Gareth Southgate has earned plaudits for his recent England selections, and rightly so. He has been bold in his decision-making and given chances to youth with an eye on the national team’s future. But, against Brazil, his new-look side will come under scrutiny from one of the finest attacks in international football.
The classic Brazilian game, for many, came to a painful end during the 1990s. Fluid and attack-minded midfields creating chances for fast, skilful forward lines were replaced with functional midfields acting as platforms for the attacking talent. Dream-like ingenuity was succeeded by a ruthless efficiency.
That focus on efficacy remains, but today’s Brazil are an entertaining outfit in their own way. While they won’t stack up to their esteemed predecessors from the 1950s, ‘70s and ‘80s, they have an abundance of quality in forward areas and an understanding of how best to use it.
Brazil were, by quite some distance, the top scorers in the South American 2018 World Cup qualifying section. They hit a remarkable 41 goals in 18 outings – just under 2.3 per game – to top the table and comfortably secure their passage through to the finals in Russia next summer. Along the way they trashed Argentina, Uruguay and Chile by three goals or more.
Selecao boss Tite is credited with the transformation in fortunes, though he has been helped by an increasingly prolific cast of attackers. Individuals playing for some of the top clubs in England, Spain and Italy must compete for three spots within the manager’s 4-3-3 system, meaning there is intense competition for places.
HOW BRAZIL LINE UP
Brazil have always had a penchant for attack-minded full-backs. For many of today’s football fans, there will be fond memories of Cafu and Roberto Carlos raiding their respective flanks, supplying accurate curled crosses and thunderbolt shots.
This tradition remains in place in 2017, though Tite’s side don’t make the same use of them. The last time Brazil won the World Cup, in 2002, they used a back three to allow Cafu and Carlos full licence to roam; the current edition doesn’t offer the same full-back freedom.
Dani Alves and Marcelo are the first-choice full-backs, though both have faced competition. The former has seen off Manchester City’s Danilo and Monaco’s Fabinho, while the latter has kept his place ahead of Juventus’ Alex Sandro, a one-time Chelsea transfer target.
The pair are naturally inclined to get forward, as both have done for their clubs for many years, but they tend to stay slightly deeper for Brazil within a back four. This is done to create a platform for the front three.
There is a similar emphasis in the centre, where Tite prefers industrious types such as Paulinho to more creative outlets. His three-man midfield generally involves a defensive midfielder – Real Madrid’s Casemiro – supporting a twosome comprised of ball-winners and runners.
The outer two get forward to aid attacks, particularly in transitions after winning back the ball, but they aren’t expected to provide the real source of danger. Again, that comes from the front three. England will have a tough job on their hands stultifying that trident, which often includes Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Barcelona transfer target Philippe Coutinho.
BRAZIL’S FRONT THREE
In the past, Neymar has often been called upon to lead the line for his country, playing a role he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in. However, in recent times he has reverted to his preferred left wing position, from where he can cut inside and dribble at defences.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward, who has seven goals and five assists from eight Ligue 1 appearances this term, has been free to move left thanks to the rise of Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City frontman is a mobile striker who provides movement, skill and, of course, sound finishing, something proven by his seven goals in ten Premier League games in 2017/18.
The Neymar/Gabriel Jesus double act is a potent one, and is almost certain to start at next summer’s World Cup barring any major injuries or losses of form. On the right, however, there is a devastating queue of talent aiming to line up alongside them.
Liverpool star Coutinho currently leads the race, even though he is more comfortable on the left or in midfield. His technical brilliance adds control and calculation to a high-speed front three.
But, if Brazil want to go for pace, they could opt for Juventus winger Douglas Costa, a player whose quick feet make him almost impossible to stop at full throttle. Alternately, if they want an extra dose of grace they could call upon Roberto Firmino, and if they need tactical intelligence and balance they can select Chelsea’s Willian.
Tite hasn’t even begun to tap into the quality at his disposal by that point, though. Watford sensation Richarlison can’t be too far away from his first senior call-up having been directly involved in six goals in 11 Premier League games, while PSG speed merchant Lucas Moura could come back into contention should he secure a move and regular game time in January.
Lazio’s Felipe Anderson would make a good back-up to Willian considering his flexibility, awareness, work ethic and pace, while Anderson Talisca, Jonas and Malcom continue to contribute to their teams’ goals scored columns in Turkey, Portugal and France respectively.
Brazil haven’t gone back in time – they are still a highly functional side who thrill in offensive transitions and let their attackers do most of the attacking. But, thanks to the quality and quantity of forwards at their disposal, their efficient tactics can lead to exhilarating football.