After a 4-1 World Cup qualifying win in Uruguay in March 2017, in which Paulinho scored a hat-trick, it looked like Tite had settled on his ideal midfield three: Casemiro sitting behind Renato Augusto on the left, and Paulinho. They combined intelligence and discipline, and understood the triangular patterns Tite preferred. Injury to Renato Augusto disrupted Tite’s preparations in the run-up to the World Cup, however. Philippe Coutinho, by now playing in a more central role for Barcelona, was one option, but there was another more defensive alternative.
In the 1-0 victory away in Germany in early 2018, Tite employed a much more rigid and narrow back four. The full-backs were much less offensive, Manchester City’s Fernandinho came into midfield and, in the absence of Neymar, Coutinho played as one of the wide attacking midfielders. Brazil had only 42 per cent possession, but won.
Unlike the injured Dani Alves, Renato Augusto made the squad for Russia, but he lacked the match fitness to start and his passing influence was missed. Against narrow and compact defensive systems, Tite adapted his team’s approach. Willian and Neymar remained wide (below), leaving Paulinho, Coutinho and central striker Gabriel Jesus to play between the lines.
The team had lots of possession, but struggled against solid defensive systems – they needed two late goals to beat Costa Rica in the group stage, and failed to convince against Mexico in the last 16. Despite having 58 per cent of possession against Belgium in the quarter finals, they went down to Fernandinho’s own goal and Kevin De Bruyne’s piledriver after a counter-attack that the suspended Casemiro may well have snuffed out. Renato Augusto’s late goal off the bench only served notice of how much his influence had been missed further forwards.