By Joshua Law
Last Tuesday night Brazil became the first team to book their place at next year’s World Cup in Russia after eight consecutive victories in the gruelling, exigent and exhilarating South American qualifying tournament. These games, the first eight in the nascent reign of manager Tite, constitute a new record for the most uninterrupted wins since classification on the continent took its current format prior to France 1998.
Looking at it now, with a nine point advantage over their nearest challengers, Colombia, a goal difference of +25, 16 goals better than the next best, Uruguay, and over a year to prepare for the World Cup it all looks rather comfortable for the boys from Brazil. When Tite took over on 20th June last year, however, it was far from it. The possibility of not qualifying for the first time ever was being seriously discussed.
Dunga, his cantankerous predecessor, had come to the end of his second spell in charge. He was dismissed after a seemingly disastrous group stage exit at the Copa América Centenario in the US, having won just two of the opening six games in the qualifiers for Russia. The team had looked disjointed, without any real shape or tactical direction and the ball was often flying from back to front, entirely eluding the gaping chasm that should have housed a midfield.
Even under the ex-boss, though, there had started to be some small signs of change. At the Copa América Dunga had switched from a 4-2-3-1 to the 4-1-4-1 formation that Tite prefers and that served him so well in club football. The 1994 World Cup winner had also started to use Philippe Coutinho more regularly in that campaign and despite the embarrassment of going out in a group with Ecuador, Peru and Haiti, Brazil had been unlucky in their last game. Peru’s Raul Ruidíaz clearly handled the ball over the line for his winning goal but none of the officials spotted the infringement.
Dunga’s exit, nevertheless, was well overdue. His confrontational style, looking to motivate his players (and perhaps himself) by creating tension with anyone and everyone, inside or outside the camp, had long since started to grate. Fresh ideas and a more conciliatory tone were needed.
So in stepped the man of the hour. Tite had led Corinthians to the 2015 Brasilierão title seven months previously, having also won the Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup with the same side in 2012. He is a much more diplomatic character and in Brazil is noted as much for his man management as for his tactical acumen.
The new boss was also fortunate. His first game came over two months after his appointment, giving him time to prepare, and during this lengthy interlude he had the debateable pleasure of watching Rogério Micale’s U23 team stagger to victory in the Olympic football tournament.
This, as strange as it may seem from a European perspective, was an enormous burden lifted from Brazil’s collective football consciousness. It was the only major international tournament the Seleção had never won and, especially with the final victory over Germany, gave the nation a renewed, if ostensibly unjustifiable, confidence, opening a new chapter of success post the humiliation suffered in 2014.
His toughest decision, one that everyone could see was necessary, was also taken for him in the immediate aftermath of gold medal clinching game. In a post-match interview Neymar renounced the captaincy. It was something Dunga had not had the courage to do and it has greatly eased the pressure on the Seleção’s talisman.
Neymar has looked a different player under Tite and it is not just the choice to hand over the armband that has underpinned his revitalization. The ex-Corinthians head coach, as previously alluded to, has implemented an extremely disciplined 4-1-4-1 system, with highly compact lines and clearly defined roles.
Exactly as he does for Barcelona, Neymar plays wide on the left. He, like every other player in the team, has defensive duties and a structure to his play and this has provided him a platform from which to perform. In the last two games against Uruguay and Paraguay he has risen to another level. In his free, central role under Dunga he could often be seen wandering into areas where he could not affect the play, trying to be both the conductor and the orchestra at the same time.
In fact, each of the players to a man has benefitted from this renewed regimentation. Tite deliberatly uses almost all of them in exactly the same role they are used to at club level, allowing them to perform in comfort. Philippe Coutinho, who forced his way into the side with two excellent substitute appearances in Tite’s first two games, is the only exception. In order for Neymar to play in his natural role on the left the Liverpool man has had to move over to the right.
The increased proximity of the players to each other has also done the team a world of good in attack and defence. As Johan Cruyff once said when speaking of Pep Guardiola’s Champions League winning team; “Do you know why Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? It’s because they don’t have to run back more than 10 metres as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres.” Now you could replace those Barcelonas with Brazils.
It is at once football at its most modern and a romantic glimpse of a bygone era for the five times world champions. The enduring image of Brazilian football is built on the back of intricate passing sides, but this sultry style has eluded the Seleção since the World Cup of 1982, 35 years ago. As Tim Vickery so wonderfully described in issue six of The Bilzzard the Brazilian game has long since stopped being beautiful and has become technocratic, cynical and perfunctory.
Tite’s side is not of Brazil 1970 or ’82 vintage, the limitations of the players available do not permit that, nor do they provide the symphonious magnificence of Barcelona at their finest. But they do have a clear and aesthetically agreeable idea of how the game should be conducted. They look to control matches and, increasingly with each passing training session, look to work their way out of pressure and build from the goalkeeper.
It is not just the fact that the players are closer together, however, that has seen the team make such a dramatic improvement. Each individual’s movements with the system have taken on a new intensity and vigour. There is a very obvious purpose to each of their actions and the creation of space with intelligent passing and interchanges of position has become the norm.
Tite constantly talks of triangulations and this is at its most obvious with the wonderful exchanges of passes down the left had side between Marcelo, Neymar and Renato Augusto. Often Augusto will come deep, between Marcelo and centre-back Miranda to initiate attacks. The opposition central midfielder is usually reluctant to follow and this provides the Beijing Guoan player with space as well as allowing Marcelo to advance up the wing.
As the ball moves towards the final third Coutinho and Neymar drift inside towards the centre-forward and the full-backs occupy the space the wide men have vacated. Paulinho, a player much maligned in the UK and Brazil, but scorer of an incredible hat-trick in the extraordinary 4-1 away victory in Uruguay, is also a master at timing his runs into the box. With these six players bearing down on the opposition box defences have often found themselves overrun.
The risk Tite took when choosing to go with Gabriel Jesus up front is also easy to overlook now the young Manchester City man has taken the world by storm, but in September it was a decidedly daring move. Jesus had started the Olympic tournament playing as Brazil’s number 9 but the first two games ended in abject failure, two 0-0 draws against Iraq and South Africa, and he was shifted out to the left. Grêmio’s Luan and Neymar were brought in through the middle to much greater success.
It was a big decision in these circumstances to start the 19-year-old up top by himself in his first senior game, especially a tough away tie at altitude in Ecuador, but Jesus shone, winning a penalty and scoring two exquisite goals. He also adds a whole different dimension to Brazil’s attacking threat, his pace allowing Brazil to counter-attack rapidly if needed. This was made plain in the home victory over Argentina with Neymar’s second, a blistering goal that came from a quick break and a measured Jesus pass.
At the other end the team has been stunningly watertight. They have only conceded twice in 720 minutes on the pitch, once from a penalty and the other an unfortunate Marquinhos own goal from a set piece. The centre-back paring of the PSG player and Internazionale’s Miranda complement each other wonderfully, one a quick young, athletic player and the other a commanding, reassuring and hugely experienced presence. That they have kept Thiago Silva largely confined to the bench says it all.
Casemiro, as yet unmentioned, deserves special praise here too. He has made himself perhaps the first name on the teamsheet. His covering in front of the back four is magnificent to behold, one those things in football that is noticeable on the television but only really becomes crystal clear when you are inside the stadium. I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the recent Paraguay game and was astonished by the Real Madrid player’s prescience and ability to move seamlessly to plug potentially critical gaps in the back line.
The hard work of the midfielders and forwards in regaining their shape after losing the ball is also essential; Tite’s team move rapidly in the transition from attack to defence. Jesus again is important, in the picture above you can see the way he works to close down the passing lanes of the opposition defenders.
It is not just tactical, either. Tite’s man management skills, especially after the divisive Dunga era, have also been hugely important. Without Neymar as permanent captain he has chosen to rotate the armband in a sort of professional football version of pass the parcel.
This encourages players to seize responsibility and helps them to feel like valued, and equal, parts of the squad. Fernandinho and Filipe Luis have both been named as captain for a game despite not even being first choices in their respective positions. The Manchester City player, in the press conference called to announce the decision, was keen to stress how this simple act made him feel an indispensable part of the collective.
Despite the results there has been some criticism of Tite’s selection of players with whom he is familiar. The likes of Paulinho, Renato Augusto, Fágner, Marquinhos and Giuliano have all played under him at club level and are players he knows and trusts.
Some say that this is unnecessarily closing the door on candidates who perhaps have more natural ability. But it can be seen in another way. He is implementing a very clear system with specific roles to be performed, if a player is already used to performing that role, and has done it before to good effect, then why not use him?
Paulinho is probably the best example. There are certainly more talented Brazilian players available, but none with the characteristics of the ex-Tottenham man. His role in Tite’s team requires an athletic, tireless player who can both defend and attack in equal measure. He is the only one who really fits the bill and he has performed beyond all expectations, perhaps even beyond his own. It is a case of finding the right players for the system rather than fitting the system to the players.
This has just been a truly remarkable run of results but, perhaps even more pleasingly, a scintillating sequence of performances. Brazil have controlled games and driven teams into the ground, even against strong countries such as Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina, scoring 24 and conceding just two.
Qualifying in South America is certainly not anything like the tedious, underwhelming affair in Europe, games are often blood and thunder and the quality of many of the opposition teams makes a winning run like this all the more spectacular.
There are still a few questions to be answered, most importantly how they will cope against European opposition. But the CBF, at Tite’s request, has organised a friendly with Germany in Berlin for March 2018 and is in the process of organising another against Spain. This will be a perfect chance to lay the demons of their home World Cup to rest before the next one kicks-off in Russia and will test them against top passing sides that are able to control the centre of midfield.
The Seleção now just need to refrain themselves from becoming overconfident. A year ago predicting a Brazilian win in 2018 would have appeared borderline lunacy, but with the new man in charge the Seleção has taken on a new lease of life and has looked a team deserving of the famous yellow shirt.
Europe watch out, Brazil may just be the team to beat by the time the biggest party in world football begins 15 months from now.