Brazil, Uruguay have opportunity to experiment with attacking options
With no competitive games until next June, national team football in South America is still going through its silly season.
Colombia have no permanent coach and no games lined up for these FIFA dates. Argentina still have a caretaker coach in charge for their two games against Mexico. Ecuador have appointed Hernan Dario Gomez, but he admits that his team to face Peru and Panama is still at the experimental stage.
Some friendlies, though, are more serious than others. And the South American highlight over the next few days should be provided by the meeting of Brazil and Uruguay in London. These were the continent's best two sides in the recent World Cup in Russia -- both reached the quarterfinals. And they are the favourites for the next competition down the line, the Copa America that kicks off in seven months' time.
Brazil are next year's hosts. On all four occasions they have staged the Copa, Brazil have won the trophy -- so there is a lot to live up to. And coach Tite accepts that his job is on the line. So while some South American teams have their eyes on the long term, Brazil are forced to dwell on the here and now. Marcelo, Casemiro and Phillippe Coutinho have all pulled out injured. They were among 14 of the World Cup squad to be called up for these games (Brazil also face Cameroon next Tuesday).
Tite, then, will have to do some tinkering. But the basic shape of his lineup is likely to remain unchanged. He likes to see his team as a 4-1-4-1, although a 4-3-3 is just as valid. Roberto Firmino looks set to continue at centre-forward. This was not a notable success against Argentina last month, so Tite will relish time on the training field. Firmino's strength is not slipping behind the opposing defensive line -- it is dropping to combine. This can only work if others provide the attacking depth.
Tite will be looking for Neymar to burst through from the left. But since Brazil's captain also likes to drop deep and orchestrate, there could be an opportunity for Richarlison on the right. The Everton man is a mixture of wide striker and centre-forward. He gave the team more thrust against Argentina when he replaced Gabriel Jesus on the right wing. And if Firmino is to stay at centre-forward, then Richarlison's capacity to break into the box could be important.
Tite will also look for one of his midfield trio to keep making forward runs -- hence the recall of Paulinho. Walace would the natural replacement for Casemiro as the holding midfielder, with Arthur to organise. The third member of the midfield trio has to be more attacking. In the absence of Coutinho, it could have been the Milan-bound Lucas Paqueta. But with the Brazilian league reaching the home straight, Tite has avoided calling up home-based players, and so Paulinho has been given another chance to demonstrate the excellence of the timing of his attacking runs.
Since the World Cup, Tite has thought long and hard about the need to balance out his team. The conclusion is clear: Against quality opponents, the only means of getting away with such an attacking midfield is to secure the full-backs. Rather than the auxiliary wingers of recent decades, he is looking for full-backs who can construct from deep and hold their defensive position.
This is especially interesting on Friday, because Uruguay should have their feared strike combo of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani back in harness for the first time since the second-round World Cup win over Portugal. The Uruguayans can also parade their young crop of midfielders, a generation who have enthused coach Oscar Washington Tabarez and encouraged him to stay in his job for four more years. Matias Vecino will hold; Lucas Torreira, on home ground, will play a vital mixed role; and Rodrigo Bentancur will look to dictate the rhythm.
But who will be the fourth man in midfield? There are plenty of options. The attacking move would be playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta, or PSV's lanky Gaston Pereiro. Federico Valverde would supply more controlled possession, while Carlos Sanchez is full of lung power down the right.
The probability is that Uruguay will go for the more cautious option -- with good reason. Injuries have robbed them of goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, first-choice centre-back partnership of captain Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, plus their three immediate reserves. Uruguay have desperately been scrambling round for central defenders, and will take the field at the Emirates with a patched up, improvised, last-minute defence.