World Cup: Jack Lang assesses a brilliant Brazil squad

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WHISPER it softly but with World Cup 2018 nine months away things are looking pretty rosy for Brazil.

The Seleção booked their place in Russia back in March and have yet to taste defeat in a competitive match since Tite, the former Corinthians manager, took over in June 2016.

Nine consecutive victories transformed their qualifying campaign, drawing an emphatic line under the second – and surely final – Dunga era.

Already hopes are high for next summer. Brazil are 6-1 second favourites with Unibet behind Germany. Doubts will linger because of what happened last time the Seleção tested themselves against the world’s best but this is a squad that looks far more prepared for the challenge at hand.

But that is not to say that everything is in place. Here are five questions that Tite still needs to answer:

Stick or Twist?

Qualifying for a tournament with four games to spare is a privilege but it is not without potential pitfalls. Competition is the life force of a team and without it even the most healthy organism can wither.

Tite has a settled team and a system that works. The principal dilemma for him now is whether to prioritise continuity in the hope of squeezing an extra few percentage points out of the masterplan or use the remaining runway to test alternatives.

The dangers of the former option will be only too present in Brazilian minds. After pulling up trees at the 2013 Confederations Cup, Luiz Felipe Scolari closed shop. His starting XI for the World Cup was pretty much selected in the 3-0 final victory over Spain at the Maracanã.

There were probably benefits to this approach in terms of morale but 12 months later circumstances had changed and Brazil had not. Fred and Hulk were hopelessly out of form, Paulinho struggled and players who could have reinvigorated the squad (Neymar, Ronaldinho) were brazenly overlooked.

Tite is far too intelligent to make the same mistake and has begun the process of tweaking and testing. The squad he named for the games against Bolivia (tonight) and Chile (Tuesday) included four players – Danilo, Fred (not that one), Arthur, Diego Tardelli – he hadn’t called on before and Monaco youngster Jorge took that number to five when he replaced the injured Marcelo.

The message is clear – there may be clear incumbents and back-ups for most positions by now but wildcards are not being ruled out.

Tactically, widespread alterations are unlikely. Tite has been loyal to his 4-1-4-1 system for years now and besides there isn’t time for any great revolutio

A central role for Coutinho?

For some time and for all his obvious talent it appeared Philippe Coutinho was destined to play little more than a bit part for the Seleção. After making his debut in a money-spinning friendly against Iran in 2010 the midfielder had to wait until 2015 for his first start and even then had to bide his time with Dunga reluctant to fit him and Neymar into the same team.

Things are different under Tite, even if it has taken a bit of adaptation. Coutinho has most often been used on the right side of the attack. That has meant the cut-inside-and-shoot routine that Liverpool fans so adore has been put on ice but the 25-year-old’s creativity has come to the fore.

There could yet be another positional shift in the offing, however. Against Ecuador he came off the bench to take up a classic central playmaking role between Neymar and Willian, with Gabriel Jesus up front. It worked brilliantly, Coutinho instantly breathing life into a stodgy performance and sealed a 2-0 win with a goal of spectacular quality.

Some caution is required here, for the switch pushed Paulinho into a deeper position to which he is not really suited. That will not have escaped the attention of Tite and 4-1-4-1 is likely to remain the base formation but Coutinho has made a compelling argument for being the centrepiece of Brazil’s Plan B next summer.

Will Neymar quell his selfish tendencies?

There can be no underestimating the importance of Neymar to this team. For all the improvements elsewhere on the field he remains the one player who is genuinely undroppable. His international record – 52 goals in 79 matches – doesn’t just speak for itself it grabs you by the throat and screams in your ear.

Yet while everything seems to be in place for the 25-year-old to take his second World Cup by storm there are just a couple of little clouds on the horizon. His disciplinary record, for a start, continues to provide cause for concern – he has picked up five bookings in 12 qualifiers, taking his total for the senior side to 17.

He has matured in so many ways since first donning the yellow jersey but that stat will give opponents continued hope they can coax a reaction from him, much as Colombia did in the Copa América a couple of years ago.

Often, the indiscipline comes in games in which Neymar feels compelled to do everything himself. This was perhaps understandable under Scolari and Dunga – it wasn’t far from being a one-man team at points – but is inexcusable now the rest of the team is so well calibrated.

Against Ecuador his selfishness stood out and did not help Brazil’s cause. A quiet word may me needed from the manager

Is there an over-reliance on the full-backs?

In Marcelo and Daniel Alves, Brazil have the best full-back department in the world. Throw in Filipe Luís and Alex Sandro – the back-up options are skewed to the left side admittedly – and it almost starts to look unfair.

It’s no surprise much of Brazil’s best attacks begin down the flanks. Casemiro makes himself available, picks out one of the Chuckle brothers and whoosh Brazil are away.

Strength, though, can so easily become over-reliance and Tite will be desperately hoping Joachim Löw, Didier Deschamps and the rest didn’t watch the Ecuador game. La Tri clearly set out to nullify the threat of Marcelo and Alves in that one, effectively cutting off Brazil’s supply line in the process. Tite eventually found a solution but for an hour the release valves were blocked.

Time for a permanent captain?

Unlike other national teams Brazil employ a merry-go-round system when it comes to the captaincy. Against Bolivia, Casemiro will be the 12th different player to wear the armband under the current regime.

He follows in the footsteps of Miranda, Daniel Alves, Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Filipe Luís, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Renato Augusto, Coutinho, Robinho and Neymar.

It is an old tactic of Tite’s designed to foster leadership all over the pitch. But while the revolving door has worked well enough during the stop-start qualifying schedule it’s tempting to think that a permanent solution would be desirable when Brazil travel to Russia.

Swapping captains every few days would take up head space that would be put to better use elsewhere, for a start, and certain players will find it hard enough to meet the unique demands of tournament football without extra duties – even if purely ceremonial – to worry about.

If a full-time captain is required who should get the nod? Neymar’s name clearly springs to mind but he pointedly stood down from the role after the Olympic Games.

Thiago Silva has the experience but isn’t a guaranteed starter and his histrionics at the last World Cup must count against him.

The most likely option may just be Renato Augusto, a Tite favourite from his Corinthians days and a wise head. He may not be a natural general but then this is a Tite team and not a Dunga one.

Jack Lang (Unibet blogger)

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