Copa America 2019: Tite's Brazil seek 2016 encore at Mineirao as they meet Lionel Messi's Argentina in semi-final

Belo Horizonte: A popular phrase in Brazil goes that ‘7-1 foi pouco (was not enough)’. Still, the Mineirão was the scene of the most astounding result in World Cup history. Within 29 minutes Germany scored five goals and after the interval, Joachim Low’s team almost played in apologetic mode to achieve a scoreline that will echo through history. In 90 minutes, the Germans had showcased the best of modern football, dethroning Brazil as spiritual masters of the game.

 Copa America 2019: Tites Brazil seek 2016 encore at Mineirao as they meet Lionel Messis Argentina in semi-final

Brazil's Dani Alves, centre, warms up during training session in Belo Horizonte. AP

Yet, Belo Horizonte has a very different connotation for current Brazil coach Tite. In November 2016, the Mineirão played host to arguably Tite’s best match as the Seleção’s coach. Philippe Coutinho, Neymar, and Paulinho all got on the scoreboard in a 3-0 win over Argentina. The manner of victory mannered as much as the three points: Brazil were under pressure in World Cup qualifying and this was only Tite’s second match in charge. He put his faith in a young Gabriel Jesus and was rewarded. The Manchester City striker scored two against Ecuador days earlier and his movement unsettled the Argentinean defence.

An aging Argentina with Javier Mascherano, Pablo Zableta and Nicolas Otamendi were no match for Brazil. The scoreline even flattered Argentina and their coach Edguardo Bauzza, who, like his predecessors, grappled with integrating Messi into the team. Argentina struggled right until the end of South America’s ten-team qualifying marathon to ensure a ticket to the Russia World Cup.

The story was quite different for Tite. He turned King Midas, but perhaps things went too smoothly for him. With Argentina, Chile and other teams struggling, the World Cup qualifiers didn’t represent much of a challenge. In the run-up to the World Cup, Brazil even defeated Germany in Berlin.

When defeat arrived, it did so in cruel fashion. With the narrowest of margins and the fingertips of Thibaut Courtois Belgium defeated Brazil 2-1 in the quarter-finals and turned Kazan into the graveyard of the greats. Germany and Argentina had also bowed out of the tournament in the Tartar city. The elimination rattled Brazil’s backroom staff profoundly and Tite has been replaying the game against Belgium ever since in his mind. In the Copa America’s opening game against regional minnows Bolivia, he fielded two midfielders to screen the rearguard.

A match-up with the continent’s sacrificial team didn’t require such a defensive approach, but the switch is an acknowledgment by Tite that the 4-1-4-1 formation, which he retained from his predecessor Carlos Dunga, left Brazil too open and too vulnerable against strong opposition. A 4-2-3-1 formation offers more security and perhaps it would have prevented Romelu Lukaku from sweeping forward to set up Belgium’s second goal. Tite has also told his full-backs to be more conservative and construct play from the back.

Up top, Roberto Firmino has been Tite’s preferred choice in the last twelve months. He regrets that he stuck with Jesus at the World Cup. It was a question of loyalty, an issue that has haunted Tite before in his career. Jesus had been Tite’s top scorer in World Cup qualifying, but in Russia, he drew a blank. Instead of replacing the misfiring striker, Tite started him in all five games and didn’t bring in Firmino.

The Firmino experiment hasn’t worked out so far. The Liverpool striker tends to drop deep to combine and that works wonderfully well with the presence of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane at his club, but Brazil have failed to replicate that passing style. In the quarter-finals against Paraguay, Firmino was largely peripheral.

It was the second game of this Copa America in which Brazil struggled to break down deep defensive block. Against Venezuela, Brazil had two goals chalked off by the VAR and in the last eight heroic defending in true Guarani tradition, pushed the hosts to a penalty shoot-out and the brink of elimination. A single save by Alisson Becker proved to be the difference. Clearly, Brazil were missing the spark their injured lodestar can provide in the final third to unpick a staunch defence.

Neymar won’t play against Argentina either. Tite has been obsessed with the balance of his side since Kazan and he has enforced obvious corrections to allow his team more solidity and steel — lower positioning of the full backs, the pace of Marquinhos in defence and the extra man in front of the back line. The flip side is that Tite runs the risks of becoming overly cautious and defensive, following a long line of Gaucho coaches, the likes of Dunga and Luiz Felipe Scolari, who value the result over anything else. That’s what Tite has always preached against. In his progressive view, a positive result is the consequence of a good performance. That is what Tite and his reimagined team will be looking for once more against Argentina and Lionel Messi.

Updated Date: Jul 02, 2019 11:59:33 IST