On Monday the 14th, the FIFA-mandated deadline for doing so, Tite will announce the 23 players he is taking to the World Cup. He’s been very up front about his plans: back in February he named 15 players who had already booked their spot, which soon expanded to 16 and then 17 or 18 depending on who you ask. In any case, what that means is that the squad currently looks like this:
Goalkeepers: Alisson, Ederson, ___________
Dani Alves, ___________, _________
Center-Backs: Marquinhos, Miranda, Thiago Silva, ____________
Left-Backs: Marcelo, ____________
Defensive/Holding Midfielders: Casemiro, Renato Augusto, Fernandinho
Attacking/Box-To-Box Midfielders: Paulinho, Coutinho, Fred
Wingers: Neymar, Willian, Douglas Costa
Forwards: Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino
Dani Alves was guaranteed a place, but just today it was confirmed that his knee injury means he’s out of the World Cup—an ignominious end (one presumes) to a tumultuous twelve years with the Seleção. Fred and Douglas Costa, meanwhile, haven’t 100% been guaranteed by Tite to be going to the World Cup, but were reported to have all-but clinched their places after the March friendlies against Russia and Germany. That leaves
five six spots unfilled: four five of them for backups across the defensive line, and a wild-card slot for strengthening whatever sector Tite feels most needs it. Based on my understanding of Tite’s thinking, and supplementing reports about which players he’s considering with who we’ve seen him consider in the past, I’m going to try and predict who gets each of those five six open spots.
Let’s start with the easiest one.
Left-back candidates: Alex Sandro, Filipe Luís
Tite can’t go wrong here. Marcelo, Sandro and Filipe Luís are all among the top five left-backs in the world, but unless he decides one of them can deputize at right-back better than any of our actual right-backs (which they probably could), he’ll only take two of them to the World Cup. And with Marcelo an unequivocal starter, all indications are that Luís will be his backup. He was reported to be all-but guaranteed of the spot only to fracture his left fibula in March. However, he dedicated himself to his recovery, and returned to the pitch over the weekend after less than two months out, playing 65 minutes as a starter. With his fitness no longer a concern, he should be guaranteed a seat on the plane. Need more proof? Once it became apparent that Luís was fit enough to return to the pitch, Tite’s scouts changed their itinerary in order to watch him and confirm his physical condition.
Right-back candidates: Danilo, Fagner, Rafinha
Funnily enough, this choice becomes easier with Dani Alves out. It’s going to be Danilo and Fagner, whereas before I was unsure which one would get the nod as Alves’ backup. Rafinha’s been in consideration too, but he surely did in his slim chances with a horrible gaffe against Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal.
Our desperate lack of depth at right-back is all too apparent right now. As some of us on the blog have said for a while, the best option might well be to improvise another player in the position: Marquinhos has played there on occasion; Fabinho (though Tite has never called him up) used to play RB before being converted to midfield; maybe one of our world-class left-backs would be better on the right than the mediocre players who play the position naturally. That won’t happen, though, which leaves Danilo and Fagner to fight out for the starting role.
The next three paragraphs are what I wrote before Dani Alves was cut, when Fagner and Danilo were fighting to be the one selected as his backup. Here it is for posterity.
Danilo is a much more talented player than Fagner, but the Manchester City man’s lack of focus and positional indiscipline hurts his play as a right-back; he’s better the less he’s has to worry about defending. Both bring a mixed bag as far as performances for the Seleção; Fagner has played more under Tite, but combines a quite good performance against Parguay with those dire displays against Argentina and Russia, while Danilo added a solid game against Japan to a string of decent-to-good performances under Dunga.
The thing that’s really throwing me for a loop here is that Tite has paid far more attention to Fagner than Danilo over the past two months. He called up Fagner for the March friendlies and he and his staff have observed Corinthians games in person twice since then, while not observing any Manchester City games. How much can you read into that? The impression I got from the friendlies was that Fagner had not done much with his chance to show he could outperform Danilo, while most of the players Tite’s staff watched in person over the past month are in consideration for places rather than guaranteed them. Perhaps they felt it wasn’t worth going to Europe to watch City, whose other three Brazilians have already secured their places in Russia, instead of a more unknown quantity like Willian José. And on the Corinthians side, there are other players who could be the focus of their scouting.
With all that in mind, I think Danilo edges this one.
Goalkeeper candidates: Neto, Cássio, Marcelo Grohe
Third-choice goalkeeper is the least consequential position in the team: they don’t play unless calamity strikes, and are mainly there to gain experience or provide an extra voice of leadership in the locker room. With that in mind, I see this going to Cássio, Tite’s first choice when he coached Corinthians. The coaching staff was really impressed with what they saw from Neto in the last friendlies, but Cássio’s familiarity with the coach and his reputation as a leader in the locker room should put him over the top—especially now that Dani Alves, one of the most experienced and senior players, is out.
Center-back candidates: Pedro Geromel, Rodrigo Caio, Gil, Naldo, Jemerson, Felipe
It’s going to be hard to choose anybody but Geromel, the Grêmio captain who won the Copa Libertadores winner last fall. He’s a really good defender, Tite will be feeling the pressure to select somebody from this all-conquering Grêmio team, and this may be the most logical place to do so. My personal vote is for Rodrigo Caio, who is young enough to potentially feature in 2022 and 2026 as well, played alongside Marquinhos to great effect at the Olympics, can deputize in midfield, and whose defending I’ve extolled at great length in the past. Tite reportedly really likes him too, but he’s been below his best for São Paulo for some time now, and perhaps more significantly, is currently recovering from an ankle injury. There’s an outside chance that Gil—another Corinthians stalwart—could get the nod, given that Tite’s assistants went to watch him in China recently, while the other three I’ve listed have either fallen well behind in the pecking order or have only ever been rumors at best.
The wild-card spot: Arthur, Luan, Talisca, Willian José, Taison, Giuliano, Lucas Lima, Diego, Rodriguinho
This is the big question mark. This spot could go to any sort of forward or midfielder depending on what Tite thinks the squad most needs. It could go to an out-and-out center forward like Willian José. It could go to a dynamic, unorthodox attacking midfielder/second striker like Luan, Giuliano, or Talisca. It could go to a classic trequartista like Lucas Lima or Diego. It could go to a possession-focused holding midfielder like Arthur or a pacy winger like Taison. It could even go to Rodriguinho, who isn’t all that good.
So what does Tite think the squad needs? For a while I thought this was Willian José’s spot to lose. The Champions League quarterfinal between Liverpool and Manchester City highlighted that Gabriel Jesus isn’t quite tall or physical enough to serve as a target man against a large, strong backline, and Firmino, while taller, isn’t really a “reference point” type of player either. A few things have tipped the scales, though. First of all, Jesus, though he continues to be misused in Manchester City’s Leroy-Sané-crossing-from-the-left-obsessed setup, has found some good form over the past two months after a long goalless drought, scoring against Liverpool, Tottenham and Germany, among others. Second, Firmino, in a spectacular first-leg performance against Roma (with Tite in attendance), offered a reminder that he can offer more of the traditional center-forward play that we give him credit for, tapping in at the back post before scoring a towering header. Lastly, Willian José is in a dry spell, and though Tite’s staff watched him notch a goal and an assist against Atlético Madrid, they also watched him come off the bench against last-placed Málaga a week later to little effect. Don’t count him out—they did catch him on a very good day against Madrid, after all—but the case for him has weakened, and the need he’d fill seems less pressing now than it did a month ago.
Tite has spoken in the past about wanting another “meia-armador”—pretty much a trequartista—with the ability to come off the bench late in games if the team needs more quality and incision in the final third. He’s spoken highly about Lucas Lima and Diego, though the latter has reportedly slipped down the pecking order. Lima hasn’t really seemed like a contender for a place, even though Tite has called him up five times now; he’s only gotten two caps since Dunga was fired, one of them in the domestic-only friendly against Colombia in January 2017. Rodriguinho’s Corinthians has been under observation as well, but he’s been selected less frequently than the other two, and is a lesser player. Of all the players rumored to be in consideration for this spot, Rodriguinho would be the most disappointing.
Two of these names, Taison and Giuliano, have been favorites of Tite’s since the beginning, but it’s quite possible neither will make it to Russia. Giuliano’s had a great season with Fenerbahçe, with 15 goals, while Taison has hit some good form for Shakhtar late in the season (he scored a spectacular solo goal over the weekend), but neither one has translated that into great performances with Brazil, and as we hit the home stretch for selection, they’ve fallen behind in the running order. Giuliano doesn’t really do anything that other players don’t do just as well or better—Luan is more than a match for him as a dribbling, goalscoring attacking midfielder (and they’ve both been crowned as the best player in the Copa Libertadores), and any of the other midfielders beat him for playmaking (which seems to be why Fred slipped ahead of him in the pecking order). Taison has the benefit of offering something nobody else on the shortlist does with his tremendous speed, but it seems like Douglas Costa has won the battle to be Brazil’s main source of pace off the bench.
Two more players, Luan and Talisca, are popular here in the peanut gallery but aren’t likely to be high in the pecking order. Tite’s made clear in the past that, though he admires Luan’s game, he doesn’t see a place for him in his setup. He’s not fast enough or good enough as a playmaker to muscle ahead of Willian or Coutinho on the right wing, there’s no real spot in Tite’s 4-1-4-1 for the advanced midfield/second striker role he’s probably best suited for, and he’s not a good enough passer to be considered as an impact player ahead of playmakers like Lucas Lima. Much the same can be said of Talisca, though he does have the benefit of being much taller and stronger, which makes him more versatile; he could play on the wings, playmake through the middle, or come off the bench to serve as an additional, 6’3″, target to aim for. That versatility is the best case for his inclusion. But when you consider that Tite’s dropped a Beşiktaş game from their itinerary to watch Filipe Luís, and that Talisca couldn’t prevent a 2-0 loss to Galatasaray in the game they did attend, his prospects seem slim.
It’s also worth considering where Tite sees Fred playing, if the Shakhtar man has indeed clinched his place in Russia. He’s a dynamic, skillful midfielder capable of playing deep or right near the opposition box, ostensibly capable of deputizing for anybody in the midfield. Tite and his staff admire his qualities as a box-to-box player, which doesn’t really clarify things, unless he thinks Fred’s quality in the final third is enough to negate the need for a separate “meia-armador”. Maybe it does? That article claims that Fred has moved ahead of Giuliano on the basis that he’s more active in constructing plays as opposed to just finishing them.
Which leads us to Arthur, who may well be the most gifted player on this shortlist. The current golden boy of the Brazilian league, he was called up for the first time all the way back in September, even before he was named the best player in the Copa Libertadores final or signed a pre-contract with Barcelona. Yet he wasn’t called up for the subsequent rounds of World Cup qualifiers, and an ankle injury kept him out of the March friendlies. Now that he’s back fit, though, he’s only gotten better, and has been instrumental in Grêmio’s best performances in the league and Copa Libertadores this year. Tite even said while Arthur was still injured that he was still looking for a “rhythmist”, and 97-passes-per-game Arthur fits that description better than anybody. I get the impression that Tite would have called him up in March had he been fully fit. If Tite sees Fred as filling a more offensive role, rather than the two of them competing for the same spot, then I think he’ll call up Arthur. And I’m going to take a wild swing here: I think he does. I think he’ll take Fred as the dynamic, box-to-box midfielder who could just as easily fill Paulinho’s role as come on late in games as a difference maker, and Arthur as the brilliant holding midfielder who can complement or replace Fernandinho or Renato Augusto in midfield.
That might be a bit of wishful thinking, so here’s my hedge: if it’s not Arthur, it’ll be Taison, who is a longtime Tite favorite and is hitting great form at the right time; or Diego, because Tite will want to have a midfield difference maker to throw on if Brazil find themselves chasing a goal. With Dani Alves out, I think he’ll be more inclined to lean towards a veteran and leader with this position. But I still don’t think either one has a better chance of making it than Arthur, and also I really, really want it to be Arthur.
So here’s my prediction for the final squad:
Goalies: Alisson, Ederson, Cássio
Right-Backs: Danilo, Fagner
Center-Backs: Miranda, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Geromel
Left-Backs: Marcelo, Filipe Luís
Defensive/Holding Midfielders: Casemiro, Fernandinho, Renato Augusto, Arthur
Attacking/Box-To-Box Midfielders: Coutinho, Paulinho, Fred
Wingers: Willian, Douglas Costa, Neymar
Forwards: Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus
Hang on, this article isn’t long enough yet
It’s barely 2000 words! Gotta pad it out a little more. That’s why I’m…
Predicting the reserve list, too
Tite will also need to call up a list of reserves, from which any replacements for players who have to be cut from the main squad due to injury are drawn. For the first time, FIFA is allowing 12 reserves, up from 7 in the past. To get an idea, these were the reserves at our last two World Cups:
2010: Alex (the center-back), Carlos Eduardo, Ronaldinho, Sandro (the defensive mid—remember him?), Ganso, Marcelo, Diego Tardelli
2014: Diego Cavalieri, Filipe Luís, Miranda, Rafinha (the right-back), Lucas Leiva, Lucas Moura, Alan Kardec
This time around, Tite has the luxury of selecting one player as a reserve in every position (plus a twelfth… for yet another goalkeeper?) Here’s what I predict:
Goalies: Neto, Marcelo Grohe
Defenders: Fabinho, Gil, Rodrigo Caio, Alex Sandro
Midfielders: Giuliano, Luan, Diego
Attackers: Willian José, Talisca, Taison
Most of these selections are pretty easy: they’re the shortlisted players who I didn’t think were going to make the final squad. Players like Neto, Gil, and Lucas Lima seem to be higher in the pecking order than Marcelo Grohe, Jemerson, and Diego, and for the most part I think Tite will play it safe. And I’m assuming that twelfth man is for yet another goalkeeper as opposed to another outfielder, which would be more interesting.
But there’s one thing we have to account for. Every list of reserves has at least one or two players who’s blatantly, unequivocally better than someone who made the final cut. Players who make you wonder how the hell they weren’t included in the World Cup squad proper. Ronaldinho and Marcelo in 2010. Filipe Luís and Miranda in 2014. And that’s why I’ve included Fabinho. Not only is he a dynamic, powerful midfielder who’s arguably the best available backup for Casemiro as well as a fine deputy for Paulinho, he started his senior career as a right-back and is likely still better in the position than Fagner or Danilo. Tite has never called him up, and there are no indications that Tite has been considering him, but both Dunga and Scolari selected reserves whom they’d never previously called up. Tite and co. have attended Monaco matches in person, albeit primarily for Jorge and Jemerson, so they surely have some familiarity with Fabinho, and that could be enough to sneak him onto the reserves list.
No doubt this is just wishful thinking. We’ll see for sure on Monday. Keep your eyes peeled for my report card on how accurate my predictions were.