Injuries and Covid-19 threatened to derail Brazil in their two World Cup qualifiers in the international break, relieving Tite of no fewer than nine players, yet the Seleção finished off 2020 in perfect fashion, beating Uruguay 2-0 in Montevideo on Tuesday night after seeing off Venezuela in São Paulo three days earlier. After four rounds of fixtures in South American qualifying, Brazil are the only team with a 100% record. There is a long way to go – South American sides have to play 18 qualifiers in their 10-team group – but, after scoring 12 goals and conceding just two in four straight wins, things are looking good for Tite.
Brazil had not lost to Uruguay since 2001, so should have been confident as they made their way across the border. Yet, following a limp 1-0 win over Venezuela on Friday, some fans were suggesting that the national team may be better off with a different manager. Those mutterings have only increased since their defeat to Belgium in the World Cup quarter-finals in 2018, so Tite needed his team to make a statement.
They did. Although this wasn’t the 4-1 rout of Uruguay that Brazil enjoyed in 2017 – when Edinson Cavani gave the hosts an early lead from the penalty spot before Brazil roared back thanks to a Paulinho hat-trick and delightful scooped lob from Neymar – the performance reaffirmed Tite’s credentials. Some supporters would prefer to see Flamengo manager Rogério Ceni or São Paulo boss Fernando Diniz in charge, but neither of them has a CV to rival Tite, who won the Brazilian league title, the Copa Libertadores and Fifa Club World Cup while in charge of Corinthians.
Ceni, who won the World Cup with Brazil as a player in 2002, has been moving up the managerial ladder over the last few years and was appointed to the Flamengo job earlier this month. In time he may be the right man for the Brazil job, but he is still developing. Right now his priority is to sort out Flamengo’s problems. Three games into his time at the club they are without a win and have just been thumped 3-0 by São Paulo this week. That game showcased what Diniz has to offer. His coaching career stretches back over a decade and takes in 11 clubs, but he has only been at the very top level for a few years. He is doing a great job at São Paulo and is bringing fresh and progressive ideas to Brazilians football – people are being taken in by “Dinizismo” – but he needs to prove himself at one of the country’s biggest clubs.
Unable to count on the talents of Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and Neymar, Brazil still passed their first big test on the road to Qatar. Arthur, who had missed the narrow win over Venezuela, returned to the midfield and excelled. He has had a tough year, leaving Barcelona in June and struggling to make his mark at Juventus, but he put those issues behind him and even scored the opening goal for Brazil with a deflected effort in the first half. Richarlison doubled the lead with a header just before half-time and Brazil never looked back.
Tite started with a 4-1-4-1 with Roberto Firmino playing as a lone striker, before noticing that Uruguay were having some success down Brazil’s right wing and switching to a 4-4-2, with Everton Ribeiro moving out wide and Richarlison partnering Firmino up front. Ribeiro won the league twice with Cruzeiro and was voted the player of the year in Brazil on both occasions, so was criticised for taking the easy money when he signed for Al-Ahli in 2015. He has returned home and found favour with Tite, who says the 31-year-old is a “creative” player with “great technical quality”. Ribeiro provides competition to Coutinho in midfield as well as offering an alternative to Gabriel Jesus, his near-namesake Everton Cebolinha and Richarlison further up the pitch.
As always, Firmino’s role in the team is being debated in Brazil. He has his backers but there is also the feeling that what he brings to Liverpool does not work for Brazil and that Tite should experiment with a purer No 9. Everton Ribeiro’s teammates at Flamengo, Gabriel Barbosa and Pedro, are both candidates for the role. Pedro in particular is in fantastic form and made his debut against Venezuela.
For all their spoils in midfield and attack – Bruno Guimarães, Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo often fail to get a game – Brazil have not yet identified a true heir to Dani Alves at right-back. They have no such problems on the other side of the defence, where Atlético Madrid left-back Renan Lodi has set up four goals in his eight games so far. The 22-year-old is a novice at international but already gives off the air of a veteran.
Tite has tried various options at right-back. Danilo put in a better performance than usual against Uruguay and was involved in the build-up to the first goal, but he is not considered good enough to fill the vacancy. Palmeiras right-back Gabriel Menino, who is out with Covid-19, is being considered for the role.
Tite has tried Emerson, the 21-year-old who is currently on loan at Real Betis from Barcelona, but has decided to send him back to the Under-23 team for the Olympics in Tokyo next year. Éder Militão is an intriguing option. He has played at centre-back for both Real Madrid and Brazil, but he can also fill in at right-back. With Thiago Silva and Marquinhos proving so durable, the 22-year-old could follow Sergio Ramos’ example and play as a right-back early in his career before moving infield when Silva retires. However, Tite does not seem convinced.
Tite has four months to iron out these creases before Brazil’s next two qualifiers, a trip to Colombia and the visit of Argentina in the last week of March. The manager should be confident. He has a squad that boasts strength in depth and a healthy mix of youth and experience. Not even fatigue and the second wave of a pandemic have been able to throw them off so far.
The qualifying table looks good for Brazil, who sit two points above Argentina, who could only draw at home to Paraguay last week. Look further back and the case for persisting with Tite is even clearer. Since he took the reins in 2016, Brazil have picked up 17 more points than Argentina in qualifying. The World Cup was disappointing but they made amends by winning the Copa América title last year, seeing off Argentina in the semi-finals before beating Peru in the final at the Maracanã.
Tite was appointed to the job in 2016 after Dunga had overseen a disaster at the Copa América in the US, where Brazil failed to reach the knockout phase of the tournament for the first time in nearly 30 years. There are no disasters now. Since he took charge, Brazil have played 16 World Cup qualifiers, winning 14 of them and drawing the other two, while scoring 42 goals and conceding just five. He guided the team to the World Cup in Russia with ease and looks likely to do the same again for the tournament in Qatar.