Tite yet to find the right blend in Brazil's unsatisfactory win over Uruguay
Brazil's past two games have ended up in 1-0 wins over their historic South American rivals -- first Argentina, and now Uruguay. Even so, there is something unsatisfactory about the scenario, and not just because Argentina have a caretaker coach in charge of an experimental team and Uruguay's defensive resources were so depleted and the victory came as a consequence of a disputed penalty.
Much more important than results at this stage of the South American calendar are performances. As hosts of next year's Copa America, Brazil have a short-term sense of urgency -- and the evidence is that coach Tite has yet to find his blend.
His reign started more than two years ago with a bold choice. He went with untried teenager Gabriel Jesus at centre-forward. It was an immediate success, and all the way up until the World Cup, the Manchester City man led Brazil's line. Russia 2018 was the first time that Tite saw Jesus on a downward curve of form. Since then, he appears to have decided that Roberto Firmino is first-choice centre-forward.
But this has implications for the team. Firmino is not a target man, and his game does not really involve being slipped behind the opposing defensive line -- as Jesus does so well. Firmino prefers to drop and combine. This is leading to two problems.
First, Firmino is struggling to establish a relationship with Neymar. Second, there is a glaring absence of penalty-area presence. This was apparent from the moment that the team was announced. Tite is aware that he has a problem here, and recalled Paulinho -- who has reinvented himself as almost a false nine, breaking late into the box -- in an attempt to solve it. But Paulinho was left on the bench. The midfield trio of Walace, Arthur and Renato Augusto did not contain a single specialist at ghosting into the opposing area. And, surely in error, Tite went with Douglas Costa wide on the right.
Costa is a fine winger, but this team was crying out for a striker able to burst inside on the diagonal -- as Richarlison did so well when he came off the bench against Argentina last month. Tite waited some 66 minutes before unleashing Richarlison, and the team's attack instantly gained in depth.
Until that point, Neymar had run through his repertoire: looking to open up the field with big diagonal passes, unleashing solo dribbles, going on the outside and sending in crosses. But Brazil were looking ineffective against a Uruguay side, lacking first-choice goalkeeper and the top five centre-backs, who rapidly had to improvise a defensive unit.
Even in defeat, their third in a row, Uruguay can take plenty of comfort from the game. Coach Oscar Washington Tabarez looked to his old favourite Martin Caceres to organise the defence. He has played his long international career at full-back -- both flanks -- but he was originallya centre-back, the position he filled when he emerged in the 2007 South American Under-20 Championships. He did a stalwart job alongside debutant Bruno Mendez, the captain of next year's Under-20 side and, on this evidence, a huge promise for the future.
Uruguay were on the back foot for most of the game, but they had their moments -- at least as many as Brazil in terms of clear chances. Their method is clear: choose the moment to press, close to the opponent's goal if possible, and then break at pace in clusters of three and four. They took full advantage of an uncertain performance from Walace, standing in for Casemiro as Brazil's holding midfielder, and with Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez as usual working in unselfish tandem, they forced keeper Alisson into some smart saves.
Playing within their limitations, then, Uruguay look steady on their course towards the Copa America and the next set of World Cup qualifiers. With far greater resources at their disposal, Brazil have some things to think about as they search for the right attacking balance in the buildup to the coming cycle of competitive games.