At a recent elite football reception, one high-profile European coach was asked to give his thoughts about the World Cup field, and whether anything stood out among the low-level tactics. The manager was unhesitant, immediately pointing to the immense physical power of Brazil’s midfield. “I think they’re just capable of overrunning so many sides, and then have the talent to pick them off.”
That talent is obviously led by Neymar but it is the force of that midfield – Casemiro, Fernandinho and Paulinho – that has attracted focus and brought something particularly distinctive to Brazil. It might well be their key unique advantage over all the other favourites, and might well tempt a touch of pop psychology.
It is tempting to think that such an emphasis on physical power is a subconscious response to the shocking fragility shown in that 7-1 defeat to Germany – something that is really going to hang over everything Brazil do, and be mentioned at every turn, until they actually go and win the World Cup again to banish it – except there is really nothing subconscious about anything Tite does with his teams.
This is a manager who maybe more studiously thinks about the game than anyone at this World Cup, and almost anyone in the wider football world. When his dull Corinthians side finished 10th in the 2013 Brazilian league season, having scored just 27 goals in 38 games, the then 53-year-old concluded that he needed to take a break from management for a while to go and properly think about how he actually coached.
Tite decided to go to Europe for a year to watch how the continent’s top managers train, and intensely study the prevailing tactical trends. The result from that, as well as his gradual work with the Brazilian team on taking over in 2016, was this: an immensely impressive qualification campaign in which, across 12 games, Brazil recorded 10 wins, suffered no defeats, scored 30 goals conceded just three times.
It also means the expectation on Sunday against Switzerland in Rostov-on-Don is this: a similar display of strength – in every sense – as well as probably the most convincing display of all the favourites so far.
It’s just that Switzerland are probably precisely the kind of awkward side you don’t want to face when you really need a positive in your first World Cup match back after a trauma as profound as that in the Mineirao.
Switzerland’s recent placing of sixth in the world rankings was probably a mere product of the algorithm rather than a true reflection of their quality, but the reality is that they will always give you a game, always make life difficult for you.
They’re just so awkward, something that maybe makes this fixture more awkward for Brazil than one against one of the other favourites, since they’re still expected to win.
There’s also the way the very nature of this fixture might actually fix a problem for the Swiss. Manager Vladimir Petkovic has been attempting to get the side away from the “little Switzerland” mindset that has seen them set up a reactive and largely defensive game for most of the last few tournaments. But attempting to play on the front foot – even with creators like Xherdan Shaqiri – hasn’t fully suited them. This game will however demand they return to the more counter-attacking approach that just sits more comfortably with them.
It’s just that Tite himself is equally comfortable with adapting further.
This is another reason why this Brazil side and their manager stand out. While the country’s entire coaching culture is now seen as severely behind the times – or, according to one source, “poisonous” – Tite is anything but. It’s not just that he broke away in so many ways to go and think about things, but how he continues to test his own coaching ideas.
The former midfielder arranged a friendly with England back in November because he specifically wanted to come up against a team who had individual talent, but would naturally sit back deep against Brazil.
Tite’s side could thereby only draw 0-0 in what was one of the worst performances of his reign, with Neymar crowded out and Gabriel Jesus isolated. For the manager, though, that was precisely the point of the warm-up. It was an experiment. He wanted to further test his ideas, so he could then adapt them. Here, Tite had the evidence required to dictate that he would have to evolve, and has worked on adding much more variability to that midfield while keeping its power.
It means that, against a side like Switzerland, the Brazilian manager is highly likely to just play Casemiro at the base of midfield, and maybe remove Paulinho for Philippe Coutinho.
The physical force would still be there, but with sufficient links ahead of it to keep Brazil fluid, to keep Neymar regularly on the ball in dangerous areas.
And that is a Neymar who is not just coming into his prime at the age of 26, but also looks like he might be in one of those situations where he actually suffered an unfortunate injury at a particularly fortunate time in a World Cup year. He is physically fresh, but has also played just enough football as he builds himself up.
Tite has similarly built Brazil up again, through a lot of muscle, but only after a lot of thought. Perfect for a team who at the last World Cup went through a psychodrama. There’s just the imperfect toil of Switzerland to come. That will tell a lot over how assuredly they stand.