Over the past nine months, Luiz Felipe Scolari has transformed Brazil's national football team from an under-performing giant to one of the favourites for next summer's World Cup. It has not been an entirely smooth process, but the selecao are now unquestionably back among the game's elite.
But, despite this summer's Confederations Cup triumph, Brazil must continue to look to improve upon their squad selection. The first team may be fairly settled, but there are still one or two places up for grabs ahead of next summer.
Of those who will be hoping for a chance to impress over coming months—a list which will doubtless also include Manchester United's Rafael and Tottenham's Sandro—Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho is perhaps best placed for a shot at a first-team role.
The most obvious change that Scolari could make ahead of next summer would be to displace the continually disappointing Hulk from the starting lineup and therein open up an opportunity for someone like Coutinho to assume first-team role.
How Coutinho could fit in
If it were decided that Coutinho was worthy of a starting role, his ability to play a number of roles and the versatility of those around him would mean that there are a number of options.
At this point, given the success enjoyed over the summer, we must assume that Scolari is not going to stray too far from the 4-2-3-1 formation that brought success over the summer.
The general tactical scheme can be seen here, where B/R's Sam Tighe has outlined the formations seen in the Confederations Cup final victory over Spain.
It is worth noting at this point that, since that tournament, Chelsea's Ramires has come into the side and has performed well in the injury absence of Oscar, while Bernard shone in a position on the right-flank.
Coutinho, then, has three attacking midfield positions from where he could play—in place of Neymar on the left, Oscar centrally or in place of either Ramires or Bernard on the right.
Each player named is versatile in their own right, so it would not necessarily mean that he would be a direct replacement. Coutinho could operate centrally, for example, with Oscar moving to play on the right of the midfield.
However, despite his excellent club form, he will have to make quite some impression to secure a starting berth.
Competition for places
Herein lies Coutinho's greatest difficulty in securing a starting spot at present. Were any of the three attacking midfield positions to open up before the World Cup, there are a number of players who would be looking to take advantage.
Take Neymar's position on the left of attacking midfield. It is a role that, were anything untoward to happen to the Barcelona star, Coutinho would be at the forefront of thinking regarding a replacement.
However, given that it is almost a hybrid position—with Neymar operating as a form of second forward—Brazil would lose directness if the Liverpool man were to be introduced.
Given that it is likely that Oscar and Ramires would be alongside him, two players who show excellent dedication to defensive work, it is perhaps more likely that Shakhtar's Bernard—a player better matched to Neymar's skill set—would be handed the task of deputising.
Likewise, Bernard would be major competition for a role on the right of midfield. The tricky Shakhtar speedster has impressed on recent outings for Brazil and would expect to be first choice to step in if required.
Then there is the forgotten man—PSG's Lucas Moura. Lucas has never managed to properly establish himself with the selecao, but will doubtless hope that a full season in high-level European competition will aid his claims.
And then there is Hulk. The Zenit winger may not have had a great time at the Confederations Cup, but he has been a favourite of Scolari's so far and has made an impact as a substitute in early friendlies.
Even if he is not seen as a viable first-team option, he is a strong candidate for a squad place given his unique set of attributes.
With Oscar a certainty to start as the central playmaker if fit, with Hernanes and Ramires already established as backups, that position also looks a difficult ask for any new candidate to secure a place.
Scolari has thus far shown preference towards a No. 8 style role, rather than a No. 10, with Oscar also making a major contribution to the defensive effort. That, perhaps, is a limiting factor for Coutinho.
What Coutinho can offer
In the same way that Hulk will be hoping that his notable differences from Brazil's other attacking options will see him earn a place in the squad next summer, Coutinho can use a similar argument.
Ganso was once labelled as the playmaker that would guide this Brazilian generation, but he has fallen by the wayside through a combination of injury and poor form. In his stead, the magnificent Oscar has emerged—but Oscar is a very different variety of player.
Indeed, there is no reason why Oscar and Coutinho could not combine. The Chelsea player is the more complete of the duo, able to drop deeper into midfield or play as a second striker to equal effect.
Coutinho, though, is capable of passes that Oscar is not. He is capable of conjuring that one magical through ball that could win a tense World Cup tie. For all Oscar's undoubted brilliance and Neymar's unique talent, Brazil has no player of Coutinho's ilk in the squad.
To take Neymar, Lucas Moura and Bernard is to take three players who will play not dissimilar roles. Coutinho's best chance of a place in the squad or in the side, then, is to hope that Lucas and Bernard are left to compete for one solitary position. At present, Bernard would win.
If Scolari does chose to take a second natural playmaker, assuming Oscar will be included, then the Liverpool man is the outstanding candidate at present. Chelsea's Willian can offer some similar qualities, but it will be up to him to shine in England if he is to make any serious claim for a squad place.
Coutinho's best chance of integration into the Brazil starting XI would be if Scolari chooses to include him as creative support for Oscar—most likely from the right.
He would fit well with Brazil's counter-attacking style and has already struck up a productive relationship with both Oscar and Neymar at youth level—something which could play in his favour.
His biggest challengers for the role, though, will be Bernard, Lucas Moura and Ramires. Ramires and Coutinho are very different players, while Lucas and Bernard offer a third, more direct option. It will all come down to how Scolari chooses to balance his Brazil side.
A squad place for the youngster is still far from certain, though, and once more it may be Lucas and Bernard who are his direct competition. Coutinho has not been called up to recent squads, but must have caught the eye with his form this year.
Given his unique abilities and intelligence, though, he will surely be given a chance over the coming months.
It may well be that he is limited to an impact substitute role next summer, but that is no slight on the 21-year-old and more an indication of Brazil's depth of talent in attack.
If we can take anything from his ever-increasing importance at Liverpool, though, it is that he will not be shy in attempting to make an impact when the chance arrives.
If he can continue his form long term, Brazil will have no option but to find room for his special talents over the coming years.
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