Normally I wouldn’t post a match preview so far ahead of the game, but seeing as Tite has already announced his starting lineup, I might as well.

Brazil vs. Panama

Estádio do Dragão, Porto, Portugal, March 23, 2019

Kickoff: 1:00 PM EDT / 2:00 PM BRT / 5:00 PM GMT

US TV / Streaming: BeIN Sports (will only be shown live on TV on BeIN’s Spanish-language channel)

Starting Lineup: Ederson; Fagner, Éder Militão, Miranda, Alex Telles; Casemiro, Arthur, Lucas Paquetá; Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Richarlison.

The Opposition

Meaning no disrespect to Panama, they are the sort of opponent we expect Brazil to brush aside. They made their first-ever World Cup appearance in Russia last summer, but they owed their qualification to a ghost goal in their favor and a stunning collapse from the United States. They suffered the tournament’s heaviest defeat, 6-1 to England, and ended the group stage with two goals scored and 11 conceded. On top of that, they’ve won only one of their last 16 games, and drawn only three—this in a time frame stretching back to November 2017. Even without Neymar, it’s reasonable to expect one of the larger wins of Tite’s tenure, with Brazil scoring at least three or four goals. (Given my record with these expectations, this means we’ll win 2-0 and be disappointed.)

Brazil has faced Panama twice in the last five years. In 2014, we swept them aside 4-0 on the eve of the ill-fated World Cup, with goals from Neymar, Dani Alves, Hulk, and Willian; in 2016, ahead of the Copa América Centenario, we managed a more drab 2-0 win with goals from Jonas and Gabigol. Interestingly, none of the goalscorers from those games are even in the squad for this one.

As far as lifetime results against Panama, Brazil is perfect. Five games, five wins by a combined score of 18-0.

Storylines To Watch

Business Up Front, Experimentation Behind: For the last games before he chooses his Copa América squad, Tite opted to bring in some new faces like Vinícius Júnior and Felipe Anderson, while dropping regulars like Willian and Douglas Costa. The goal was clearly to test some new options on the wings, especially in place of the injured Neymar, but further injuries have necessitated more of a shakeup. Vinícius Júnior misses out on his Seleção debut, giving Ajax starlet David Neres a chance to make his debut in his place, while Filipe Luís missing out gives Alex Telles a chance to debut for Brazil at the stadium of his club, FC Porto. The result is the most unusual mix of players Tite’s called in his post-World Cup tenure; the number of veterans from Russia 2018 is down to eleven, and seven of those play at the back. The attack and midfield are substantially changed from the ones that largely underperformed last summer.

It’s a chance to try some new things, and Tite’s making an interesting approach to it. The starting XI contains none of the “first-choice” back five. Alisson, Alex Sandro, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, and Danilo will instead start against the Czech Republic on the 26th. The reserves have a chance to make a case for themselves. Keep an eye on Telles, who’ll need to make a case that he deserves one of Brazil’s top two choices at the incredibly crowded left-back position, and Militão, who is seen as the current frontrunner to partner with Marquinhos in central defense in 2022.

Ahead of them, however, Tite is opting not to experiment that much. It’s been clear for a while that Arthur and Casemiro are all-but undroppable in midfield, and joining them is Paquetá, who’s clearly central to Tite’s plans but hasn’t started a game before now because of Flamengo’s meddling. In attack, yes, Neymar is absent, but Tite views Firmino as his first-choice center-forward at the moment, and playing Coutinho on the right wing is a return to the system in which the Barcelona man enjoyed the most success for Brazil. Yeah, compare it to what we saw at the World Cup and it’s pretty different, but this is clearly what Tite envisions for Brazil in the long term. With Neymar out, and not having had a chance to start Paquetá before now, it’s not surprising that he wouldn’t make wholesale changes here. 

A Question Of Form: A handful of Tite’s starters come into this game having had a pretty bad time of it recently. Coutinho, most notably, continues to live in a rut at Barcelona, but he nonetheless was chosen to start ahead of Everton, David Neres, or Felipe Anderson, who are enjoying better seasons than him. Paquetá has had a decent start to life at AC Milan, but he was subbed off very early in their last two games, and there appear to be questions about his fitness. Miranda is no longer a regular starter at Inter Milan, and it’s worth asking why Éder Militão isn’t being played alongside Marquinhos instead in order to build their partnership for the future. 

Is This Really The Way To Go? If nothing else, Tite is public about what players he wants for his team. His ideal midfield clearly involves Casemiro, Arthur, and Paquetá, and he’s made it clear that he sees Firmino as Brazil’s first-choice number 9. His preferences are fairly transparent, and for this game, he’s setting out a lineup that largely fits them. But there are, to put it lightly, some real question marks over whether his notions really make all that much sense. Take Firmino, for instance. He is not a very traditional striker, and is more comfortable dropping deep to open up space for teammates than he is holding up the ball with his back to goal. Yet Tite has never really found out how to replicate this for Brazil. Indeed, his system seems instead to be crying out for a big, physical center forward who can win the ball near the box and hold onto it until his teammates arrive. Gabriel Jesus was able to do a surprisingly good job of this, despite his size, in Tite’s early days, before his move to Manchester City changed his style of play and sapped his confidence, but Firmino has never done it convincingly. Despite this, Tite continues to voice his preference for Firmino, even as he doesn’t seem to know how to get the most out of him in this system. It remains odd that Tite sticks with Firmino and Jesus when someone like Willian José would seem to be a better fit for how the team plays.

The list can go on. Tite has wisely opted to build his post-2018 team around the richest crop of midfielders Brazil has enjoyed since at least the 90s, and in Arthur and Paquetá, he’s bringing two of the brightest talents into the fold. But he doesn’t seem to know how to build a midfield that’s genuinely creative instead of just dominating possession; indeed, he seems most comfortable sending the buildup play through the fullbacks instead. With Dani Alves out to pasture and Marcelo and Filipe Luís getting on in years, that may not be possible for much longer. But, just like how he admires Fernandinho but has never managed to replicate his club form with Brazil, it’s not clear that he knows how to get the most out of a creative midfield.

Perhaps the problem isn’t his assessment of players. Perhaps it’s that his tactics and philosophy are just incompatible with getting the most out of the players he has at this moment in time.

Who’ll Get To Play And When? While the Czech Republic isn’t exactly a European powerhouse, Panama is definitely the easier of the two opponents we’re playing this week, and is thus the best place to introduce some new faces. Tite is on the same page here, for the most part. Obviously, he’s lining up the reserve back five, including one player who’ll make his first start and another who’ll receive his first cap. Ahead of them, he’s using essentially his first-choice midfield, but Paquetá was absent from the October and November friendlies and has never started; between that and the team’s relative dysfunction going forward, it makes sense to try and get them clicking against easy opposition.

But that means many promising names stay on the bench. David Neres, Felipe Anderson and Everton would have all feasted on the Panamanian backline had they started—which none of them ever have for Brazil. Gabriel Jesus might have been able to restore his confidence with a goal or two. Allan and Fabinho could have made the case that they offer creativity as well as defensive nous. All six of them could come on in the second half, of course. But how many will? And just as importantly, will they be given enough game time to shine? And even if they are, will Brazil keep pushing in the second half, or settle into cruise control like they did against the USA, El Salvador, and Saudi Arabia?

Can We Score? After I hit publish on this piece, Globo ran a story on how Tite hopes to end Brazil’s recent poor attacking displays (the Seleção’s last three games ended in 1-0 victories), so I’m adding this item. I wrote a breakdown of the story in this comment, but the gist is that, like I said, the coach finally has his first-choice midfield trio. He hopes that their high level of technical quality will let Coutinho return to the “floating” role, coming inside from the right, where both he and Brazil played their best football of Tite’s tenure. Meanwhile, he hopes that Richarlison, a winger with a nose for goal, will be able to thrive in the space Firmino opens by dropping deep. We’ll see whether this can do away with the dysfunction that crept in for, really, most of 2018. If nothing else, against weak opposition, it’s likely we’ll see at least some improvement.