Jesus or Firmino? Who should lead the line for Brazil this summer?
Although Gabriel Jesus remains the favourite to wear the No.9 shirt for Brazil in Russia, a case can be made for Roberto Firmino.
Such has been the startling effect Tite has had on the seleção brasileira during his tenure at the helm of the ship, you may well be forgiven for thinking that the boss has his side set in stone.
The former Corinthians coach has suffered just one defeat to date as Brazil coach – a 1-0 loss to Argentina in a friendly last June – and took the side from sixth to top of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying group during an impressive campaign which saw a 3-0 win against Argentina in Belo Horizonte as well as a 4-1 dismantling of Uruguay away from home.
Yet with the World Cup looming in the near distance, there are some admittedly pleasant problems for Tite to ponder. Who should partner Miranda at the heart of defence: Thiago Silva or Marquinhos? Is there a way of fitting Willian and Philippe Coutinho into the same side? And who will lead the line – Gabriel Jesus or Roberto Firmino?
Putting faith in Jesus
Just a few short weeks ago Gabriel Jesus looked an absolute shoe-in to lead the line for Brazil in Russia, partnered by Neymar as the focal point of the attack.
The 21-year-old has been on an almost constant upward trajectory for over two years now and looked to have solved Brazil’s problems with the No.9 shirt which had seen Fred left in desolate isolation during the 2014 World Cup.
After being an integral part of the Palmeiras side that won the Brasileirão league crown in 2016, Jesus hit the ground running with Manchester City the following year before breaking his foot against Bournemouth.
Both Pep Guardiola and Tite have shown an enormous amount of faith in the centre forward, who is by no means the most naturally gifted talent you are ever likely to lay eyes on but has made it to the top of his craft through a combination of lightning speed, sheer determination and extremely hard work.
In particular, Tite has put ample faith in the young finisher, putting him straight into the team for his first competitive game in charge in September 2016, a potentially tricky World Cup qualifier away to Ecuador.
At that time, the Ecuadorians led the qualifying table yet Brazil comprehensively won 3-0 and Jesus repaid that vote of confidence from his new manager with a brace.
In a short amount of time, then, Jesus has already established himself as one of the most effective no. 9s on the planet, so much so that Manchester City’s record goalscorer, the man who scored the late, late goal which delivered the 2011/12 league title and has a bar named after the event (93:20) – Sergio Agüero – has been linked with a host of other clubs after the emergence of the Brazilian.
Yet just a few miles down the road there is another Brazilian making headlines, who has been guaranteed a place at the World Cup by Tite and looks to be hitting his best form at the best possible time.
Roberto Firmino is playing the best football of his career to date and, while Jurgen Klopp is currently reaping the benefits, it is the Brazil boss who now has a hell of a decision to make prior to the seleção’s World Cup opener against Switzerland on 17 June.
Firmino has gone from an afterthought to a direct rival for a starting berth at the top of the Brazilian attack.
It says a great deal that the Brazilian is a fundamental part of the reason Liverpool have barely missed the presence of creative talent Philippe Coutinho and a lot of that comes down to the sheer industriousness of Firmino, alongside Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
Firmino has started just four games for Brazil under Tite but he offers a different option to Jesus as a spearhead, offering both goals and a more creative outlet.
He participated in nine of Liverpool’s 23 goals during the group stages of this season’s UEFA Champions League and scored against both Porto and Manchester City in the Round of 16 and the quarter-finals.
And while Jesus has not played as often as his compatriot this season thanks to more injury complaints, he looks very much to be in pole position when it comes to Tite. The Manchester City front man started both recent friendly matches against Russia and Germany, scoring the only goal of the game in Berlin.
Across the pond
In Brazil, it is very much Gabriel Jesus who remains the public’s favourite.
While at Palmeiras he lifted two major titles, the Copa do Brasil in 2015 and the Brazilian league crown the following year, a season in which he was the leading scorer for the season with 29 goals.
He has a name in his homeland which Firmino has no way of hoping to match. The Liverpool forward played a single season for southern-based club Figueirense before departing for Hoffenheim.
The club where Firmino started his career is far below the fame and fan base of the so-called Big 12, encompassing outfits from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre.
But this season more than any other has seen Firmino, at the age of 27, step up and force people to take note. He has scored over 20 goals across all competitions and his assist numbers are also in double figures, making him a hugely effective “waiter” as the Brazilian term for a chance creator goes.
Firmino’s ability to bring others into play arguably offers Brazil and Tite greater flexibility in the final third. While Jesus would appear in more of a spearhead role, as Fred did at the previous World Cup and Luís Fabiano prior to that in South Africa, the Liverpool attacker is far more adept at creating a fluid front line alongside Neymar and probably one of Willian and Coutinho.
The area which will most likely let Firmino down is his finishing. He has been given previous opportunities to make his mark as a centre-forward in the yellow shirt, most notably at the 2015 Copa America in Chile.
There, under the stewardship of Dunga, the forward put in some lacklustre and at times downright wasteful performances, particularly in the quarter-final tie against Paraguay which saw Brazil eliminated on penalties. Three years down the line another chance may be beckoning as both Tite and Jurgen Klopp have seen his role and range of skills enhanced considerably.
Firmino is adept at drawing defenders out of position with his sprints and positional sense. Opening up space for the likes of Neymar and Willian, as well as Paulinho arriving from Tite, could be a key weapon for the seleção at this World Cup.
On and off the bench
Firmino is, without doubt, a potent weapon. He may, however, be even more dangerous coming off the bench, against tired legs, with lapses of concentration becoming more frequent.
His numbers may look more impressive than those of Jesus this season but a game of football is not won on a chart. Tite has an idea of his strongest XI and indications from those last two friendly wins in March are that Jesus very much remains at the forefront of Brazil’s attack.
But having Firmino not only as a back-up but as a way of introducing an entirely different style of play isn’t half bad either. Tite has some of the most envious headaches ahead of that Switzerland encounter in just under two months’ time.
Who do you think should lead the line for Brazil in the World Cup? Let us know by commenting below.