Brazil's draw vs. Panama underscores that the pieces aren't falling into place for Tite
When Tite took over as Brazil coach almost three years ago, the pieces immediately fell into place. He gambled on a teenage centre-forward named Gabriel Jesus, who straightaway appeared to have solved a long-running problem. Gabriel worked well with Neymar, and as the wins kept rolling in and confidence soared, Philippe Coutinho was at last successfully incorporated into the side.
Brazil, at one point in danger of missing the 2018 World Cup, cruised to Russia and travelled with high hopes of winning the competition in Europe for the first time since 1958. In the event, they fell short, losing the game of the tournament 2-1 to Belgium. Tite recognises that the balance of the side was not quite right -- not helped by the slump in form of the talismanic Gabriel.
Since the World Cup, things have gotten worse. The pieces are not falling into place. Brazil put together a run of six wins without conceding a goal, but the level of performance was not satisfactory. Tite is struggling to get the pieces to fit once more; the evidence that he has yet to succeed was clear in Saturday's 1-1 draw with Panama.
Brazil went into this game, staged in Porto, Portugal, with a reserve defence. But further forward, in the absence of the injured Neymar -- plus Vinicius Junior, who had been called up for the first time -- the coach went with a lineup that he has been very keen to see in action: Casemiro holding the fort, Arthur shuttling in midfield, Coutinho pulling the strings, Richarlison cutting in from wide on the right, recent AC Milan signing Lucas Paqueta on the other flank, and Roberto Firmino at centre-forward.
Fearing that he delayed too long in the World Cup to introduce Firmino, Tite has given him an extended run, leaving Gabriel on the bench. Those who watch Liverpool might feel that this is an easy decision, but the context is different. For his club, Firmino often drops into midfield, combining and opening space for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to burst beyond him. At their best, the Liverpool front three operate as one force.
With restricted training time and players with different characteristics, Tite has yet to find a way to get the best out of Firmino. He is not linking up with Coutinho and forming part of a circuitry of passing on the edge of the penalty area. And he is a centre-forward with an obvious lack of physical presence in the penalty area -- hence the choice of Richarlison, a mixture of wide striker and penalty area operator.
Many of Brazil's best moments against Panama involved Richarlison. Against such defensive-minded opponents, his aggression and directness were badly needed, but the balance of the side left him with a problem. He was the only player happy to have the ball played into space in front of him. Everyone else wanted it to feet, meaning that Brazil overdid the sideways passing in front of Panama's deep defensive lines.
As the exception, the out ball, Richarlison was often brought into the action wide on the right, a long way from the danger zone. Tite attempted to correct this in the last 20 minutes, bringing on West Ham's Felipe Anderson to play wide, pushing the Everton striker further inside. But despite intense pressure in the last few minutes, the winning goal would not come.
There was plenty to celebrate in the goal Brazil did manage to score, just after a half-hour. It was an international first for Paqueta, and its execution was the product of planned intelligence, of the need to switch the ball either side of Panama's three centre-backs. Coutinho's long diagonal to the right was turned back by Fagner to Casemiro, whose cross back beyond the far post was met by Paqueta's smart volley.
There were promising flashes from Paqueta, though in a competitive game he might have been sent off for throwing an arm into an opponent's face. It was a surprise when he was replaced just before the hour mark. Coutinho might have been a more natural candidate to be substituted, as Paqueta was certainly offering more in the penalty area. Tite, though, gave Coutinho the full 90 minutes, clearly hoping the player could rediscover the form, the fizz and the confidence that appear to have deserted him at Barcelona. It did not happen.
There was a touch of misfortune about Panama's quick equaliser, one of the few moments of threat from the Central Americans. Adolfo Machado might well have been offside when he headed home from a free kick, but it was a tough decision not helped by the fact that Richarlison broke the Brazilian line and retreated into the penalty area.
It should not have mattered; Brazil had sufficient volume of the play to have won comfortably. They were unable to translate possession with consistent threat. Tuesday against the Czech Republic is another opportunity. For the moment, though, the pieces are not fitting.