Tite giving many players look before naming final Brazil World Cup squad
At the start of the season, there were FIFA dates in September, October and November -- plenty of opportunities for players to push their claims to go to the World Cup in Russia.
This year is crueler. There is only once chance -- or two games -- to shine before the squads are named: the FIFA dates at the end of the month. Decision time is approaching.
Brazil coach Tite has already made many of his decisions. He must stay loyal to a group of players who, under his command, have achieved extraordinary results in wonderful style. He inherited a side that, with a third of South America's qualifiers already played, were languishing in sixth position and in real danger of missing the cut. As soon as Tite took over, Brazil turned the campaign into a cakewalk -- 10 wins, two draws, 30 goals scored, three conceded. It is obvious those who have been part of this process have earned the right to a place on the plane to Russia. And Tite has named 15 of them as, injuries permitting, guaranteed in his World Cup squad.
This month's matches against Russia and Germany are part filling the gaps and looking at variations. Neymar, of course, sits these games out as he recovers from his recent surgery. It will be interesting to see whether, in the absence of his leading star, Tite will stick to his original plan for the Russia game or select a more attacking side than usual, with Philippe Coutinho as one of his central midfielders rather than floating across from the right flank. The Germany match is likely to see a more conservative lineup, perhaps with Casemiro joined by Fernandinho to form a solid central midfield block.
And if Tite's 15 are fixed, there is plenty of activity going on at the sidelines. In comparison, with the squad that played Japan and England last November, seven players have been dropped: goalkeeper Cassio, full-backs Danilo and Alex Sandro, centre-back Jemerson, midfielders Giuliano and Diego and improvised target centre-forward Diego Souza. This does not necessarily mean they are out of contention.
There are recalls for full-backs Fagner and Filipe Luis, centre-backs Geromel and Rodrigo Caio and midfielder Fred. And in from the cold, at least in the Tite regime, come keeper Neto, attacking midfielder Talisca and centre-forward Willian Jose.
In some cases, there is a straight personal dispute going on.
With Ederson all but guaranteed, there is a contest for the third goalkeeper's berth, where Neto is the latest in a long line to be given an opportunity.
The reserve right-back position seems to have boiled down to a straight contest between Fagner and Danilo, with Filipe Luis and Alex Sandro fighting it out at left-back. At centre-back, the last berth is between the pace of Jemerson and the experience of Geromel, with Rodrigo Caio an outsider.
It is further forward that things become more interesting, because the choices there have an influence on the model of play. Once all the defensive position are filled, it would seem there are just three slots available for midfield and attack, which makes every choice a declaration of intent. If the busy little left-footed Fred seems to be in a one-on-one battle with Giuliano, other choices will have a direct effect on the options open to Tite during the World Cup.
Tite already has two centre-forwards, in Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino. Neither of them are big, target-men figures. Might he need this type of player as a variation, for the type of situation where his team are struggling to break down defensive opponents? He has flirted with Diego Souza in this role -- something of a strange choice considering the veteran has played his entire career in midfield. Diego Souza moved from Sport to Sao Paulo this year in a bid to establish himself at centre-forward and boost his World Cup chances. But, so far at least, the move has not worked out. And so, still searching for an alternative, Willian Jose of Real Sociedad comes in -- a surprise for the local media.
Another variation for that type of situation is Talisca of Besiktas, a talented but wayward attacking midfielder who has caught the coach's eye with his long-range shooting and his aerial power -- two weapons that could be useful coming off the bench against deep defences. And then he also has the versatility of Taison, capable of operating wide or through the middle. And Douglas Costa showed for Juventus against Tottenham that he can be effective on both flanks.
The announcement of the squad has been greeted with some surprise by the Brazilian media, who were not aware that Tite still wanted to have a look at so many players before making his final decision. But, first, he already has 15 fixed, giving him the freedom to make variations on a well-established theme. And second, there is clearly a desire to avoid what happened four years ago, when then-coach Luiz Felipe Scolari guaranteed almost his entire squad months before Brazil's disastrous 2014 campaign. The new motto: shake it up, keep it interesting and trust that 2018 will have a different outcome.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.