Brazil boss Tite finds himself in difficult spot in pursuit of Copa title
At the 2016 Copa America, Brazil went into their third group game against Peru on a record of one win and one draw. Then they lost 1-0, were eliminated from the competition and coach Dunga lost his job, to be replaced by Tite.
And now, three years on, Tite finds himself in a position which is both similar and different. Once more, after a win and a draw, Peru are the final group opponents. Brazil's big advantage this time is the format of the competition. The 2016 tournament was a specially enlarged version. Sixteen teams went into the group phase. Half of them failed to make the quarterfinals.
In 2019 there are the customary 12 teams, meaning that only four fall by the wayside. Brazil can finish third in the group and still make it to the quarterfinals. In the nine previous versions of the 12-team Copa, never has a side been eliminated in the group phase with Brazil's current total of 4 points. This time, then, the Peru game is not a matter of tournament life and death. But it does feature a Brazil coach under serious pressure -- and for Tite this is the first time it has happened in his reign of almost three years.
After immediately presiding over a dramatic improvement in both results and performance back in 2016, he found himself for a while in the strange position for a Brazil coach of being a popular figure with virtually the entire population. It was clearly too good to last. No one wins all the time -- and the pressure has been slowly building on him ever since last year's 2-1 defeat to Belgium in the quarterfinals at the World Cup in Russia.
At the end of Tuesday's goalless draw against Venezuela, his name was top of the list of trending topics on social media, with many expressing anger at his selections and substitutions. There are a dearth of obvious candidates to replace him, but that has not stopped TV and radio shows from speculating.
And he will surely feel the pressure on Saturday. True, the game takes place at the home stadium of Corinthians, a club with whom he enjoyed two splendid and successful spells. But the Sao Paulo crowd are notoriously critical of the Brazil national team. Weaned on tales of the likes of Pele, they are quick to remind the players of how far they are falling short of the required standard. If Brazil struggle to find an early goal, they may end up playing with home disadvantage.
Even under fire, Tite retains an impressive dignity. Lesser figures would have ranted and raved about the use of Video Assistant Referee (VAR), which cost Brazil two goals against the Venezuelans. Tite made a point of making absolutely no complaint. Sporting justice had been carried out, he said. But he is clearly feeling some of the pressure that goes with the job. Coaching Brazil has given him an experience that he had never before gone through, and one which may continue to have an impact on his thinking.
His previous high profile games in front of an international audience -- the 2012 Copa Libertadores final for Corinthians against Boca Juniors and that year's Club World Cup final against Chelsea are the stand out examples -- ended in victory. That quarterfinal against Belgium, however, ended in defeat. Tite is like a boxer who has suffered his first knock out, endlessly dwelling on where it went wrong. He has confessed that he finds himself in the middle of the night willing a Brazil equaliser, or taking away the arm of Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois when he made a dramatic late save.
He admits that the balance of the side was not quite right on that fateful evening in Kazan. He left his side too open. Since then he has sought more defensive solidity from the midfield and from the full-backs. When his team played Bolivia in the opening match of the Copa, it was almost as if the coach had sent them out for a revenge match against the Belgians.
And there is another change he has made. A huge World Cup regret was the decision to stick with Gabriel Jesus at centre-forward. Tite wishes he had replaced him earlier with Roberto Firmino. Then everything might have been different. This affirmation, which is untestable, has been allowed to fester into fact. Jesus was even left out of Brazil's first post-World Cup squad -- a clear indication of the way the coach's mind has been working. And so, for a full year, Firmino has been the first choice. It has yet to work well. Firmino is a magnificent player, a superb component of Liverpool's dashing front three. But the context there is very different from that of Brazil. And Jurgen Klopp can work things out on the training ground day after day -- a luxury Tite does not enjoy.
It was a luxury the Brazil coach hoped to enjoy in the build up to the Copa America, but Liverpool's participation in the Champions League final ensured that Firmino turned up late. Precious time was lost. Firmino clearly lacks penalty area presence -- the idea is that this can be supplied by Richarlison, cutting in from the right. This has been a relative success -- but Brazil have yet to get anything like full value from Firmino's ability to drop and combine. Liverpool do not use a playmaker. With Brazil there is a suspicion that Firmino and Philippe Coutinho seek to use the same space. But when Gabriel Jesus came on against Venezuela, it was to play from the flank. Richarlison and David Neres were sacrificed.
But Firmino stayed put, as if the coach had decided that there was no alternative. There are occasional flickers of combination, and as the team makes progress in the competition the pieces may start to fit together. But up until now the team's attacking performance does not add up to the sum of its parts. The individual names are much better than the collective outcome. And even the individual names are subject to an awkward question; are these players merely good members of a supporting cast?
It was impossible to watch the Venezuela game without thinking that, at some point during the 90 minutes, Neymar would have made an impact. Tite, though, did not have a fully fit Neymar during the World Cup, and he does not have him at all now. He was also missing from that centenary Copa three years ago. Tite will have to win this one without him. He may need to win the 2019 Copa to keep his job. And winning the 2019 Copa may be the only way he can free his mind from losing the 2018 World Cup.