Brazil‘s record last season makes impressive reading: 10 wins and three draws, with 30 goals scored and just four conceded. It might be thought, then, that the team would be sailing in the calmest of waters in the build up to the World Cup.
But coach Tite made some waves with his last squad selection before Qatar for this month’s friendlies against Ghana and Tunisia. There are some surprises — and what they actually mean is open to interpretation.
There is only one right-back in the 26-man squad, with no place for Dani Alves. Does this mean that the veteran has no chance of making the plane to Qatar? Almost certainly not. The lack of a back-up to Danilo shows that the door is still open to Alves. For these games there are a few centre-backs, most notably Eder Militao, who can move across to full-back if required.
At his age, Alves needs to be in peak physical condition, which after his recent move to Mexico is not currently the case. He is being given time to bring himself up to the condition required.
The reserve left-back slot is also a headache. Alex Sandro is first choice. A domestic-based player, Guilherme Arana, was in pole position for the reserve slot, but this week suffered a serious injury, ruling him out of the World Cup. Alex Telles has come in with Renan Lodi left out.
There is a disappointment, too, for Philippe Coutinho, traditionally a favourite of coach Tite. He has lost out to Everton Ribeiro of Flamengo, recalled after his team’s recent run of excellent results. Does this mean that Ribeiro is now in front in the quest for a World Cup place? Or is this merely a test, a last chance for the player to show that he can bring his club form to the national team? Only time will tell.
Another three Premier League players may well be disappointed — and in the case of a couple of them, maybe even mystified. This is the Arsenal trio of Gabriels: Magalhaes, Martinelli and Jesus, all named in the last squad, all excluded now. What is the meaning of this?
With his left foot and his leadership qualities, Gabriel Magalhaes had looked like a lock for the fourth centre-back spot. But there are first call ups for two Italy-based players, Bremer of Juventus and Ibanez of Roma. Magalhaes has not yet had an opportunity to play, but he has been part of the squad.
Has Magalhaes definitely been overtaken by the two newcomers? Before the call up it might have been thought that these friendlies were the ideal opportunity for Tite to have a look at him in a match situation. To be left out at this stage is not a good sign.
The omission of Gabriel Martinelli is not a complete shock, which is in no way a reflection of the young striker’s ability. Brazil have more options in the wide forward position than they can possibly use, and so competition is fierce. Good club displays could still save his World Cup place.
The biggest surprise is the omission of Gabriel Jesus — he is in the form of his life. True, he will almost certainly be in the squad for Qatar, and possibly even see significant minutes. But, from a psychological point of view, it is hard to understand why he was not included.
There are indeed others options to be looked at. But as the players freely admit, the trauma of Gabriel Jesus’ 2018 World Cup failure runs deep. His last competitive goal for his country was more than three years ago, and he finally brought a run of 19 goalless games to an end in June when he scored in stoppage time of a friendly against South Korea. He is clearly a player who runs on confidence, and he may well have been looking forward to the chance to carry his club form into the national team.
But he is out while Roberto Firmino is recalled. This is a conundrum for the coach. Firmino’s star has been waning, but he is the player with most capacity to replace Neymar in a false No. 9 role, hence this final chance to force his way into the World Cup squad. If Firmino is a false nine, then there is a chance for a genuine centre-forward in Pedro of Flamengo, the top scorer in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League.
For the Brazilian press, this was by far the most important issue of the entire squad selection: a proud footballing culture finds it very hard to adapt to the fact that the best players are abroad. There is always the clamour for domestic names, and the decibels were reaching deafening point about Pedro, a tall and technically gifted striker who is in the form of his life.
Tite perhaps did him few favours by referring to him as “the current Fred,” tipping his hat to the ill-fated 2014 centre-forward. There are indeed similarities, both in their technique and in their lack of pace.
Pedro, as Tite is well aware, is a player to be unleashed against deep lying defences, where his penalty area expertise comes into its own. His big chance may well come in the second of Brazil’s September friendlies, when they take on Tunisia.
For Pedro and a few others in this squad, the stakes are high in September.
Here is the full squad selection: