The 2017 Superclásico de las Américas game between the South American rivals served as an intriguing curtain raiser to Jorge Sampaoli’s reign as the new Argentina boss. After being linked to the job for the past several years he somehow surprisingly quit his first job in Europe to come back to the shores where he had made his name as a devoted Bielsa disciple in his time working in Chile. Argentina were without injured first team defenders Rojo and Mascherano, who would probably play a huge role as the ball playing center back in next year’s world cup.
On the opposite bench, after guiding his team to 9 wins out of 9 games, Tite, continuing with his settled tactics was giving chances to some players, specially in the back, for his final squad selection. With Neymar, Marcelo, Dani Alves, Firminio, Casemiro among others missing out, some issues stood out in Brazil’s game and tactics which Tite has to address during the next year if they want to seriously challenge for the World Cup again.
Brazil (4-1-4-1): 1. Weverton // 2. Fagner, 3. Thiago Silva, 4. Gil 6. Filipe Luis // 5. Fernandinho // 15. Paulinho, 8. Renato Augusto // 11. Coutinho, 19. Willian, 9. Gabriel Jesus
Argentina (3-4-2-1): 1. Romero // 17. Otamendi, 4. Maidana, 2. Mercado // 16. Gomez, 6. Biglia, 19. Banega, 11. Di Maria // 10. Messi, 21. Dybala // 9. Higuain
Substitutions: 66’ Douglas Costa (Augusto), 73’ Rafinha (Fagner), 81’ Giulano (Paulinho), 90+1’ Taison (Jesus) // 46’ J.Correa (Higuain), 52’ Tagliafico (Gomez), 69’ G.Rodríguez (Dybala). 75’ Mammana (Mercado), 81’ Lanzini (Banega), 90+2’ Acuna (Di Maria)
Goal: 45’ Mercado
Both teams use high press for different means
As a hallmark of Sampaoli’s trademark style, Argentina started with a man oriented high press to disrupt Brazil’s ability to build from the back. The three center backs marked Gabriel Jesus, Willian and Coutinho, the two number 6’s marked Brazil’s number 8’s, Di Maria and Gomez were responsible for the opponent’s fullbacks, Dybala was trying to prevent passes to Fernandinho, Higuain and Messi were on Brazil’s center backs and goalkeeper. To create a spare man at the back, as a rule of Bielsa’s man marking, the wingbacks shifted to the ball side, which left Brazil’s ball far fullback free in the first phase of build up.
When they lost the ball , to stop Brazil from counter attacking through Willian and Coutinho, the two side center backs would follow them up the pitch to prevent them from getting the ball. The whole team specially the two central midfielders would push up and counterpress Brazil’s ball carrier to regain possession or halt their counter attack. The main reason for Argentina’s high press and counterpress was to try to keep control of the ball. But for Brazil it was a different story.
Tite’s main game plan was to force turnovers in the opposition half and use fast transitions to create space and 1vs1 situations for his 3 fast forwards. They didn’t put much pressure on Argentina’s center backs at first, by overloading the central areas and blocking the passing lanes to Argentina’s playmakers they forced Argentina to move the ball to the sides.
They would wait for the ball to get to Argentina’s wingbacks, usually Di Maria (more on that later), Brazil’s winger would backward press him and use his cover shadow to block the pass back, also the ball near number 8 would block the passing lane to the center and with the help of the fullback they would use this pressing trap to take the ball back from Argentina. As a result of this strategy Paulinho had the game high 8 tackles and Coutinho and Augusto were second with 4 each. Argentina tried to counter this by leaving Messi and Dybala in the half spaces so Brazil’s fullbacks couldn’t come higher and leave more space for Di Maria and Gomez.
Argentina attack down the left through Di Maria
The main plan in Argentina’s attack was to get the ball to the left halfspace so Di Maria, Messi, Dybala and Banega can link together and create some chances. From poor touches and bad decisions most of them didn’t come to anything. If Argentina had a more mobile striker instead of Higuin, who had a terrible game, by stretching Brazil’s defense and making runs in the channels, they could have created more space and have better goal scoring chances.
Messi and Dybala were positioning themselves in the space around Fernandinho, hoping to receive the ball there. At times which they got the ball, because of the lopsided formation, Gomez didn’t offer any support in the right side attacking third, also Higuain didn’t make any penetrating runs behind the defense, so the two number 10’s didn’t have much options and with Brazil’s midfielders closing them down aggressively they often lost the balls. After some time Messi got frustrated and came deeper in search of more time on the ball. This tweak helped Argentina’s ball circulation. With Brazil’s midfield and forward lines overloading the center, Banega and Biglia didn’t have much space to operate. But Messi coming back gave them better structure. From the start of the game due to the Di Maria’s qualitative superiority over Fagner, as the weak link in Brazil’s defense, Argentina were trying ways to isolate Fagner and create space and 1v1 opportunities for Di Maria to run at him. They created some chances with Banega or Biglia switching the play with long balls to Di Maria. On the 6th minute Di Maria hit the post after dribbling in to the box.
Messi received some passes in the space between the midfield and forward lines. Using his trademark diagonal runs to the left and passing the ball to the space behind the ball far fullback, Fagner, he created some decent chances for his team mates. The most dangerous one came in the 38th minute were Di Maria first had the space to cross for Higuain, and then took a shot from the rebound which led to a corner kick.
Messi and Dybala were staying on the edge of the box to receive cutbacks from Di Maria. In the 43rd minute, after a long pass from Banega to Di Maria he got in the box behind the defense line. Messi was waiting to get the pass but Di Maria’s pass got deflected to Dybala who had a good shot that went out close to the post. In the attack after this, again Dybala had the ball but his cross got blocked and from the resulting corner Argentina scored the only goal of the match.
Mercado’s goal was the result of a short corner routine which from Banega’s cross Otamendi had a free header and the rebound fell to Mercado to tap it in. Tite can be frustrated with his defenders for allowing two Argentina players free on the 6 yard line and for the lapse of concentration from the defenders not reacting fast enough for the rebound.
Brazil lethargic on counter attacks
Brazil were trying to force turnovers deep in Argentina’s half. Brazil looked to direct Argentina’s first phase of build up down the right hand side and through Otamendi and Gomez. First it was less dangerous than their left, second they could have won the ball back easier by putting pressure on Gomez compared to the rest of his team mates. With the use of his cover shadow, Gabriel Jesus forced Maidana and Romero to pass to Otamendi. He only had one option open, Gomez. As soon as the ball was moving toward him Filipe Luis would press him and Augusto and Willian blocked his passing options. Gomez’s bad body position when receiving the ball didn’t help at all, by facing his own goal he gave Filipe Luis a good opportunity to put pressure on him. This led to a few good chances. In the 5th minute Luis pressed Gomez from behind, he passed to Biglia under pressure who got dispossessed by Coutinho who dwelled on the ball for too long and Mercado tackled him successfully. The same thing happened in the 48th minute, Countinho and Augusto got the ball off Otamendi which then led to Willian being fouled in a dangerous area near the box. Shortly after that Sampaoli substituted Gomez and move Mercado to right back.
During these transitions Brazil lost the ball several times due to bad decisions or poor touches mostly made by Paulinho. This can become a problem for them in the future, although it got addressed by Tite in the 2nd half.
With combinations from one of the wingers, ball near number 8 and fullback, Brazil attacked the spaces left behind Argentina’s wingbacks, particularly Di Maria. The most dangerous one came in the 18th minutes when they got behind Di Maria and passed the ball behind the box for Renato Augusto who used the free space afforded to him to have an attempt at Romero’s goal.
Gabriel Jesus was playing as a false 9 in this game. His main job was to receive the ball from deep and give through passes for Willian and Coutinho to run behind Argentina’s defense. In 22nd minute they made the best chance of the 1st half. By coming back, Willian pulled Otamendi out of position. When the ball was played to Gabriel Jesus, Willian turned and attacked the space vacated by Otamendi. Jesus fed him the ball and Willian hold on to the ball to attract Mercado and Maidana to create more space and time for Coutinho. Albiceleste defenders were at fault here because all of them were ball watching and none of them spotted Coutinho moving freely in the box. Coutinho was at the main culprit as he didn’t shoot soon enough and Romero closed him down with Otamendi’s help.
Another great chance was created in the second half. Filipe Luis, who had the most touches of Brazil’s players, passed the ball to Coutinho who after exchanging a one-two pass with Jesus, he got through on goal. As he adjusted his feet to shoot, Paulinho got in front of Romero, and as Coutinho’s shot was heading for the top corner of the net the ball hit Paulinho in an offside position and the attack came to nothing.
2nd Half developments
Sampaoli brought Correa in for the ineffective Higuain at half time. Argentina changed formation and played 4-2-3-1 for the rest of the game. Di Maria moved to left wing and Messi, Dybala, Correa took turns playing as right winger, striker and number 10. A reason for it was to nullify Coutinho’s runs behind Di Maria by moving Mercado to left back. Tite also swapped Coutinho and Willian’s positions so the more defensive minded Willian could help Fagner deal with the threat of Di Maria. Maybe that’s why Sampaoli made his second sub 5 minutes later to bring Mercado to right back to face Coutinho again.
Argentina played more patiently in this half to control the game and by staying deeper they tried to not give Brazil space for their fast counter attacks. Their positional structure had problems, specially in the attacking third, that’s the reason they couldn’t create any quality chances. They were still focusing their attacks down the left hand side with Di Maria and Tagliafico available, compared to the right side with defense minded right backs, first Mercado and his replacement after he went out with injury, Mammana. Now with Correa able to offer an option forward by running to the channels, they were able to create a decent chance. Correa received a long ball behind Filipe Luis, and with Brazil’s midfield shifting to the ball side, Di Maria was left free on the edge of the box. But he could only get a corner from his shot.
With Dybala operating more on the right side, Fernandinho remained free in Brazil’s build up. He got on the ball in the 62nd minute to create the best chance of the night that somehow Gabriel Jesus missed it. With the forward line not helping, Biglia and Banega moved higher to close down Fernandinho and Paulinho which left a lot of space for Coutinho and Willian in the halfspace. By having enough time to go through his passing options, after spotting Jesus making a good run between Otamendi and Maidana, Fernandinho played a perfect pass for him. Gabriel Jesus dribbled around the onrushing Romero with the composure of an experienced striker. All he had to do was to put the ball in the empty net. But somehow he managed to only hit the post with his shot. The rebound fell to Willian. With Romero and Argentina’s defenders still unbalanced, Willian also managed to hit the other post with his kick. Again the rebound fell to Brazil, this time Paulinho. After another poor touch, he got dispossessed by the recovering Albicelste players.
Sensing Brazil were taking control in the game, Sampaoli brought a defensive midfielder, Guido Rodriguez, for Dybala and changed to 4-3-3 to bring more stability to the center of the pitch and leave less free space in front of his defense that Coutinho and Willian were exploiting. After more subs coming in for both teams and Argentina sitting deeper to control the play, the game lost its flow and didn’t have much more events in it except Gabriel Jesus getting injured by his club team mate, Otamendi.
With fatigue playing a part after most of players playing long seasons in Europe (Higuain and Dybala who both played in the UCL final had forgettable games), this was a game without high quality chances but with some good points for both coaches to take home.
Tite was without his first choice defense, with already being qualified for next year’s World Cup, he can use the next several games to experiment with different lineups and give some players a chance to prove themselves. The major problem in his team which became evident today is the lack of creativity from his central midfielders. The problem will show itself against tough opposition who are happy to sit back or when Brazil will need to score a goal. Paulinho and Renato Augusto are decent Box to Box midfielders, but are not good enough to create goal scoring chances when facing strong opposition. As what we can get from Klopp’s comments and their search for a new winger, Coutinho is probably going to play in a deeper role as a number 8 for Liverpool in next season. This can help him to play in that position week in week out so Tite could use him there in the World Cup. After taking Augusto off for Douglas Costa, he moved Coutinho to a deeper role. With his dribbling and needle playing attributes he could be very effective in that role. After Paulinho wasted some good chances, Tite brought on Giuliano who can be useful to add some much needed attacking power and end product to the midfield.
Sampaoli started with a 3-4-2-1 formation which we will probably see a lot more in the future. They were signs of his preferred style in place with glimpses of high man oriented pressing, counterpressing and interchanging of positions seen specially in the first half. The two areas he needs to address are the right wingback and striker positions. To balance the team he needs to use a more attack minded right wingback who could support the team in the attacking third and give good passing options for the likes of Messi and Dybala to use. Maybe someone like Eduardo Salvio can be considered. In this system he needs a more mobile and faster striker who could stretch the defense to make more room for the number 10, and be on the receiving end of through passes behind the opposition’s defenders. Icardi could be a good pick and if Aguero can remain as a first team starter under Pep in City during the next season, he will have a strong claim to be a starter in Russia.