Four years on from the heartache and anguish of Mineirazo, Brazil are ready to reclaim their throne – 2014 didn’t go the way it was supposed to.
Having sailed through the group stages, the host nation fended off two fellow South American nations in Chile and Colombia before being brought to their knees by a ruthless Germany side in the semi-final.
With Neymar injured, Brazil collapsed in the most comical fashion, the eventual 1-7 scoreline enough for several media publications to proclaim it the most humiliating defeat for a host in World Cup history. It was hard to argue.
Unsurprisingly, having lived out his worst nightmare, head coach Luis Felipe Scolari – who led his country to World Cup glory in 2002, of course – resigned.
The defeat to Germany not only plunged a country that breathes its football into mourning, it triggered a hard reboot of the national side, one designed to help extinguish memories of their darkest night.
Road to the World Cup
A lot can happen in four years, of course – and a lot has happened to Brazil post-embarrassment. Dunga, like Scolari, returned for a second crack at the job but, following early eliminations from the Copa América in 2015 and 2016, he was sacked and succeeded by Tite.
And it’s been under the former Corinthians boss that Brazil have begun to convincingly shrug off the cobwebs of 2014. Yes, rumblings of their demise have been proven premature, with Tite methodically and adeptly putting the pieces back together after being appointed in June 2016.
When the 57-year-old took over, Brazil were staring down the barrel at the unthinkable: failing to qualify for the World Cup. Languishing down in sixth in the CONMEBOL qualifying standings, Tite engineered a remarkable turnaround, one which restored the nation’s faith in their national team after an extended period of difficult soul-searching.
Tite’s impact was immediate and significant with his appointment being followed by a seven-game winning streak which helped the five-time champions become the first nation to qualify for Russia.
In the space of 18 months, Tite successfully reinvented and rejuvenated Brazil, catapulting them from the brink of the abyss to standing tall as the pre-tournament favourites.
The turnaround was indeed difficult to overstate. Dunga won just five of his 12 competitive games in charge, a disappointing record made to look borderline catastrophic when compared to Tite’s first eight in charge: eight wins, 24 goals scored and just two conceded (a penalty and an own goal).
Tite, like his predecessors, is a pragmatist, but one who truly recognises where the strength of this Brazil team lies. Whereas Scolari had emphasised the importance of attacking full-backs before Dunga tinkered and toiled without ever triumphing, Tite has reintroduced a sense of coherence and balance to Brazil.
Brazil are still, in many ways, antithetical to the free-flowing and beautiful footballing sides of 1970 and 1982, but the immediate concern during this difficult period of reinvention was to get them winning again – and Tite has found a formula that works.
Key to that has been ensuring that Brazil’s midfield control games. After succeeding Dunga, Tite turned to a trusted lieutenant in Renato Augusto, who had served his coach so well during their time together at Corinthians, a partnership which yielded the Campeonato Brasileiro title and saw Augusto named the player of the year.
Tite favours either a 4-1-2-3 or 4-4-2. Fernandinho has provided Augusto stiff competition to be the side’s anchor, while Paulinho has been a favourite of Tite’s, the Barcelona midfielder providing energy and tactical discipline in the centre.
They sit in front of a back four expected to be made up of Marquinhos and Miranda in the middle, with Marcelo at left-back, while the right-back slot is up for grabs following Dani Alves’ injury. Liverpool transfer target Alisson is the first-choice goalkeeper.
Up front, Neymar is expected to have returned to full fitness in time to line-up alongside Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus. With Roberto Firmino, Willian and Douglas Costa also pushing for starting berths in attack, Brazil are well-stocked in the forwards department.
Unsurprising perhaps, given they finished top of the CONMEBOL group, but Brazil boasted the best goals-per-game ratio for South American teams in qualifying, with 2.27.
With 41 goals, the Seleção scored nine more times than the second-deadliest side, Uruguay, and more than double their arch-rivals Argentina, who only managed a paltry 19.
And, reflecting their rediscovered authority in midfield, Brazil won possession in the middle third 23.16 times per game, placing them ever-so-slightly behind leaders Colombia (23.27) in that category.
Tite’s Brazil have been equally tough and dependable at the back, too. Including friendlies, Brazil have conceded only three goals in their last ten games, keeping clean sheets against England, Russia and Germany along the way. Indeed, during qualifying, Tite’s Brazil won possession in the defensive third 363 times (20.16 per game), making them the best South American nation in that regard.
Star player: Neymar
Neymar, without question. Having starred in 2014 with four goals in five games, the forward was forced to watch from the stands as Germany reigned supreme in Belo Horizonte after a challenge by Colombia’s Juan Zúñiga ended his tournament prematurely.
Since then, Neymar won the Champions League with Barcelona before sensationally jumping ship in a world-record move to Paris Saint-Germain. Again, injury ended things early but the 26-year-old is expected to be fully fit and ready to fire by the time Brazil face Switzerland on June 17.
Neymar scored six times during qualifying but also averaged 1.96 open-play key passes per game, second only to Lionel Messi in CONMEBOL.
Neymar was still in inspired form, at times, though and, with an incredible 5.54 successful take-ons per 90, he tops the charts in all federations in that category.
2014 may have ended in disastrous fashion but Russia represents an opportunity for Neymar to showcase his considerable gifts and help his country complete the ultimate tale of redemption.
As already mentioned, Brazil have been reinvigorated under Tite. Intelligent, thoughtful, charismatic and highly respected, the 2012 Copa Libertadores winner boasts an impressive 78.95 per cent winning average and has been tipped for a successful coaching career in Europe in the future.
The intercontinental jump would be enough to overwhelm most managers but Tite is remarkably rounded and well-versed in footballing cultures beyond his home country. During a year-long sabbatical, Tite visited London to observe Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal as well as Spain to pick the brain of then Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti.
Naturally, the nation expects the climactic image of the 2018 World Cup to be Brazil hoisting the trophy towards the Russian sky.
However, question marks remain over how sternly Brazil have been tested in the lead up to the tournament. Friendlies are not reliable barometers of a team’s preparedness and, while they topped the CONMEBOL group, they did so thanks, at least in part, to the underwhelming form of Argentina, Colombia and Chile (who failed to qualify).
Pitted against Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica in Group E, Brazil are heavily expected to top their group. Their trickiest group clash will be against the Swiss and only from that opener can be we begin to get a clear sense of Brazil’s credentials.
With Coutinho, Jesus, Neymar et al, Tite has a squad brimming with world-class ability at his disposal, but to win, they will inevitably have to go through a side like Germany, Spain or France. And it’s those games that will separate the men from the boys.