Brazil set a new record for most points in CONMEBOL qualifiers, and have not looked back since losing the Copa America final against Argentina last year; South American football expert Tim Vickery speaks to Ben Grounds about their World Cup chances
Thursday 24 November 2022 09:19, UK
Brazil as a nation don't lack confidence when it comes to the fortunes of their football team. For this World Cup, those confidence levels are sky-high, and it's clear to see why.
Tite has got them playing well, Neymar is having a superb season at Paris Saint-Germain and their squad depth is off the charts.
Neymardependência is a term that has been used frequently over the past decade as Brazil have sought a sixth World Cup title.
The dependency on Neymar has been there, and both Jamie Redknapp and Gary Neville have tipped the PSG forward to be the star of the tournament.
But everything is gelling for the Seleção.
Crucially, there is belief in the manager. There have been times in the past when the spotlight has been on the man in charge to get the best out of the country's most technically gifted players - but there is no such scrutiny this time around.
Goalkeepers: Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Man City), Weverton (Palmeiras)
Defenders: Dani Alves (Pumas), Danilo (Juventus), Alex Sandro (Juventus), Alex Telles (Seville), Bremer (Juventus), Eder Militao (Real Madrid), Marquinhos (PSG), Thiago Silva (Chelsea)
Midfielders: Bruno Guimaraes (Newcastle), Casemiro (Manchester United), Everton Ribeiro (Flamengo), Fabinho (Liverpool), Fred (Manchester United), Lucas Paqueta (West Ham)
Forwards: Antony (Manchester United), Gabriel Jesus (Arsenal), Gabriel Martinelli (Arsenal), Neymar (PSG), Pedro (Flamengo), Raphinha (Barcelona), Richarlison (Tottenham), Rodrygo (Real Madrid), Vinicius Jr (Real Madrid)
South American football expert Tim Vickery tells Sky Sports: "What we've seen during the qualifying campaign is the benefit of a complete cycle.
"Going into the last World Cup, he'd had less than two years. He's now had the complete cycle heading into this World Cup and it's just given him much more time to work.
"Everything that Tite has tried has worked. It's all changed since they lost the final of Copa America last year to Argentina. Since then, they've gone 15 games unbeaten - 12 wins and three draws - 38 scored, five conceded.
"The only problem during the build-up to the World Cup is that everything has gone too well."
Tite has always brought a club-management style to his coaching, and his selections have been vindicated so far. There is a lot of positivity surrounding the Brazil camp. What could possibly go wrong...
Such are Brazil's wealth of options, you really do have to nit-pick to find areas of possible weakness. One or two question marks over the make-up of the defence remain. Gabriel Magalhaes has performed well for Arsenal but was left out of the World Cup squad.
Vickery adds: "With Magalhaes, I don't understand it as he was in the squad consistently for almost a year and didn't get a game. He's the only left-footed centre-back that they've got.
"In the friendlies against Ghana and Tunisia in September, you thought that would be the time they'd look at him, but they dropped him entirely and brought in Gleison Bremer of Juventus and Roger Ibanez of Roma.
"I've absolutely no idea why, but Tite was obviously not convinced by him. Something has happened there, and I don't know what it is. Bremer has been selected and Gabriel has been squeezed out. It's a big surprise."
The other three centre-back options are more or less settled with Eder Militao, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos battling it out for a regular start.
Vickery says: "The full-backs have totally different roles now for Brazil from what you'd expect. They're not auxiliary wingers. Now that they've got wingers, they don't need a Roberto Carlos or a Cafu going up and down the flanks all the time.
"The model Tite's looking for full-backs is much more like we see at Man City rather than at Liverpool. Their role is less flashy but the right-back will tuck in as an extra midfielder to cover that defensive space.
"The left-back will have a little bit more licence to in Alex Sandro, to cut into the attacking line with an element of surprise but again, what they're looking for from the full-backs is something much less glamorous than you might expect from Brazil full-backs.
"Danilo and Alex Sandro aren't world-class players but they're not expected to do world-class things."
"I think Danilo is going to be first-choice right-back. But Militao can also play in that area, not only at centre-back. It's a thought that is flickering in Tite's mind. That's a way of getting yet another attacking player into his squad."
Where do you start with Brazil's offensive players?
Well, it could come down to form and fitness as there really is very little that separates many of those in contention. For context, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli were on the outside watching in as recently as September.
In those international friendlies, Richarlison firmly put forward his case for a regular starting berth, but arguably Liverpool's most potent forward this term has been Roberto Firmino - yet he has missed out on selection. It is a positively engrossing bun fight to play alongside Neymar it would seem.
There's Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo of Real Madrid, Manchester United's Antony and Barcelona's Raphinha who will all be involved barring injury.
"One of the things he's been looking at is just little tweaks," says Vickery of Tite's approach during the final preparatory matches. "Now, they have three consolidated ways of playing. The idea is the same, but they've just got little tweaks in the formation that they can use for different games or inside different games.
"More important than those numbers is that they've now got three consolidated ways of playing. The first one that really came through after that Copa American defeat, they brought Raphinha into the side. At the time, he wasn't well-known in Brazil at all.
"I've never seen a player take to playing for the Brazilian national team as easily as he has. He was on one flank and then Vinicius Junior exploded on the other flank as an international star last season.
"Having these two wingers made the team very direct, with Neymar floating around as a false nine. Lucas Paqueta would then be used as the most advanced of a midfield three as he had a sweet thing going with Neymar.
"That was the first thing they worked on. The second aspect that trialled was looking at a centre forward. Richarlison had a difficult start to last season because Everton bizarrely let him play in the Copa America and then let him play in the Olympics as well.
"He didn't have any close season at all, and his fitness paid a price for it during last season. For a few months, he wasn't 100 per cent and wasn't playing particularly well but he came firing back towards the second half of last season with Everton so Brazil wanted to look at him as a centre forward.
"With the players they've got setting up the play, they don't need a centre forward who can do that. They want one with a penalty area presence. He's now got seven goals for Brazil in his last six games. He's absolutely flying, and once you're doing that it becomes harder to leave him out.
"The first thing Tite looked at in terms of getting a centre forward into the team was dropping one of the wingers. Vinicius hasn't quite done as well as Raphinha so far, so they've looked at bringing in Richarlison and using Paqueta as a false winger who can cut inside and link up with Neymar.
"It's a slight tweak, and it may now be their first-choice formation. But then, what if Brazil are playing very defensive opponents or if we're behind and chasing the game? What if we wanted both wingers and a centre forward?
"It's something they looked at in September against Ghana when effectively Brazil played Paqueta as the second man in midfield in place of Fred. That's the ultra-attacking system they used against Ghana to see how it would work out and they won the game by half-time. They hardly suffered any problems at all so they've got that up their locker as well."
Brazil feel the fear as the world's most envied team - but have the temperament and quality to rule in Qatar.
For a squad of such talent and a nation of such gilded World Cup history, Brazil are looking up ambitiously at a sixth title, not down nervously at the other contenders snapping at their heels.
The glorious cavalry charge from Bogota to Doha gathers speed. The legacy of Pele, Zagallo, Tostao, Garrincha is carried by Tite's talented class of '22 to the Middle East.
Philippe Coutinho has so much talent, and 68 caps for his country, but his failure this season to impose himself at Aston Villa does not provide a problem.
Bruno Guimaraes and Lucas Paqueta are both perfectly capable of providing the bullets to unlock the very best teams at international level. There is no lack of cohesion nor cutting edge, at least on the evidence of the qualifying campaign.
Casemiro, like Richarlison, didn't shy away from a career move in a World Cup year and is only just getting up to speed with Erik ten Hag's way of playing having waited patiently on the bench. Tite won't be concerned.
"I don't think club form is going to worry him greatly with anyone," says Vickery. "He's got his own process going. Some people are saying, 'Gabriel Jesus is playing much better than Richarlison' - but in Tite's process, Jesus has got one goal in 20 and Richarlison has scored seven in six. Who are you going to pick?
"Gabriel Jesus is in, but his last competitive goal for Brazil was almost three and a half years ago. He went 19 games without scoring and he started most of them, but he's got his confidence back. Unless something significant happens with injury, you can't see how he starts.
"As a wide striker, they've got options as genuine wingers and as a forward, the thinking is that Richarlison offers more as a penalty-area operator. With Martinelli, every good performance was putting a question mark in the coach's mind, and in the end, he felt he had to include him."
One doesn't suspect Brazil will run into any sort of trouble during the group stages.
They might not until at least the quarter-finals, all being even with Group H, where Portugal's superiority should mean they finish top and therefore miss a last-16 date with the South Americans.
With Vinicius and Rodrygo involved, Tite's final selection is a statement of intent for the future but he also honours the past and those who have served him so well to this point.
Thiago Silva is 38 and his current contract with Chelsea expires at the end of the season. The veteran warhorse would like a new deal sorted before heading to Qatar. His entire time at the club has been geared towards this moment. Over two decades of accolades, but his greatest body of work could still lie ahead if his career is capped by World Cup gold.
For a player who spoke so emotionally about returning to face Milan recently for Chelsea, the possibility of captaining his country at a World Cup ratchets up those emotions still tenfold.
Yet the armband will not weigh heavy on him. A sense of control comes from a fourth finals with Brazil and he will not let his last - maybe best - shot at glory pass him by.
Unused at 2010 in South Africa and suspended for the Mineiraço - the 7-1 thrashing to Germany - in 2014, Silva was then partnered with Miranda at the 2018 World Cup and his pace in a back four was exposed by Belgium in the quarter-finals.
Whether Silva is trusted again as part of a back four by Tite remains one of his "biggest calls" according to Vickery.
"Tite says Casemiro is his competitive leader, and I'm not sure what he's going to do with Thiago Silva. I think that's one of the biggest decisions that he's got to make.
"Does he go with Silva or does he go with Militao? This is definitely a doubt in his mind. At the last World Cup, on the eve of the competition, he dropped Marquinhos and brought in Silva. I think that was a colossal mistake, which Tite would now accept.
"Not necessarily the inclusion of Thiago Silva, but in having him and Miranda, he had two older centre-backs. Marquinhos was by far the quickest and I feel it cost them against Belgium. Now, I feel it's Marquinhos plus one - which is either Silva or Militao.
"In the World Cup qualifiers in which Marquinhos and Militao both played, Brazil didn't concede a single goal. You have to remember that Silva plays in the middle of a three at Chelsea whereas Brazil play a back four. Can he be got at? Are you going to go into the World Cup with him at that age when you've got the pace of Militao available?
"This is a Brazil side that defends high - they want to stop you getting out of your half. A few months ago, I thought Tite would go with Militao but I now feel he's going to go with Thiago Silva."
With 108 caps to his name, Silva has all the experience to lead from the front if called upon.
"He's 38-years-old, 38 years young and an impressive person," Chelsea boss Graham Potter said last month. "He's a character, a proper guy, who's got a fantastic experience but has a humility to just do the job."
Tite has been bold and decisive in his selections, but he is someone who has trained himself to block out the outside noise. "Courage is the ability to face fear" is a Nelson Mandela quote he has referenced ahead of this winter's tournament.
It is the privilege of his position which emboldens him, and his prioritising of mental health helps remove any added pressure.
"The culture here in Brazil is really manic depressive," ends Vickery. "It wavers between we're rubbish to we're unstoppable.
"After that Copa America defeat, the feeling was that it wasn't even worth turning up for the World Cup. As soon as we meet a European side in the knockout stages, we're going to lose.
"The mood is now totally different. They see themselves as favourites and anything less will be a disappointment."
There was criticism after defeat to Argentina in the Copa America final last year at the Maracana, but the response has been emphatic.
Brazil set a new record for most points in CONMEBOL qualifiers. Including the 12-game unbeaten run leading to Russia 2018, they are also now 29 games unbeaten in World Cup qualifiers.
Thirteen clean sheets in 17 qualifying games this time around with an average of 2.5 goals scored per game, all against the backdrop of severe loss of life in the country resulting from a global pandemic.
Where in Russia there was division and doubt, now there is unity and belief. There is harmony to the samba beat. Brazil have the quality; it is now up to them to show it.
Brazil's Barcelona winger Raphinha said the World Cup is a good moment to bring out the feeling of togetherness in the Brazilian people again as he recalled his country winning the 2002 title.
Raphinha, who made his Brazil debut in October 2021, will be appearing at his first World Cup in Qatar.
"I'm ready for the World Cup and I'm working hard to get there as good as I possibly can, both physically and mentally," Raphinha said in an interview published by Barca on Monday.
"The atmosphere is that of a winning national team, ambitious and wanting to win the title. There's a good vibe amongst the whole team.
"I don't see it as pressure, a team like Brazil is always a contender for the World Cup or any other title that they play for. The demand of the fans is normal because we are a high-quality team, with big names."
Raphinha joined Barcelona in July from Premier League side Leeds United to follow in the footsteps of Brazilian greats such as Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Neymar at the Nou Camp.
"It is normal that the fans are anxious for Brazil to win the sixth World Cup, and so are we," the 25-year-old said as he remembered their 2-0 win over Germany in the final in Japan 20 years ago thanks to two goals from Ronaldo.
"I don't remember too much about the 2002 World Cup because I was very young. (But) it was an incredible and indescribable feeling. All the Brazilian people hugged and were united. Now it's a good moment for it to bring us all together again."
Raphinha, who has 11 caps and has five international goals including three in World Cup qualifiers, is hopeful of repeating Brazil's 2002 triumph - their record fifth world title.
"I promise that if we win the World Cup I will do the same as I did when we managed to keep Leeds in the Premier League last season, when I walked across the pitch on my knees," he said.
Brazil's first World Cup fixture in Group G against Serbia takes place on Thursday November 24 at 7pm. Follow our dedicated live blog from 6pm on the Sky Sports website and app.