It’s official: Tite is staying on. He signed a contract extension that means he will remain Brazil’s manager through the 2022 World Cup in Qatar—the first Brazil manager to retain the job after the World Cup since Cláudio Coutinho in 1978. He starts this World Cup cycle highly regarded in Brazil after a largely successful first two years in charge, despite Brazil’s quarterfinal loss in Russia—indeed, despite the fact that Brazil’s loss was largely down to Tite’s tactical errors, particuarly his continued loyalty to Paulinho and his decision to not include a like-for-like backup for Casemiro in the squad. Such is his popularity in Brazil, such is the admiration for what he’s managed to achieve considering the wreckage Dunga left, and, perhaps, such is the dearth of acceptable alternatives, that he’s been given the chance to atone for his errors. Now he has a full four years to experiment, build the ideal team, and, hopefully, win the World Cup next time out.
Here’s what he needs to do to make that happen.
Phase Out The Old
Any World Cup cycle—whether successful or disastrous—serves as the end of the road for many of the players by simple virtue of their age, and that’s especially true this time around, since Qatar doesn’t kick off until late November 2022. Those extra five months don’t mean a whole lot, but for some players it means they’ll tick over one extra birthday, and it drives home just how old some of our key players from this cycle will be by then. Here’s how old some of those players will be in ’22:
Thiago Silva (38)
Filipe Luís (37)
Dani Alves (39)
Renato Augusto (34)
Douglas Costa (32)
There’s certainly merit to retaining a few of these players for at least part of the cycle; a few, like Silva, Marcelo, and Alves, have already volunteered to stay on through at least next year’s Copa América to help the transition to younger options. I don’t think this is a bad idea, but it has to be done sparingly, allowing as much space as possible for new, younger options to thrive—especially considering that much of the attacking unit, as well as the goalkeepers, is young enough to remain in place and carry their World Cup experience into 2022. This all means that while, say, Marcelo’s certainly got enough talent and experience to contribute for a while longer, with Alex Sandro, Alex Telles, Jorge, Wendell, and Douglas Santos waiting in the wings for their chance at the left-back spot, it doesn’t make much sense to continue using a player who’ll without a doubt be too old in 2022. Similarly, why retain Willian on the right wing when Felipe Anderson, David Neres, Malcom, and Vinícius Júnior are in contention? On the flipside, the relative paucity of center-backs and right-backs right now means a veteran could fill in while we experiment with a long-term solution. Thiago Silva is our best center-back at the moment and will probably still be our best center-back at next summer’s Copa América, and with question marks about whether players like Rodrigo Caio, Jemerson, and Marlon Santos will come good, retaining someone like Silva for a while could help the team on and off the pitch. I’d say the same about Dani Alves at right-back, but he’s so old, and likely to miss what little time he might have left to contribute with his knee injury, that I say we should just cut our losses, drop him, Fagner, and perhaps even Danilo for good, and go straight to trying out players who’ll actually be around in 2022.
Most of these players don’t bring enough to the table to warrant even a swan song. If there’s any justice in the world, Russia was the last hurrah for players like Paulinho, Renato Augusto, Taison, and Fagner. I doubt it will be, in part because they’ll still be of acceptable age (if not quality) next summer, but I expect they’ll all fall out of the picture before long. And that’s the real blessing of retaining Tite for another four years: for once, Brazil’s coach will have spent long enough in charge of the national team that most of the players he favored thanks to his familiarity with them at club level—the middling but dependable players who delivered glory in South America but were never good enough to play at top level—will be too old to call. He’ll still have Corinthians favorites, but they’ll be players like Marquinhos and Malcom, who were too good stay in Brazil long enough to become a coach’s bosom buddy.
Instead, he’ll have to…
Bring In New Blood And Experiment
It sounds like Tite was keeping an eye on many young players in the leadup to the World Cup, but in his conservatism decided against taking anybody he hadn’t already observed extensively in friendlies and qualifying matches. In some cases (such as that of Arthur, who emerged late in 2017, got a callup, but missed the much of the first half of 2018 through injury), this was understandable, if disappointing; in others, it was inexcusable. Why was Fabinho, a far better backup for Casemiro, never called up? Why did it take so long to experiment with Coutinho in midfield? Why was Paulinho’s place in the starting lineup never seriously evaluated?
I really think the answer’s pretty much the same for all of those cases: Tite didn’t feel he had the luxury of experimenting. Two thirds of his games in charge at the World Cup were qualifiers, and the results of those games really, really mattered. He landed on a winning combination straight off the bat and spent much of the qualifying cycle tweaking it rather than rethinking it. Players who impressed straight away—like Fernandinho, who won Tite over by holding his own against Messi and Argentina—all-but sealed their spots on the plane to Russia. Those who came into the picture late, like Fred, Roberto Firmino, and Douglas Costa, didn’t get chances to show what they could do as starters. By the World Cup, it was evident that several players were well off their best form, but again, Tite was reluctant to mess with a team that, while not always convincing, had won consistently. Against Belgium, all those little oversights and moments of reluctance—not finding a proper backup for Casemiro, never replacing Paulinho, maintaining Gabriel Jesus and Willian as starters despite having players in better form on the bench—combined to sink a team that was clearly better on the day.
This time around, Tite has much more time on his hands, and that means he has no excuse to stick with this approach. He has not one but two Copa Américas to give his team a run in a tournament setting, possibly an Olympics to blood some youngsters and a Confederations Cup to play against European teams in a tournament setting, and above all else four full years’ worth of friendlies and World Cup qualifiers—including a full year of friendlies between now and when the next trophy is up for grabs. He has the opportunity to experiment with and thoroughly overhaul this team, and he’d better take it. Happily, early indications are that he’s keen to call up several of Brazil’s most exciting youngsters, such as Arthur and Lucas Paquetá, straight off the bat. If he does so, and also sets to work on answering the other unanswered questions (should Ederson start over Alisson? how will Fred do as a starter?), we can look forward to a good cycle.
But we need to remember that it’s not just about bringing in fresh, young faces. In all likelihood, at least three of Neymar, Coutinho, Firmino, and Gabriel Jesus will be starting in 2022, though they underperformed to a concerning degree in Russia. Tite will need to rejigger his tactics and formations to…
Get The Attack Back On Track
Brazil scored only eight goals in five games, our lowest tally since the 1990 World Cup when we went out after just four games. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. This team certainly played better than Dunga’s counterattack-focused 2010 team or Scolari’s disjointed mess in 2014, and it was the first Brazil team since 2002 to score in every game we played. But we often labored like crazy to score that goal a game. We outshot our opponents 104-42, and in shots on target our lead rose to a staggering 40-8. Yet we only outscored our opponents 8-3.
There are many possible explanations for that inefficiency. Some of it comes down to poor finishing at crucial moments (like when Coutinho had that chance to tie things up against Belgium that he just had to keep on frame aaaarrrrrgggghhhhh). The poor form of our forwards, and Tite’s reluctance to sub them off, undeniably didn’t help—Willian only played one good game; Gabriel Jesus became Brazil’s first starting #9 to go scoreless at a World Cup since… goodness, not since 1974, at least; Neymar took 26 shots, but only scored from two tap-ins—but it’s also worth asking why these players, most of whom had sterling records throughout World Cup qualifying and the pre-tournament friendlies, suddenly had so much trouble scoring. After all, it was in the games where we enjoyed the largest advantage on the shot counter—Switzerland, Costa Rica, Belgium—that we labored the most to actually put our chances away, even with the help of impact subs like Roberto Firmino and Douglas Costa.
My pet theory is that Coutinho’s move to midfield created a lot of these problems. Moving him inside and more to the left crowded our three most technically gifted players—him, Neymar, and Marcelo—into the left corner of the pitch, which made it easier for defenses to contain all three at once, and made it less likely that any dribble or passing combination between them would gain a lot of ground. The three often resorted to measured, short passes to keep possession in front of the defense, and with the tight spacing, the only real option for effective combination play was tight one-twos, rather than longer passes to stretch the defense or through-balls to put a player in scoring position.
This had knock-on effects on the other flank: Willian’s positioning was often wider than Coutinho’s, which meant he was further from Jesus, which meant it was harder for the two to combine and likely contributed to the striker’s lack of end product. In midfield, meanwhile, Coutinho replacing Renato Augusto meant that we had a three-man midfield in which two of the members neither did much defending nor competed physically. The stats seem to back me up: in World Cup qualifying, the team averaged 2.0 goals a game when Willian started on the wing, and only scored three goals once (and Coutinho replaced him in that game, against Ecuador, while it was still 0-0). When Willian started on the bench, the team averaged 2.85 goals, and put three past Argentina, Paraguay, and Chile, four past Uruguay, and five past Bolivia.
Don’t treat this as the ironclad truth, of course. It might very well be that replacing Paulinho with an actual midfielder will greatly improve the attacking play and unleash Coutinho to do more in attack, or that Dani Alves’ influence on the right wing was more important for the team’s balance than I give him credit for, or that Firmino would have solved all our problems had he been a starter, or that a different formation can get the most out of these players (or at least the ones who’ll be playing in 2022), or what have you. Going forward, Tite will have to find some solution to this problem, and it’ll be fascinating to see what he does.
And now, a brief intermission, as we give the “Tite Running” meme one more play.
Back on topic, there’s one part of the attack that deserves its own heading…
Solve The Neymar Conundrum
Neymar leaves this World Cup at one of the lowest points of his career. Though he played well despite clearly lacking for form and fitness after his lengthy injury layoff, he wasn’t anywhere near as dominant or as clinical as he was in his injury-hit 2014 campaign, and two goals is a disappointing return not just because he scored four last time, but because the quality of the goals he scored last time was so much higher. The blow he took to his reputation might be more serious; his penchant for exaggerating contact on the pitch finally caught up to him and made him a laughingstock, and continued Brazil’s sad recent transformation from the neutrals’ favorite to the team everyone loves to hate. He’ll come back to PSG (since I doubt Real Madrid will be able to produce a sum sufficient to convince Nasser Al-Khelaifi to sell) with a dark cloud over him, and still with nothing to show for last summer’s move away from Barcelona, by which he’d aimed to finally establish himself as the world’s best player. We’ve seen him underperform and lash out when under this sort of bad press before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re about to see a relapse.
But even beyond the question of how to man-manage Neymar, Tite will have to spend this World Cup cycle searching for something he never quite found: the key to getting the most out of him. Sure, Neymar has put in a few superb performances since Tite took charge, particularly against Argentina and Paraguay, but overall he’s lacked some of the luster he showed at his peak with Brazil. Statistically, it doesn’t really show; he’s contributed a goal or assist every 85 minutes under Tite, essentially on par with what he did under Dunga and Scolari. But he’s yet to score more than one goal in a game under Tite’s command, and more worryingly, his form tailed off after notching six goals and six assists in his first seven games with Tite. Under Scolari and Dunga, his periods of peak form were longer; between the start of the 2013 Confederations Cup and his being hacked to pieces against Chile at the World Cup, in particular, he was averaging a goal or assist every 63 minutes for Brazil—over a yearlong, 18-game stretch.
Once again, I have a theory as to why. While Neymar’s current struggles are partly personal—particularly due to the pressure he invited by becoming the world’s most expensive player—he’s also been playing more explicitly as a left winger under Tite than he had under Dunga or Scolari. Those of us who formed the Neymar Centralization Society here on the blog have long remarked that he’s far more easy to contain when he can be forced against the touchline, and far too often—particularly over the last year—Tite’s setup has placed him right on the touchline, such that (as Switzerland and Belgium demonstrated at the World Cup) placing a player in front of him and another to his right forces him to dribble or pass the ball towards his own goal. (Not to mention, this is exactly the space where Marcelo usually works, which means two of our most technical players end up trying to work the same very narrow strip of the pitch rather than trying to play inside.) He’s almost always played as a definitively left-sided player for Brazil (one of these days I will devote the proper time to analyzing Mano Menezes’ abandoned-too-soon attempt to play him through the center), but look at the goals he’s scored for Brazil—he creates the space for so many of them by moving into the left channel before he receives the ball, rather than starting on the left wing and beating the fullback off the dribble. He’s one of the best in the world at making the outside-to-in, or even just straight-up vertical, runs to get into that sort of goalscoring position, and his tremendous acceleration means that if he gets the drop on his marker, he can often run cleanly onto any ball sent his way, but none of the goals he’s scored under Tite have come this way. Even when he scored them from an inside-left position, he outran the fullback to his outside (as against Argentina and Uruguay) or dribbled past him (as against Croatia). At the World Cup, on the rare occasions when a through ball had a chance to launch him past the defense, he was usually positioned too wide to have any real chance at goal.
Someone on the blog reported a rumor that Tite tried a setup in training during the World Cup with Neymar as a false 9. I’ve found no evidence that this actually happened, and, in practice, it might be a step too far; he didn’t find the net when Dunga used him as a false 9 late in his tenure. Tite has a better chance of making it work, though, and anything which hints at Neymar getting a more central role is good for the Neymar Centralization Society.
Now we head to the other end of the pitch, where Tite has to…
Refresh The Defense
I touched on this earlier, but of the eight defensive players Brazil took to this World Cup, six are going to be 33 or older in 2022. There’s a good chance we’ll field an entirely new back line in Qatar. Thiago Silva, Miranda, and Filipe Luís are definitely going to be too old, Marcelo and Fagner almost certainly will be (not to mention Marcelo’s style has never worked well for Brazil, and if we’re still counting on a 33-year-old Fagner in 2022, we’ve already lost), and while I still cling onto my little plot of land on Danilo Will Come Good Island, it seems increasingly likely that the whole place will be underwater long before then.
The succession picture is murky, to say the least. At left-back, there are plenty of options, as I’ve already noted, and it’s just a matter of finding the best fit. We have plenty of extremely promising young center-backs, but most of them find themselves to some degree at crossroads in their careers: Marquinhos seems to have stalled in his development at PSG; Rodrigo Caio still has yet to make the move to Europe; Marlon Santos and Jemerson had seasons to forget for their clubs. In the short term, it may be worth retaining Thiago Silva alongside Marquinhos, though I will remind everyone that Marquinhos and Rodrigo Caio formed an impeccable partnership at the Olympics—indeed, Caio was the standout of the two. Either way, we have a host of young center-backs who’ve shown immense potential, and as long as a couple of them deliver on it, we’ll be good for 2022. At right-back, the options are thinner, but a few rising stars, like newly-signed Porto duo João Pedro and Éder Militão, look capable of providing the sort of direct, powerful play we’ve craved since Maicon began declining.
An additional note: the one clear weakness of our new generation of center-backs is how vulnerable they’ve proven to be in the air, particularly Marquinhos and Jemerson. Set pieces were already the biggest defensive weakness under Tite, and until he sorts them out, they’ll continue to be a problem area.
On a related note, Tite must…
Make Sure Brazil Can Compete Physically
One facet of Brazil’s World Cup struggles that hasn’t received enough attention was our inability to match bigger, stronger teams when they made the game physical. We were almost always at a size disadvantage, particularly against European teams, and particularly up front. Nothing illustrated this better than the game we lost against Belgium, when Neymar, Coutinho, Willian, Gabriel Jesus, and Douglas Costa—all of whom are 5’8″ or 5’9″—went up against Toby Alderweireld (6’1″), Jan Vertonghen (6’2″), Vincent Kompany, and Thomas Meunier (both 6’3″). Indeed, Brazil’s tallest outfield player, Miranda, was taller than only two of Belgium’s starters! Height and strength are hardly the be-all and end-all, and it’s not like Brazil produces very many giant footballers, but this World Cup was a reminder that being so outmatched physically gives our opponents an edge.
It’s yet another reason why the CBF should seek to play European opposition at every possible opportunity between now and 2022: it’s the best way to be sure that Brazil can handle bigger, stronger opponents. It’s no coincidence that we won the majority of aerial duels in our two games against American opposition, and lost the majority in our three games against European opposition. There are very few tall, strong teams in the Americas, and aside from Uruguay there aren’t any that are also genuinely good technically. Brazil is always good enough to outplay physical teams, but when those teams have the technique to turn their ability to outjump and outmuscle us into chances and goals, we struggle. Naturally, UEFA are throwing their own spanner into the works; between the Nations League this year and Euro qualifying next year, it’ll be essentially impossible to play a European team without booking an entire FIFA date in Europe. Hopefully the CBF will resist the temptation to play lucrative friendlies in the United States long enough to give us a few opportunities to play against France, Spain, Belgium, whoever.
Tite’s task is to minimize or nullify that size disadvantage with good tactics and good player selection. Arguably the biggest mistake of his tenure so far was not doing this in his selection of Paulinho and Renato Augusto, two large but contact-shy midfielders, over the likes of the 6’2″ Fabinho. He can rectify that mistake now, and he might be able to bring in a little more size with some of the new faces might bring in—Lucas Paquetá is 5’11”, Vinícius Júnior and David Neres are 5’10”, and on both flanks he’ll be able to count Brazil’s tallest crop of fullbacks in some time, with Alex Sandro, Alex Telles, Jorge, Danilo, and Éder Militão all 5’11” or taller. He’ll need to make the most of that size, because our incoming crop of center-backs aren’t as good in the air as Silva and Miranda, while none of Arthur, Rodrygo, Paulinho the Younger, Alanzinho, or Malcom are more than 5’9″, just like most of the players they’d likely replace.
A lot of these are long-term tasks that will require years to truly sort out, so here are…
Some Tests And Tweaks Tite Should Do Before Next Year’s Copa América
- Give Ederson more playing time: Alisson’s role in Brazil’s early exit from the World Cup was overstated, but he certainly looked shakier than expected in Russia, and that has renewed doubts over whether he should be our first choice goalie ahead of the similarly talented Ederson. The Manchester City man has only made one start for Brazil, and it’s time to give him a couple more.
- Play an entirely new midfield: If Paulinho, Fernandinho, and Renato Augusto vanish from the Brazil picture for good, as they should, the midfield will be due for a shakeup, but I want to go further. I want to see how they deal without Casemiro, or in a completely new formation, or with Coutinho explicitly as a winger as opposed to a midfielder. I want a Fabinho-Arthur-Lucas Paquetá midfield, or a Casemiro-Arthur-Fred-Coutinho midfield, or a Fabinho-Fred-Arthur-Paquetá-Coutinho midfield—I don’t care, as long as Tite tries something dramatically different from the drab Renato-Paulinho-Fernandinho core he maintained for too long.
- Let Roberto Firmino start for once: I don’t think I need to explain this one.
- Play Neymar explicitly through the middle, with Coutinho on the left: Just a hunch, but I think this is the best way to ensure that both players get to operate in the sectors where they are most deadly. Plus, it opens up the right for one of the crop of extremely talented right wingers coming up through the ranks.
- Give a bunch of youngsters a chance at once: With all due respect to our upcoming opponents El Salvador, there’s not a lot we can learn from that sort of opposition. Why not make that game a low-pressure test bed for our crop of promising 21-year-olds, or for players like Fabinho and Alex Sandro who missed out on the World Cup?