Willian or Coutinho: Tite debates Brazil’s World Cup starting XI
There’s one debate that dominates Tite’s World Cup squad announcement; Willian or Coutinho?
No one does World Cup call-up videos quite like Brazil.
The joyous moment upon hearing your name called out by Tite, probably the best manager to be at this summer’s World Cup, was heart-warming to see, as Grêmio defender Geromel was enthusiastically congratulated by teammates and Corinthians full-back Fagner was buried in the embrace of an ecstatic family.
All in all, however, Brazil’s World Cup squad announcement was fairly low-key, devoid of headline-grabbing drama which has previously accompanied the news.
The debate rages
Irrespective of drama, there remain questions to be answered and debates continue to rage as the date of the World Cup draws nearer.
Will Alisson retain his place between the sticks or has Ederson done enough at Manchester City to dislodge Tite’s current favourite? With Dani Alves out, will Fagner automatically take over at right-back or will the more technically gifted Danilo walk into a starting berth?
Will Miranda and Marquinhos start at the heart of the defence or will Thiago Silva be given a final swansong? Can Renato Augusto be trusted with a starting berth after plying his trade in the relative doldrums of the Chinese Super League?
Who out of Willian is Philippe Coutinho can wreak more havoc on an opposition defence? Should Gabriel Jesus or Roberto Firmino – in the form of his life – be given the chance to lead the line?
But it is perhaps that penultimate question which has caused the most fervent debate until now.
With Neymar and Jesus likely to start in attack, will it be Willian or Coutinho who earns a place on the right-hand side of a three-pronged attack?
Previously, it may have looked as if Coutinho were a shoo-in for the role.
The Barcelona playmaker has an excellent understanding with Neymar, having played together at youth level for Brazil, and he has clocked up over 1,100 minutes of international football under Tite whilst being given the mammoth responsibility of filling the boots left by Andres Iniesta at Camp Nou.
Willian, meanwhile, was sidelined by Chelsea boss Antonio Conte in the latter stages of the domestic campaign, and it will almost certainly be to the Brazilian’s benefit should the Italian coach part ways with the Stamford Bridge outfit in the coming days.
In addition, the 29-year-old has played just 830 minutes of international football under Tite.
He has, however, earned 17 of his 55 caps under the current manager, and his performance in the March friendly against Germany was encouraging as the forward provided the assist for Jesus to score the only goal of the game in Berlin.
A 2006 repeat
When directly compared with Coutinho, the creativity that Willian offers can often be overlooked. He is an outlet and there must be some temptation to throw both players in, alongside Neymar and Jesus, in an orgy of offensive firepower.
Yet, it looks less than likely that Tite will start with an attacking quartet at the World Cup, as Carlos Alberto Parreira did in 2006 with Ronaldo, Adriano, Ronaldinho and Kaká, leaving Emerson and Zé Roberto to man the midfield.
That scheme saw Brazil meekly eliminated at the quarter-final stage by France, the first top-class side they met in Germany, and the fear must be that a 4-2-4 would once again leave the seleção far too exposed against first-rate sides.
Employing both Willian and Coutinho would mean sacrificing one of Fernandinho (or Renato Augusto) or Paulinho, but nothing in Tite’s selections thus far has indicated he is likely to make such a bold or rash call – make your own mind up – at such a crucial time.
Willian the work-horse
With that in mind, Willian’s industriousness may well come to the fore in Russia. Should Fagner or Danilo opt to push forward on the right flank, the Chelsea man is more likely to cover the defensive line than his Barcelona counterpart.
And while he may not have been playing quite so regularly as the season comes to a close, Willian has proven consistently that he is capable of hurting the very best.
He was comfortably the best player on the pitch when Chelsea drew with Barcelona in the Champions League back in February and he is one of the most dangerous dead-ball specialists on the planet.
Furthermore, Willian has experience behind him, something that, as the pressure is ramped up during the knock-out stages of the biggest football tournament around, could be a priceless characteristic when it matters most.
The Chelsea man was part of Scolari’s expedition in 2014, while Coutinho was behind the likes of Oscar and Shakhtar wide man Bernard four years ago.
Ironing out the creases
Since Tite’s reign began both Coutinho and Willian have been an integral part of the boss’ thinking. The pair were in the squad for the first game, a World Cup qualifier against Ecuador in September 2016, and it is now unthinkable that either would be omitted from a Brazil squad.
What it may ultimately come down to is a question of balance.
A front three of Coutinho, Neymar and Jesus offers precious little protection down the flanks or to a midfield which may be in danger of being overexposed against the likes of Germany, Spain and Argentina.
Brazil have come on leaps and bounds under Tite.
From being in danger of not qualifying for the tournament for the first time in their history to being considered one of the favourites for the crown, there is much to be positive about as Brazil make their final preparations in Teresopolis, high up in the Rio mountains, before heading to Europe.
With friendly games against Austria and Croatia to come, it could well be only on the eve of the tournament itself that we are able to decipher Tite’s plans.
For all the good work done so far, there are still issues to be ironed out.