Less than 2½ years ago, Richarlison and David Neres were unable to help Brazil qualify for the Under-20 World Cup. On Friday night, the pair were playing an important role in the opening game of Copa America, as the wide men seeking to open up a Bolivia side that had come to Sao Paulo thinking almost exclusively of defence.
As highlighted by the careers of Richarlison and Neres, failure can so often be an important part of success. And that probably works as a theme for Brazil’s opening night 3-0 win in the Copa (all matches available live in the U.S. on ESPN+). On the road to claiming the three points, Brazil coach Tite had to deal with two types of perceived failure, that of last World Cup elimination by Belgium, and that of a goalless first half that saw Brazil booed off the field by the partisan crowd.
Tite has had plenty of time to dwell on last year’s quarterfinal defeat, and especially on the need to balance out his side. A significant switch has been made in midfield; Paulinho, charging into the opposing box like an auxiliary centre-forward, has given way to a deeper lying player. Usually this has been Arthur of Barcelona, but an injury kept him on the bench and brought back Fernandinho for his first start since the Belgium match, when he was the ill-fated replacement for the suspended Casemiro. For Copa America, then, Brazil had both Casemiro and Fernandinho in the starting lineup. It was much more cautious than last year — and ran the risk of being too cautious for a match against the grimly defensive Bolivians.
Tite, though, is dealing with versatile players. After a bright start, Brazil lost their way during the course of the first half. At the interval, Tite called for more precision in the passing — and also, running no risks against the limited Bolivians, he sent Fernandinho higher up the field to set moves in motion closer to the opposing goal. The more cautious balance of the Brazil midfield was not needed on Friday, but it will be useful from the quarterfinals on, when the tournament will suddenly become serious.
By then, Tite should be clearer about what he wants from his centre-forward. In qualification for the World Cup and all through Russia 2018, the post belonged to Gabriel Jesus. But he ran out of form a year ago, and Tite regretted not dropping him sooner. Since the World Cup, Roberto Firmino has been first choice, and he retained his place despite a fine burst of goal scoring from Jesus in the warm-up friendlies.
The undoubted talents of Firmino, though, have yet to be knitted into the side. The problem was clear in the first half against the Bolivians. By no means a conventional centre-forward, Firmino wants to drop and combine, which means that he and Philippe Coutinho can spend too long seeking to occupy the same space. It might have been a problem in the second half as well, but early on, after a VAR consultation, Brazil were rightly awarded a penalty on a hand ball, and once Coutinho shot Brazil ahead from the spot, spaces began to open up.
Brazil’s second goal was well worked: Richarlison passing into space down the right, Firmino supplying the cross and Coutinho arriving with a close-range header. The headlines go to Coutinho as he was the man under pressure, and he responded by scoring the first two goals. But he knows that he will have to turn it on much more when it matters. Three years ago in the previous Copa, he scored a fine hat trick against Haiti but was innocuous in the other two games. And much of the merit goes to Richarlison, who forced the penalty for the first goal and provided the defence-splitting pass for the second.
The part of Brazil’s play that worked best was on the flanks, with Richarlison drifting in to good effect from the right, and Neres looking lively down the left. The latter eventually gave way to Everton, who cut across to score a fine solo goal and round off the scoring. Defenders will now be much more wary of allowing him in onto his right foot.
Through the middle there are still issues to address, especially that of coordinating the movement between Firmino, if he is retained, and Coutinho. And every other team they meet will pose a stiffer challenge than anything Bolivia were capable of. Keeper Alisson had next to nothing to do. Brazil kept a cleaner sheet than the white shirts they wore — a retro tribute to the team that won Brazil’s first Copa exactly a century ago. Coach Tite and the class of 2019 have taken the first step along the way to retaining Brazil’s 100% record of winning Copa America when they host, but rest assured, stiffer tests await.