Brazil’s World Cup campaign doesn’t kick off until the 17th, but before then we play two friendlies, against Croatia later today and against Austria this time next week. The former is in the World Cup too, having finished second to Iceland in their qualifying group before routing Greece in the playoff; the latter is not, having finished fourth in the group containing our group-stage rivals Serbia. (They beat the World Cup hosts earlier this week in a friendly, but that seems like it isn’t very hard to do.)
Two games. A hundred and eighty minutes of game time to iron out what creases we can before we face Switzerland on June 17. The bigger factor by far, of course, is going to be the four weeks or so of uninterrupted practice time in the buildup to the World Cup opener, far more time to train and tweak the side than Tite’s ever enjoyed. And it’s good that we have that, because while this side is in pretty good shape, there are some tactical considerations that still need to be addressed:
How fit is Neymar?
Our most important player is still recovering from a broken bone in his foot, and though he’s been training regularly, there appear to be concerns both over whether he’s fully healed and whether he’ll return to proper match fitness in time for the tournament. Early indications are that he’ll be slowly eased back into playing, coming off the bench for part of the second half of today’s game. I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world if he comes into the World Cup below ideal sharpness—in theory, that would let his physical condition peak as we enter the knockout stages. The bigger concern is whether his foot is indeed fully healed, which, well, is largely out of Tite’s control. If it’s not healed, we may see Neymar compromised like he was during the 2014 World Cup, when he carried a niggling foot injury into the tournament. If it is, then it’s just a matter of making sure his body is back in peak conditioning after a long time with the offending foot in a boot, at which point we might enjoy the healthiest, freshest Neymar we’ve ever had.
Can Firmino play an important role?
The calls for Roberto Firmino to start ahead of Gabriel Jesus came thick and fast through most of this past season, as Firmino racked up 26 goals and 14 assists for Liverpool while Jesus went pretty much the entire winter without scoring a goal for Manchester City. Despite that difference in form, Firmino’s last start for Brazil came back in September against Colombia. He didn’t play very well in that game at all, but neither did Brazil as a whole, and he was particularly badly served by his then-club teammate Coutinho not coming on as a sub until after he’d been taken off. All of which has made us all wonder whether Firmino, in his current form and paired with Coutinho, could outplay Jesus as our striker.
Unfortunately, we’re not likely to get an answer in these next questions—at least not to that question specifically. Firmino spent last weekend playing in the Champions League final, which doesn’t make it likely that he’d get an experimental start, ahead of our first-choice forward, against Croatia. Against Austria, which on paper should be an easier game, it might be more likely—but, then again, that’s our very last tuneup before the World Cup, and Tite will probably favor his starters.
More likely is that we’ll see Firmino get some good minutes as a sub, perhaps to keep Jesus fresh, but we’ve seen him in that role, and he hasn’t really done much. No, if he can’t get a shot to show what he can do as Brazil’s sole striker, I’d love to see Tite try an idea he’s talked about before: playing Jesus and Firmino together up front to break down a tight defense. From our past games against them, we know that Croatia and Austria both know how to make themselves tough to play through, which makes them an ideal testing bed.
Who should be our right-back?
Dani Alves was rarely anywhere near as good for Brazil as he was for his club sides. But as frustrating as it was to be on this blog, feeling like the only people who recognized that, he really was our best option at right-back before he wrecked his knee earlier this month. Tite has chosen two replacements, neither of whom inspire much confidence. Fágner is a fairly unremarkable player, capable of some nice things at either end without ever looking world-class, who’s already shown that he might struggle dealing with high-level teams like Argentina. Danilo, meanwhile, is a player with the natural talent to do incredible things on a semi–regular basis, but who has always struggled with the “defending” part of his role as a right-back. Still, he’s played in far bigger games than has Fágner, up to and including a Champions League final, and my sense is that a good coach can motivate him to remain focused and keep his defensive discipline, at least for a few games. If Tite can manage that, his ceiling is far, far higher than Fágner’s, and his skill on the ball makes him a much better fit for the right-sided midfield playmaker role Dani Alves would often occupy in practice.
I know you all have doubts. That’s fine. When you’re ready to hear me out, come join me on Danilo Will Come Good Island. There’s plenty of room here, and whole place is only occasionally completely underwater!
Who will replace Renato Augusto?
Renato Augusto, once a mainstay in Tite’s midfield, began to fall out of favor towards the tail end of last year, and now it seems likely that he won’t be anywhere near the starting lineup at the World Cup. Tite now has several options for what to do with the position. He could bring Coutinho back into midfield, and put Willian out on the wing, for a side that’s inventive but physically fragile; he could put Fernandinho in the role and keep Coutinho out wide, sacrificing some chalk-on-boots wing play for a more stable midfield and Coutinho’s ability to drift inside and create danger; he could even put Fred into the role, for a box-to-box compromise between Coutinho’s skill and Fernandinho’s intelligence in a deeper role. The first two are obviously the most likely, and I’m inclined to think Tite favors the Fernandinho option. Coutinho has shown that he can be physically overmatched when playing centrally, especially when he doesn’t have enough backup from the guys behind him—Paulinho isn’t much help, and Casemiro is often too busy covering a deeper position. Believe it or not, we’ve not had a good test of this—the only times when Coutinho and Fernandinho have taken to the field together as starters was when Neymar wasn’t available. (And it doesn’t look like we’ll see Neymar starting the Croatia game, which means Coutinho is likely to start in his place on the left wing, which means we still won’t get a clear answer to this question.)
Can we fix our issues from set pieces?
If there’s one tactical area where Brazil still struggles and might make a substantial improvement without changing personnel, it’s set pieces. We often look very shaky from set plays. The last goal we conceded, back in November against Japan, was from a corner. Since then, even without giving up goals, we’ve often looked less than convincing when trying to defend corners and free kicks. Some of this might indeed be solved with a personnel change, as Marquinhos, who seems to struggle in aerial duels, is phased out of the starting lineup in favor of Thiago Silva, but the main reason I hope to see some improvement here is one I’ve already touched on: Tite finally has more than a handful of days to work with his players on the training ground. He can address whatever nitpicks he couldn’t justify taking the time to drill before. Fingers crossed, that’ll mean we finally see some real improvement in this regard.
Anyways, here’s the skinny on the match today. I’ve written this several days in advance, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to update this with the actual starting lineup.
Brazil vs. Croatia
Anfield, Liverpool, June 3, 2018
Kickoff: 10:00 AM EDT / 11:00 AM BRT / 2:00 PM GMT
US TV/streaming: beIN Sports
Starting XI projection: Alisson; Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho; Willian, Gabriel Jesus, Coutinho