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Brazil's national team has a problem that Tite needs to fix

Tite, the Brazil manager, has a choice to make. And he needs to make it quickly.

For most international managers, especially in Europe, the spell after a World Cup is a time for reflection and rest, the point at which you can carry out tactical tests and introduce new names into the squad.

With the next major tournament some time away, the pressure for results takes its place on the backburner.

Tite, however, has no such luxury. In June 2019, the Copa América will take place at home and there is only one option: win.

Brazil has hosted the tournament four times previously and has lifted the trophy on each of those occasions. Add to that the disappointing showing at the 2018 World Cup and the fact that they have not won the continental crown since 2007, and the pressure is suffocating.

If they fail to take the title, Tite’s job is in jeopardy.

There are, though, still some questions about personnel and formation that need answering before they reach that stage. The midfield, with the introduction of Barcelona star Arthur, is taking on a new shape. The defence, which had an average age over 30 in Russia, is in need of renewal.

The Number 9 

The most vexing issue for the manager, however, comes at centre-forward.

Gabriel Jesus took the number 9 shirt at the World Cup but failed to score a single goal in five games. Despite a hat-trick against Shakhtar Donetsk last week, he has also struggled for form and fitness at the start of this season for Manchester City.

The chance is there for others to stake a claim for his spot in the side.

Firmino

To any frequent observer of the Premier League, the solution may seem obvious. Roberto Firmino has been one of the outstanding players in England’s top flight over the last two seasons. Last year, he managed 27 goals in 54 games in all competitions as Liverpool reached the final of the Champions League.

But to those who watch the Seleção on a regular basis, the case for Firmino’s inclusion is not so clear-cut.

That is not because Tite does not respect the Liverpool player. In a recent interview, the 57-year-old said that, “If you bring in Firmino, he plays in the box and outside it with intelligent link-up up play. They call him a ‘false 9’, but for me that is what a real number 9 does.”

That characteristic – dropping deep to open up spaces for others to run into – is Firmino’s great strength at Liverpool, where he has Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah to run beyond.

Tactic Woes

For Brazil, however, it is not always as effective. The space in front of the back four that Firmino operates in at club level is already occupied, in particular by Neymar, the captain and focus of the team.

The way any centre-forward links up with Brazil’s number 10 is central to their continued inclusion, and for Firmino, it has been a problem.

In their most recent friendly, against Argentina in October, Tite shifted Gabriel Jesus out to the right to accommodate Firmino as the focal point of the forward line, but it was far from a rip-roaring success. Even against a relatively inexperienced Albiceleste side, Brazil’s attack looked disjointed and lacked penetration, with Neymar and Firmino often getting in each other’s way.

As Globoesporte journalist and Seleção specialist Alexandre Lozetti wrote recently, “Firmino completes the midfield while Jesus has more power, he receives balls in behind the defence and is less refined in one-twos and passing moves.”

Brazil

That, though, is what the Brazil team needs; someone to charge into the channels and drag defenders away, so the likes of Coutinho and Neymar can float into those little in-between spaces where they do their best work. There is surely no better explanation for why Tite persisted with an out-of-form Jesus in Russia.

Who else, then, could fulfil that function if Jesus does not recover his form before the Copa América?

The New Contenders

On the blue side of Stanley Park, Richarlison is currently excelling for Everton in the number 9 role. He recently made his full debut for Brazil in the same position and scored twice in a 5-0 thrashing of El Salvador.

The man from Espírito Santo has the power, pace and direct running that Tite’s system requires and his touch and finishing seems to be improving every week. He was at his lethal best in the Toffees' recent win over Brighton, scoring twice. The second was a particularly spectacular individual effort, showing all of his technical and physical attributes.

In one of Brazil's two upcoming friendlies, against Uruguay at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium on Friday and Cameroon in Milton Keynes on Tuesday, he may well get the chance to show what he can do from the start.

Everton FC v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League

There are also two lesser-known options currently plying their trade in the Brazilian league who, despite being left out this time, have a chance of making the squad next year.

Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa, who won the Olympic gold medal with Brazil’s U23s in 2016, suffered after a move to Inter Milan two years ago, but now is back at his first club Santos and has 16 goals in 30 league starts this season.

Barbosa’s propensity to float out to the right may also suit Neymar and Coutinho, who both prefer to start on the left and drift into central areas.

Over in Rio de Janeiro, meanwhile, there is rising star Pedro, who offers an altogether different set of characteristics. He is more of a traditional number 9, happy receiving the ball with his back to goal or running into the spaces between centre-halves and full-backs. Unlike Jesus, the Fluminense player is also a natural finisher.

Pedro is currently out with a knee issue, but if, after his return, he can rekindle the form he showed until injury struck in September, he will put serious pressure on the manager to include him in the squad next year.

The vital thing now is finding the right balance. When forming a team, Tite must look not just at the individual qualities of his forward options but at how they fit into the collective context.

Unfortunately for the coach, he doesn’t have much time to do it.

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