside of Tite’s plans); the 6’3″ Anderson Talisca would tower above most defenders.
This remains one of the most open positions on the team, because Coutinho could very well be moved into midfield. He’s done a fine job playing on the right, but the consensus is that he should play in the center, for both his and the team’s benefit, even if that’s not likely to happen. He’s the undeniable first choice at RW, but if Tite sees the light at any point before or during the World Cup, he needs good options to fill the void on the wing.
Willian is the obvious choice, and while some of us here like to rag on him, he is a very good player who has served Brazil very well over the past four years. He contributes notable goalscoring acumen (peep his strikes against Venezuela (twice!) or Colombia) and is blessed with a wonderful explosiveness that lets him freeze his marker and then burst to the byline. His main problem, in my book, is that this trick, while brilliant against tightly-packed defenses, tends to slow down counterattacks—rather than run, he tends to stop. In my ideal world, Willian would play against teams that park the bus and someone else would play in more open, end-to-end contests.
Who should that be? Douglas Costa is returning to form with Juventus and cementing himself as a great choice. His left-footedness is a good foil to Willian’s right-footedness—where the latter might try to run down the right wing to the byline, Costa would be more willing to come inside. His main downside is that he has not impressed as much with Brazil, though he has only had short cameos recently. Tite’s other favorite seems to be Taison, another one of those good-but-far-from-our-best-option players like Giuliano; I’m hoping that his recent displays for Brazil, which were somewhat underwhelming, will move the needle away from him.
Elsewhere, Tite is observing Malcom and David Neres, two extremely talented, but raw, youngsters. Both are enjoying breakout seasons in Europe, and both are wonderful dribblers capable of scoring fantastic goals, but they both have substantial shortcomings: Malcom is not a very good passer of the ball, Neres (whom I have not watched extensively) is not a great long shooter and does not appear to be quite as fast as Malcom. I would love to take one of them to the World Cup for the experience, preferably Neres, who seems to have the potential to grow into quite a sensational player, but they might not be able to make the same sort of immediate impact as, say, Douglas Costa. i’d def take either one ahead of taison tho
Another option apparently under consideration is Luan, the key player in Grêmio’s Copa Libertadores triumph and a wonderful talent. My main objection to him lies in the fact that he’s not a very fast player, and I’m worried that the team already lacks pace. Neymar is a rocket, and Willian has an incredible burst of acceleration, but there aren’t many other players capable of roasting an opponent on the counter with a lung-busting, top-speed box-to-box sprint, and the backup wingers are one of the best places to add in that pace, which could be crucial when making impact substitutions late in the game. I wouldn’t object to Luan being considered as more of a midfielder, potentially a backup for Coutinho—after all, he played an Oscar-like role at the Olympics, linking the midfield and attack—but if we’re talking wingers specifically, i’d rather have a faster player available to come off the bench.
Two other players might have, under different circumstances, been in contention for this role. Felipe Anderson is maybe our best all-round right-winger, but after underperforming at the Olympics, missing the first half of this season with an ill-timed injury, and getting into a fight with his manager that will likely freeze him out at Lazio, his ship has likely sailed—even though he has excelled whenever he has played for his club. Lucas Moura is more than talented enough to be in this conversation as well, but having been relegated to the PSG bench ever since they purchased Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, he too has likely missed his chance to make a big statement with his form. His move to Tottenham likely comes too late to change that.
This is Neymar’s position, and it’s hardly even worth talking about potential backup options here, because if, God forbid, we end up without Neymar again during the World Cup, we don’t have a serious chance of winning. At this point, given the current form of players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar is the second-best player in the world. There doesn’t seem to be a dedicated left-winger for backup in Tite’s plans; I expect he’d draft in one of the more versatile wide men. Taison seems to be his current preference, but I think he’s middling at best compared to the other talent on offer. Douglas Costa, in particular, has shown he can fill in on either flank as needed (something Malcom and David Neres haven’t as much). Alternately, Coutinho would offer the closest thing to a like-for-like substitution in Neymar’s position, or Marcelo could move forward (some here have said for years that he might be best as an out-and-out winger, after all) and leave left-back in the capable hands of Filipe Luis or Alex Sandro.
On paper, our center-forward scenario seems pretty good. Gabriel Jesus has done a wonderful job as the number 9 under Tite, while Roberto Firmino has already passed 20 goals and is on track to have the best season of his career. Even with all the qualifiers I’m about to tack on, we’re in much better shape up front than we were four years ago.
We’re familiar with the problems. GJ has spent much of the past twelve months in a rut, the product of a series of unfortunate injuries (how unlucky do you have to be to land on your foot awkwardly enough to break it, and then be hit in the face hard enough to break your eye socket, all in the space of four months?) and a worrying dip in form for club and country. Before the knee injury that has kept him out for the past month and a half, he had gone ten games without a goal for Manchester City, a drought that will still be there once he returns to action. He should be fit well before next month’s friendlies, but that may not play into Firmino’s hands: for all his excellence for his club, he hasn’t had many chances to show what he can do for Brazil, and has not been particularly impressive when he has had a chance to play. Based on his club form, he deserves his spot (certainly more than Diego Souza, Tite’s preferred third choice these days), but he has yet to dispel the doubts that he can truly deliver in GJ’s absence.
It speaks to the lingering doubts about Brazil’s forward line that, despite their quality, Tite is scouting new options this month in Willian José and Anderson Talisca. He still hasn’t given Allan a proper look, but he’s willing to go out of his way to observe two players at a position that should be far more settled. Grumbling aside, both are fine players. José is a solid, reliable target man, not world class, but a 10-to-15-goal-a-season striker who looks to be making the step up to being a 15-to-20-goal-a-season player, with a particular knack for scoring against Real Madrid and Barcelona. Talisca is more of a second striker, but I have to assume that he’s being considered for this role rather than a deeper one, both because Tite’s system doesn’t really have a role for a player in the hole and because his recent goalscoring exploits seem to have gotten him onto the Seleção radar. I like him a lot—he’s skillful, dynamic, a good dribbler, a great free kick taker, and (as I already mentioned, a plus in my book) very tall at 6’3″—but I really don’t see what role he’d have in the team.
To sum up briefly—because this is already 4500 words long—Brazil’s talent pool has more than enough quality (except maybe at right-back) to contend at the World Cup. At several key positions, Tite has tough choices to make, having to weigh youth and experience, technique versus physicality, tactical value against versatility, and more; there’s no way he can include every player who would benefit the team at the World Cup. A lot will come down to whether he sticks with his less inspiring fringe players ahead of those with more potential, talent, or benefit to the team. But we won’t really know what he’s thinking until he announces his squad for the March friendlies.
Until then, let’s enjoy Real Madrid vs. PSG!