Despite qualifying with ease, Brazil have areas to improve pre-World Cup
While the other South American teams are still scrambling to collect enough points to get them to Russia, Brazil can look down on proceedings with a lofty disdain. It is hard to remember that after a third of the qualification campaign, they were down in sixth place in the table and with genuine concerns of not making it to the 2018 World Cup. Then Dunga was replaced by Tite, and the team, largely the same group of players, showed the difference that a quality coach can make. Brazil have not looked back since, putting together a superb sequence of results with a swagger and a style that recalls some of their great teams of the past.
But there are no prizes for crossing the line early. The only objective of qualification is to qualify, whether it be sailing through in first place or sneaking past New Zealand in the play-off. The hard work is still ahead. Which issues, then, do Brazil need to address to ensure that they are ready when it really matters -- in Russia next June and July?
Not peaking too soon
A few months before the last World Cup, Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari was confidence personified. "We've done the hard part," he said. "We've found our team." The lineup that beat Spain 3-0 in the final of the Confederations Cup was already fixed in his mind as the team to win the World Cup.
In retrospect, far too much importance was given to the Confederations Cup. And the idea of cementing a first-team selection a full year before the World Cup was also deeply flawed. True, Tite needs to show loyalty to those who have done so well under his command. But he also has to promote competition for places -- to give himself options in case of injuries and loss of form, and generally to keep the likely first-teamers on their toes.
Remember they have yet to face the best
Understandably enthused by the performances since Tite took over, some in the Brazilian media have proclaimed the team as title favourites for 2018. This would seem premature -- dangerously so if the coach were to fall into the same trap, which does not appear to be the case.
Recent World Cups have clearly demonstrated the superiority of the top Western European sides, who have provided five of the past six finalists. Moreover, the current crop of South American national teams, Brazil excluded, is surely the worst for some time. No other CONMEBOL nation has much cause to be happy with the way their team is playing. Second-place Uruguay are all but mathematically qualified but have played an uneasy campaign, and the remaining South American spots are still undecided.
The real tests, then, are still ahead. Brazil are trying to fix up a friendly next month away to England -- admittedly not among the top Western European teams, but interesting opposition nevertheless. And in March comes a visit to Germany. The genuine article, though, will be a competitive meeting with the Germans, the French, the Spaniards or the Belgians.
Defending the space behind the attacking full-backs
This is where Brazil are most vulnerable. Right-back Dani Alves will be 35 by the time of the World Cup. For all the magnificent attacking skills he brings, he is not the best defensive full-back in the business, and at this stage, he is unlikely to improve. And on the other flank, Tite has finally got the best out of Real Madrid's Marcelo in the colours of his country -- but he is another one better at going forward than coming back.
Even while Brazil have been racking up the wins in qualification, there have been moments when the opponent has been able to exploit the space left behind the full-backs. Against a top-class European team, capable of retaining solid possession in midfield, this could become more of a problem.
Maintaining an emotional balance
For all the deficiencies of Brazil's 2014 side, that historic 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semifinal was more than anything an emotional collapse.
The possibility of the team losing its head still exists -- as shown recently in the very poor first half Brazil played at home to Ecuador.
The problem here was Neymar -- a magnificent player who appears ready to come into the form of his life, but one who also has a tendency to succumb to petulance. He had one of those spells in which it appears his objective is to showboat and draw irrelevant free kicks far from goal. There is an element of exhibitionism in his diving that often annoys the opposition and needlessly raises the emotional tone of the game. Irritated by the very fouls he is trying to draw, or because the referee refuses to blow, Neymar can get caught up in this climate. He picked up another yellow card against Ecuador for a crude challenge. This kind of incident could rear up during the World Cup and hurt Brazil when it matters most. Hence the need to stay composed.
An established leadership structure
Thiago Silva was Brazil's captain at the last World Cup. It was not a success. He lacks the personality for the role, and anyway, he is now on the bench. Dunga then chose Neymar as the captain, but after a while, the player made it clear that he did not want the role. Tite, then, had a problem. His short-term solution has been excellent. He has chosen a different captain for every game. It has proved an inspired piece of man management and a way to make players feel important. But the time is coming for a choice to be made -- not least because there is a need for someone on the pitch to impose order and calm people down at those times when the emotional tone of the game is becoming dangerous.
Brazil teams have often needed a strong leadership structure on the field, and the same will surely apply to the class of 2018.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.