Has a new Brazilian “magic quartet” emerged? Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Phillippe Coutinho and Willian started together for the first time as Tite’s men rounded off their World Cup preparations with a hugely impressive 3-0 win over Austria on Sunday.
During the qualification campaign, Willian and Coutinho were battling for a place on the right side of the attack. But now there is room for both, which has a lot to do with the evolution that has taken place in central midfield.
Tite took over a struggling side and sent it coasting into the World Cup, with 10 wins and two draws, 30 goals scored and three conceded. At that point, the team virtually picked itself and the trio in central midfield had a classic ring to it: One to get the ball, one to give it and one to go.
Casemiro was the ball winner. Renato Augusto the organiser, knitting the side together with his passing. And Paulinho charged forward into the opposing penalty area, arriving as an element of surprise.
All of this worked to perfection against South American opposition, even if it has to be said that the standard of play in qualification was the lowest the continent had seen in a while. There was also the question of style: Most of Brazil’s opponents dropped deep, defending their own penalty area as if it were the Alamo.
Tite was aware that the challenge in the World Cup would be different. The best European sides are better at having controlled possession, they play higher up the field and they can win the ball and exploit space behind attacking full-backs. So Brazil’s manager thought about adding extra midfield protection and this coincided with a dip in the form of Renato Augusto, who lost his place to Fernandinho.
This may have improved the midfield marking, but it came at a price, as became clear in the recent friendly against Croatia. In the first half especially, Croatia pressed high with a type of tactic that Brazil had not faced and a midfield of Casemiro, Fernandinho and Paulinho lacked the passing nous to play into the game.
At half time Fernandinho gave way to Neymar and Brazil began to find their football. And so with Neymar fit enough to start in Austria, in effect Coutinho was playing instead of Fernandinho (Renato Augusto is not fully fit). The midfield trio is made up of Casemiro, Paulinho and Coutinho, which gives much more of an attacking balance to the side.
It all worked well, especially in the second half when space opened up. And it seems that this is the formation that will start the World Cup against Switzerland next Sunday. It could be exhilarating, but comes with a question mark. Will Tite field the new magic quartet in decisive games?
The answer lies in the characteristics of Coutinho. Is he a genuine midfielder, or a support striker? It is clear to everyone that he is a class act in the latter role — he showed it with the beautifully taken third goal vs. Austria — but most of his best work is undeniably done in the last 30 metres of the field. And playing him in the midfield trio will require that he cover much more ground.
In the first half, before Gabriel Jesus had given Brazil the lead, Austria missed a chance to break the deadlock, Marko Arnautovic scuffing his shot over the bar. The opportunity arose because Coutinho committed the cardinal sin of a midfielder: He failed to track the run of left-back Stefan Lainer, who reached the touchline and pulled back his cross.
On this occasion, Brazil got away with it. When it really matters, though, the outcome might be different. Can they win a World Cup in Europe, which they have not done for 60 years, with such an attacking line-up? With the “magic quartet” capable of making the ball fly, it should be fun finding out.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.