Tite's Brazil go 'forward by moving back' in encouraging win vs. South Korea
Arthur Rowe, boss of Tottenham's famous "Push and Run" 1950-51 side, had some advice for fellow coaches: Write down your starting lineup at the start of the season, he counselled. During the course of the campaign, when things get tough and your mind is confused, take out the piece of paper and have a look. You will probably come to the conclusion that your original idea was the best one.
Brazil coach Tite did something similar with a morale-boosting and highly welcome 3-0 win over South Korea in Abu Dhabi.
In the first 18 months of his reign, during the World Cup qualifiers of 2016 and 17, Tite's Brazil swept all before them. Come Russia 2018, Brazil lost to Belgium in the quarterfinals. The game went round and round in Tite's head for months, and it forced him into changes.
First, he regretted persevering with Gabriel Jesus at centre-forward and handed the position to Roberto Firmino. He also came to the conclusion that his side were too open and that they needed to tighten up. There would no longer be a place for rampaging left-back Marcelo, as his full-backs would now stay deeper.
The problem was that the two changes were incompatible. Firmino thrives in a Liverpool side where width is provided by a bold pair of attacking full-backs -- allowing Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to get close to Firmino and run beyond him, giving him options to link the play with his perceptive passing.
With Brazil, meanwhile, he was left isolated. The Brazil attack badly lacked physical presence and even during the Copa America win on home soil, Firmino often found himself in the same space as Philippe Coutinho, operating in the central playmaker role that Liverpool do not use. Twice during the Copa, Brazil were held to goalless draws and after the competition, the goals dried up. Brazil went five games without a win, and their performance in Friday's 1-0 defeat to Argentina was wretched. Esteban Andrada in the opposition goal had next to nothing to do.
And so for the South Korea game, Tite went forward by moving back. Some of the names had changed but the team had much more the look of the all-conquering outfit of 2016-17.
Richarlison came in at centre-forward -- not, perhaps, the most subtle of options, but one that gave the team depth and aggression up front, with the constant chance of playing behind the defensive line.
Left-back Renan Lodi was given free licence to attack down the flank, with midfielder Arthur switched to that side of the field to give him cover. Coutinho was played on the wing, where, as Tite admitted before the game, he had played his best football for Brazil. His move to midfield had never been an overwhelming success, and so there was another chance in the midfield trio for Lucas Paqueta, who had been taken off at half-time after performing poorly against Argentina.
Past legend Rivaldo had criticized Brazil's choice to give the famous number ten shirt to Paqueta, arguing that it was a case of putting too much pressure on a youngster still finding his way. Every bit as important as the shirt number, though, is the fact that Paqueta is filling the boots of Renato Augusto, the all-purpose midfielder who was the unsung hero of the side in the build up to Russia. The injury-prone Renato had organized Brazil play from deep, and joined the attack as well.
It must have pleased Tite enormously, then, when Paqueta scored a nerve-settling early goal. Arthur fed Renan Lodi, who exchanged passes with Coutinho before whipping in a cross that was headed home by the young AC Milan man. The coach's new-look left flank had clicked, and the most attacking member of his midfield trio had arrived in the box to open the scoring.
Confidence up, Coutinho added a second from a free kick -- amazingly Brazil's first goal directly from a free kick since Neymar scored against Colombia in Sept. 2014. Finally, Renan Lodi, who has surely made the left-back slot his own, set up a third goal after the break, squaring for Danilo to move up from right-back and crash home.
It is probably true that Brazil were a bit flattered by the 3-0 margin and causes for concern remain. In comparison with Renato Augusto, Lucas Paqueta has a greater capacity to get into the opposing box, but he still lacks maturity, and is worryingly prone to giving the ball away close to his own goal. The team, though, often looked dangerous and deserved their win -- which eases the pressure which had been mounting on Tite.
He can build now with a clear mind toward the next challenge -- the most competitive World Cup qualification campaign on the planet, which gets underway in March.