Brazil, Tite facing selection issues ahead of World Cup opener
Football can be fascinating even when it is dull. The first half of Brazil's World Cup warm-up friendly against Croatia is a case in point. Brazil ended up winning 2-0, but they were shaded in a first half that will surely leave coach Tite with much to ponder.
It is seldom wise to attach too much importance to the results of warm-up friendlies. Germany, after all, have just been beaten by Austria. But looking beyond the result, there is plenty to observe about the way that the team functions on the field and the intriguing aspect of Sunday's match at Anfield was the way that Brazil had to face a different kind of challenge.
Croatia occasionally pressed Brazil close to their own goal and throughout the first half, they maintained a high block. They were not charging forward, per se -- few teams do that against Brazil -- but neither were they trying to protect themselves by defending deep the way that most of Brazil's recent opponents have set up against them.
The high block is hard to keep up for the full 90 minutes, especially in a warm friendly full of second-half substitutions. But its effectiveness in the first half was beyond dispute. Brazil found it very hard to play their way up the field, which might give Tite food for thought regarding a number of positions in his team.
One is the centre of defence. During qualification, the first-choice partnership was Marquinhos and Miranda, with Thiago Silva on the bench. In recent months, though, Thiago Silva has displaced Marquinhos again. Tite has frequently confessed that this is proving to a very difficult decision. He refers to Thiago Silva as a "constructive centre-back," leading to the conclusion that superior passing ability is tipping the balance.
But the Thiago Silva-Miranda partnership is one of two veterans, and Marquinhos is quicker. At Liverpool on Sunday, especially in the first half, there were times when the centre-backs, feeling under pressure, dropped too deep and the side was too spaced out as a consequence. Might Marquinhos be about to return?
Equally, might Fernandinho be on the verge of losing his starting spot? During qualification the Manchester City midfielder was Casemiro's reserve. Subsequently, he has come into the team alongside Casemiro in a bid to balance the side out and give extra protection. The man to give way was Renato Augusto, who was the player who did most to knit the lines of the team together during the arduous qualification campaign. This capacity was badly missed on Sunday.
Renato Augusto was not at Liverpool, remaining in London for treatment on an injured knee. But in his absence, his stock must surely have risen. A central midfield of Casemiro, Fernandinho and Paulinho doesn't offer enough when the team is battling to achieve controlled possession. Fernandinho gave way for Neymar at the interval and the game changed. Without Fernandinho, the team is more open and there is surely a need for more defensive pace: another road that leads to Marquinhos' eventual reinstatement.
One player who could be happy with his performance, even in the first half, was Willian. In recent times he has lost his position on the right flank to Phillippe Coutinho, and he only started against Croatia because Neymar was eased back after the interval. But the Chelsea winger was the most effective attacking weapon in the first half, the target of the "out" ball that enabled Brazil to get higher up the field. He also combined well with his teammates: the move for Neymar's deadlock-breaking goal began with his intelligent run and cross-field pass.
Can Willian retain his place even after Neymar returns to the starting line-up? The answer depends on what the coach does with Coutinho, who had a poor first half wide on the left and was slightly better after the break in a more centralised role. Is he a genuine attacking midfielder rather than a support striker? If Tite decides that he is not, then Coutinho is back to competing with a recharged Willian. Renato Augusto, once fit, comes right back into contention as well.
Sunday's 2-0 win, with Neymar emphatically back, sends Brazil swaggering on towards Russia. But there is still much for Tite to ponder before naming the starting line up for next Sunday's friendly against Austria.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.