World Cup Qualifiers – what have we learned?

Over the last six days Brazil played their seventh and eighth qualifying games in the qualifying stages of the 2018 World Cup. The two games were the first with ex-Corinthians man Tite at the helm of the Seleção and couldn’t have gone much better for the new manager.

A 3-0 win over Ecuador in Quito last Thursday and a 2-1 victory over Colombia in Manaus constituted a perfect start in the job. They were two potential banana skins and to come away from them unscathed is credit to him and his squad.

Brazil were the only team of the ten in the table to take six points from these two rounds of fixtures and it was sufficient to move them from sixth to second in the qualification standings. Only the top-four qualify automatically for Russia 2018 with the fifth going into a play-off, so these victories were hugely important.

Tite stuck with his preferred 4-1-4-1 formation (becoming 4-3-3 in attack) that served him so well in last year’s Brazilian championship as he led Corinthians to the title. The team that started the two games was Alisson in goal; Dani Alves, Miranda, Marquinhos and Marcelo across the back; Casemiro, Renato Augusto and Paulinho in central midfield; Neymar and Willian on the wings, and Gabriel Jesus as the lone attacker.

It appeared slightly negative to play a three-man central midfield with Renato Augusto and Paulinho just in front of the more defensive minded Casemiro, particularly in the home game against Colombia, but it gave a balance to Brazil in both defence and attack that has been missing in recent months (and perhaps years).

There were question marks over the inclusion of Paulinho in the squad, never mind the starting line-up, but his performances justified the selection. He was not spectacular in either of the games but the Guangzhou Evergrande man covers a lot more ground than many of Tite’s other options and is willing to break into dangerous positions in support of Gabriel Jesus up-front. He provides a fine complement in midfield to Renato Augusto who is more of a distributor than a runner.

In Quito Tite’s plan to negate the advantage that the home side gain by playing at 2,800m above sea-level was to control the ball and make the Ecuadorians do most of the running. The three in midfield, necessary for a team that wants to play in this way, managed this well and Brazil finished the game having had 61.3% of possession.

At half-time the 0-0 score-line reflected a game that until then had been fairly even and at that point had Tite been offered a goalless draw as the final score he would have willingly accepted. Especially so after a period of Ecuador pressure just before the break which saw some enterprising play from Jefferson Montero and Enner Valencia and provided some worrying moments for the Seleção.

Brazil, though, came out with renewed enthusiasm after the interval and really took control of the rhythm of play, keeping the ball and pressing Ecuador into their own half of the field. With the introduction of Coutinho after 60 minutes, replacing Willian, Brazil’s attacking threat increased and after 72 minutes the pressure paid off.

Gabriel Jesús chased a long ball over the top from Casemiro showing the strength, pace and balance to win it in front of Ecuador an River Plate centre-half Arturo Mina, himself no slouch. He was then brought down by goalkeeper Domínguez, with Neymar duly converting the penalty.

The Barcelona star was given a role on the left during the game but consistently drifted inside, causing terrible problems for the home side’s back-line. It is a role he is used to at club level and it appears that he is more comfortable there than playing in the central role sometimes demanded from him in under Dunga.

Shortly after the opening goal Ecuador had Paredes sent-off for a second yellow. The foul was late and over-the-top and could easily have earned him a straight-red. After this Brazil effectively had the game wrapped-up and easily managed to keep possession.

Two late goals from Gabriel Jesús on his full international debut, the second a wonderful turn and shot into the top corner from outside the area, made the final score slightly flattering for Brazil but the victory was deserved. It was an impressive first start for Jesús and he is currently living up to the hype generated by his multi-million pound move to the blue half of Manchester.

The Colombia game was a slightly different prospect. Colombia are a side of higher quality than Ecuador but, playing at home, Brazil were expected to take the game to them.

Brazil and Colombia also have a fiery recent history which dates back to the World Cup quarter-final in 2014 where Neymar was poleaxed by Christian Zuniga, putting him out of the semi-final humiliation against Germany. The 2015 Copa America saw another feisty affair in which Neymar himself was sent-off and Colombia won 1-0. Their meeting in the recent Rio Olympics followed suit with Neymar consistently fouled by the Cafeteros.

This fixture has turned into one of the most hotly contended on the continent and this presented another challenge for Tite. Unsurprisingly it was again a bad-blooded affair but Tite managed to control his troops better than Dunga had in 2015. Importantly Neymar kept his head, despite continued provocation, apart from one brief incident in the first half where he deliberately jumped into Jeison Murillo after losing the ball on the wing.

As previously stated the starting line-up for the two fixtures was the same but this time the pattern of the game was different. Brazil scored after 90 seconds with a close-range Miranda header from a Neymar corner, with David Ospina appearing to temporarily forget what it is a goalkeeper is supposed to do during a football match.

For the next half-an-hour Brazil made all of the running, controlling the game and creating various half chances without making the most of their dominance. Neymar again thrived in the free left-sided role which liberated him from the attentions of Carlos Sanchez, whose persistence had frustrated him into the red card in the Copa America in Chile.

With Neymar cutting in from the left wing it is important to note the roles of Renato Augusto, Marcelo and in particular Casemiro in Tite’s new system.

Renato Augusto often pulled wide from central midfield into the space vacated by Brazil’s number 10, providing a passing option and defensive cover. Marcelo, always better going forwards than backwards, is also allowed space to overlap with Neymar’s wandering and made the most of it with some marauding runs in the first-half. He linked up well with the Barcelona star and much of Brazil’s attacking play went through him.

However, all this movement would not be possible without the defensive discipline and intelligent positioning of Casemiro. The Real Madrid midfielder has quickly made himself indispensible to the Seleção, conducting the game from deep and allowing players with more of a killer instinct to break forward, comfortable in the knowledge that there is cover behind. He is surely now one of the first names on Tite’s team sheet.

Ten minutes before the break Brazil were punished for their profligacy, Marquinhos flicking the ball into his own net after James Rodriguez whipped a dangerous free-kick into the penalty area. Brazil had worked hard on set pieces in the lead-up to the Ecuador game but clearly still have some training left to do as they lost their defensive line when James ran up to strike the ball. The own goal led to one of those unusual situations where a team scores without having a shot on target during the 90 minutes.

After the goal the game settled into the pattern that most had expected before the start. It was far more balanced, with Colombia threatening to create danger for Brazil which until that point they had shown no sign of doing.

However, the introduction of Coutinho for Willian after 20 minutes of the second period, an identical swap to that in the Ecuador game, swung the game once more in favour of Brazil. And it was the lithe Liverpool forward who set up Neymar’s winner.

He picked the ball up from deep, playing a fine ball through to Jesús. The centre-forward was tackled but the ball broke back to Coutinho who played in Neymar, again cutting in from the left, who finished low and hard across Ospina into the far corner. Coutinho continued to create for the rest of the game, popping up in dangerous areas in the centre of the pitch.

His two effective substitute appearances have led some in Brazil to question whether he is deserving of a place in the starting eleven but it is probable that Tite will continue to use him as an impact player so as not to disrupt the defensive balance of the team, something to which the new manager gives the highest priority. Coutinho can come on to punish opponents who have been worn down by the doggedness and metronomic passing of the more defensively minded starters.

After the game Tite praised the concentration of the team and said that they played well “without reaching the level of gretaness of Brazil.” He foresees a great deal of improvement in the coming months and by his own admission is aiming to emulate the style of the great Brazil team of 1982 and the Flamengo team that were world club champions in 1981. It is ambitious but his job is one that demands ambition.

It was a wonderful start for the new man and the wins were essential for a qualifying campaign that had been faltering under Dunga’s turgid stewardship. There is, however, a lot of work for Tite to do to take Brazil back into a position where they can consider themselves one of the favourites to emerge victorious in Russia. He will be under no illusions as to this fact.

There are a lot of players waiting in the wings to come back into the squad once they regain form or fitness and he will be keeping a close eye on the performance of the European-based Brazilians over the next month.

Tite will have his work cut out from now until the next round of qualifiers take place on the seventh and eleventh of October, when they will take on Bolivia at home and a resurgent Venezuela away. At least he now has a base from which to build and he will be able to do his work from a position far more comfortable than the one he found when his took the job in June.

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