*Brazil have the joint-best defensive record at Russia 2018
*Belgium are the tournament’s highest scorers
It is a debate that has been running in Brazilian football since the painful defeat to Italy at Spain 1982: should the national team play an entertaining brand of football or prioritise results above all else? Put that way, the two concepts would appear to be mutually exclusive.
A glance at the results of Tite’s Seleção so far seems to suggest that they have taken the second option. After all, this is a side that has conceded just six goals in 25 matches since he took over.
One of those goals came in Brazil’s opening match at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, against Switzerland, one of only five goal attempts on target that the side has permitted its opponents during the tournament so far. Yes, you read that right: five shots on target in four games.
Yet this is not a simple case of a team defending at all costs. This Seleção might be strong at the back, but it is also set up to attack and to keep the ball, achieving the kind of balance that Tite strives for.
“Our defence begins in attack,” midfielder Willian told . “We try to help out as much as we can in that respect. Football’s getting tougher and tougher all the time. It’s more competitive, as we’re seeing at this World Cup, and we have to do our bit. But we do play exciting football.”
In an effort to understand how A Seleção achieved this defensive excellence without turning their back on entertainment, we spoke to the team’s assistant coach Cleber Xavier, who has been Tite’s right-hand man since 2001 and has made his mark already at Russia 2018.
Working behind the scenes, Cleber plays a vital role for Brazil thanks to his wealth of tactical knowledge and his gift for communication.
Whenever he has appeared at press conferences, the assistant coach has impressed the world’s media with his in-depth knowledge of Brazil’s opponents. Who better, then, than this authority on the game to explain their defensive strengths to us?
1: Zonal marking
“We operate a zonal defence, both in open play and at set pieces. That’s the basis for everything,” explained Cleber. “Thanks to zonal marking we’re the most disciplined team in the competition. We commit very few fouls – nine per game.”
2: Total pressing
“There are three phases when we defend: high press, mid press and low press. We pretty much tailor our pressing game to the opposition, and any adjustments we make will usually be to the high press. The mid and low press are more systematic.”
3: Attacking while defending
“When it’s time to play we play, and when it’s time to defend we defend; that’s the balance in our game. But when the team goes on the attack, it does so in a way that it can’t be caught off guard defensively. That’s what we call it “attacking while defending”. And that way, by defending, we’re already in a position to win the ball back if we lose it.”
4: A clearly defined concept
The core members of Tite’s coaching team have been together for a very long time. Brazil’s tactics have not been put together overnight.
“It’s a characteristic of ours, one we developed at Corinthians, where we had more time. That was our best time together, in terms of clear thinking and putting ideas into practice. It’s our methodology. We take things from elsewhere and adapt them to our concept. They’re simple principles, regardless of the situation, whether we’re working at club or national team level.”
5: The power of communication
“If Neymar plays on a Sunday with PSG and joins us on a Monday, as soon as he arrives in the dressing room and checks his phone, he’ll have a message with edited images, giving him an idea of what to expect. We’ve got players who are so good that they can take everything in straight away.”