Millionaires Turned Paupers

You may blame the Mayans. They had predicted something similar. The fifth of the seven key Mayan prophecies talks about how the established world order will change. It also gives a time frame of when the change will be manifested – sometime in 1999 things will start deteriorating. 1999 is also the year, when a special edition of the Argentine sports magazine “El Gráfico” named River Plate as “Champions of the Century”, noting the club’s achievements, especially their (then) 28 Argentine championships against Boca Juniors’ 19 and Independiente’s 13. If one were to plot the course of achievements for the club based in the Belgrano neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, then that would very much be it. Whatever ensued, culminating in relegation in June 2011, looks like a swift and steep curve down.

The History

One can’t stress enough on the significance of River Plate in the history of Argentine and South American football and the society in general. Founded on May 25, 1901, in what is today the neighbourhood of its fiercest rival – Boca Juniors, the club moved to Palermo and  then on to Belgrano in the northern part of Buenos Aires in 1923. They earned their nickname of Los Millionarios when in the early 1930s, they paid £23,000 for Bernabé Ferreyra, a quite unheard of sum and a record transfer fee for over 20 years, and most of it was paid in gold. Ferreyra repaid the amount with a scarcely believable 187 goals in 185 matches for River.

A new impetus also came from the social movement whereby, the military rulers as well as the civilian reformers of Argentina focused on the development of character through sports in the 1920-40s. It was seen as a step towards the building of a modern nation. River became the symbol of that with an all conquering team that swept everyone before them. Three league titles in the 1930s were followed by four in the 1940s and five in the 1950s. The 1940s team earned its nickname, La Maquina (the machine), based on their ruthless efficiency in the domestic and international scene. The team even bears comparison to and is seen as one of the earliest precursor to ‘total football’ as propounded by the Ajax and Dutch of 1970s vintage.

The Achievements

River Plate in its 110 years of history has been the most decorated club in the Argentinian domestic front. Much like other fierce rivalries in Europe, where one of the rivals would collect more international trophies only to be outdone in the domestic scene by its fiercest rival (think Liverpool – Manchester United or AC Milan – Juventus), River swept through the domestic scene collecting 33 league titles in its 110 year history. Even though bitter rival, Boca Juniors have the record (jointly owned with Milan) for the maximum international club tournaments. River can point towards their Annus Mirabilis of 1986-87 when they won the domestic title, the Copa Libertadores, the Copa Interamericana and the Copa Intercontinental. Such a clean sweep was quite unprecedented. They almost repeated the same after a decade in 1996, when they once again won the domestic title and the Copa Libertadores. This 1996-97 display by the team led the club to first place in the IFFHS ranking for six consecutive months, the first Argentine club to do so. They are also the only Argentine club ranked as the best World team in a full season (1997–1998). At the turn  of the century, the ultimate accolade of “Champions of the Century” was thus conferred on the club. The following year, in a FIFA sponsored vote, River was voted the best Argentine team of the 20th century. Indeed the club has been a conglomerate of champions over its 100 years and one would not attempt to capture the stars that have passed through the El Monumental but fair to say that, in every decade, the best of Argentina have always come from either River or Boca, who together commandeer over 70% of the Argentine public support.

The Decline Years

The last decade has not been kind to River Plate, especially in the latter half. A brief note about the Argentine domestic tournament details may be relevant. Like many Latin American leagues, the Argentina league is divided into 2 halves, the Apertura and the Clausura (literally, the opening and the closure). The winners of each of those halves can claim to have won a league. This departure from a unified single home and away league was undertaken from the 1990-91 season and incidentally River Plate was the last club to win the unified league championship in 1989-90.
With this truncated 2 mini leagues (one home and one away) put into a season, River were doing fine as can be seen from the 12 league titles (Apertura or Clausura) in the next 14 years i.e. till 2004. Since then, only once have they managed to win – the 2008 Clausura. But there has been no shortage of managerial merry-go-rounds. To illustrate the point, Ramon Diaz was the last manager to preside over consecutive seasons, from 1995-1999, arguably the time when River were the team to beat and had won their title as Champion of the Century. Since then there have been 15 (yes 15!) managerial appointments in 12 seasons. None of those managers could string 2 seasons consecutively but there were many re-appointments, and each ended with further misery than the previous one.

Financially too, the fortunes took a nosedive as the club is estimated to have run up a debt of 280 million Argentine pesos ($67.76 million). Part of the reason is how the club let the ultras (Los Borrachos del Tablón – literally “the Drunks in the Stands”) take care of certain financial transactions of the club. A lot of ultras and miscreants took charge of merchandising, and even had a pie from player transfer earnings. They enjoyed huge perks like all expenses paid for away matches and even free tickets. All this was done with José María Aguilar as the club president (2001-09). For these 8 long years, many of the top talents from River were sold off to Europe while filling the gap with players who were owned by 3rd party or by agents. Hence when they moved on, the club didn’t earn much out of it. Some of the money is still unaccounted for and may have been siphoned off. The total mismanagement of funds coupled with power given to the ultras and lack of motivation for players led to a huge decline in the performance. Refer to the table for decline.

Taking 2007 Clausura, which they won; if we consider the mean of the gap that existed between the winner and River over the last 6 tournaments (2008-9 – 2010-11) was close to 18 points, implying a gap of 6 defeats. For a team that had won the 2007 Clausura, that is a steep, sharp and ignominious decline. The most appalling fact being, the team managed to finish last in the league in the 2008 Apertura, right after winning the 2007 Clausura. Once a domestic behemoth, River Plate now stood merely as a middling team, for whom finishing in the top 5 could prove beyond their means in 8 out of 14 attempts since 2004. Certainly this is not the stuff of “Campeon de Campeones”. The Millionaires were on the precipice of bankruptcy. The push would come soon.

The Relegation

The rules of relegation in the Argentine League, needs a bit of discussion before we delve into River’s final ignominy. Back in the 80s when the league was concerned with sudden departure of top talents from the big teams to Europe, they wanted to put in place a system which would help these teams recuperate from sudden loss of form owing to such transfers. So they installed a system of “promedios” (points averaging), whereby a team’s relegation status is determined by working out their points per game average over the last three seasons instead of the overall performance in that particular season. Although this implies that one poorly played season by a newly promoted team could spell doom, on the flip side, it was quite unthinkable that a big team would have 3 consecutive bad seasons spread over 6 league phases.

There is but one more chance provided to teams following the average of 3 seasons. Based on them, the bottom two teams (19th and 20th) are demoted directly to Primera B Nacional. However the 18th and 17th teams go into a 2-legged playoff with the 3rd and 4th placed teams from the Primera B Nacional. With the away goals rule present, the 17th and 18th teams can thus win these matches and remain in the Primera Division.

For the year 2010-11, it came down to these 4 teams – River Plate (17th) with a points average of 1.237, Gimnasia La Plata (18th) with a points average of 1.096, Huracan (19th) with a points average of 1.096 and Quilmes (20th) with a points average of 1.096. Quilmes was relegated directly and Huracan lost in a relegation play-off with Gimnasia as they both had the same average, and thus relegated directly. River and Gimnasia went into a 2-legged play-off with Belgrano and San Martín de San Juan respectively.

River lost the 1st leg 0-2 away and hence needed to win by 3 goals to stay in Primera Division or to win 2-0 and force a tie breaker. When the return leg arrived, River were desperate to win it. Around 60,000 had packed into the El Monumental (government safety limit being 40,000) to watch their favourite team battle for their lives. The match itself started very promisingly as River took the lead in the 6th minute with Mariano Pavone scoring a fine goal. An uneventful 1st half followed by a calamitous 2nd half that sealed their fate. First Belgrano equalized from a defensive shamble by the River defenders and goalkeeper and then Pavone missed a penalty that would have given them a glimmer of hope. The referee, pressed by the rioting of fans, didn’t bother with extra added time for stoppages and finished the match in 90 minutes sharp.

The Aftermath

If the match itself was insulting what with such a proud club going into uncharted ignominy, more disgrace was added with the rioting and violence that followed. Violence broke a minute before the match got over. Annoyed fans pelted players with a variety of objects from the stands, and police replied with high-powered fire hoses while some fans climbed fences topped with razor wire.

The clashes left 89 people injured, while over 50 were arrested, according to Argentina’s Federal Police. Fans were sprayed with high-power water hoses – inside and outside the stadium – with police using teargas, rubber bullets and hand-to-hand combat in a futile attempt to control the rioting. As they scattered, rioting fans set fire to vehicles and rubbish bins around the stadium, with many smashing windows and breaking into shops in upscale areas.

Looking Ahead

The future ahead doesn’t look too rosy. There lies the debt factor, which cannot be helped by the reduced revenues that will be a feature of life in 2nd division. For example, the TV revenue of around $7.5 mn per year would take a nosedive to $855,000 per year as is the standard for Primera B. The sponsorship deals would also be markedly reduced since they hinged on River being a Premier Division team.

The advertising deals, which include sponsors like Adidas, Petrobras and others wouldn’t help much as the money has already been used to pay the debt that had been built up since 2001 under President José María Aguilar. Club legend and World Cup winning captain, Daniel Pasarella became the President in 2009 and it was expected that after 8 years of misdirection, he would lead the club to its former glories. Instead the results have only deteriorated. The steady flux of managers and invasion of the ultras remain.

Post the recent relegation, the reins of the club have been handed over to Mattias Almeyda, who retired this season as a player at River. It is for him to chart a path to the top division at the earliest. President Pasarella has been quoted as saying, “I would be dragged out feet first”, which shows a resolve to restore the team to its rightful position. The manager has been given some new players, all on a free transfer. Some of those names have a River history and are good bargain buys (Christian Nasuti, Alejandro Dominguez, Fernando Cavenaghi), however, some of the talents have left too, notedly Erik Lamela, the crown jewel of the River team, who was sold for about half of what he would have been sold had River not been relegated.

One cannot imagine the South American football scene without a club like River Plate in its midst, as much as one cannot imagine a year without Superclásico in Argentina. A new chapter has been added to Argentine and South American football. One hopes that River would bounce back soon enough to give a happy ending to this chapter.

A Chaos Theory Experiment on Copa America 2011

Butterfly Effect?

Followed by controversies and heartbreaks, the Copa America 2011, looked like an Elephant’s Graveyard with early exits of many a favourable team along with the host nation, and also marked by one of the lowest scoring football events of recent times. We saw one of the best players of this generation being booed by his home fans and arguably the greatest football playing nation of all time making a mockery of their pride with a horrendous penalty shoot out show.

The quarter finals were a recipe for utter chaos. Few could have imagined the kind of semi final line-up we would end up with. One false step in tactical play and you are knocked out. Early exits of big guns put an even bigger question on the team fluidity, formation and cohesion. Squad and tactical choices by the master planners played a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the matches. Most of the predictions were not meted out. One may comfortably say that the latest edition of Copa America has been no exception to the Chaos Theory.

It has been observed that the presence or absence of a butterfly flapping its wings could lead to creation or absence of a hurricane. In Chaos Theory, this phenomenon is referred to as the Butterfly Effect. In the world of football, I’d say managers and their predispositions to certain tactical choices induce this butterfly effect! This tournament can be considered a fine instance of such an occurrence. Let’s delve into some of the tactical strategies employed by the 8 quarter-finalists, or should we say,

map the butterfly effects behind this Chaos Theory.

Brazil: Poor Finishing Finishes Job

The reigning champions came with their new coach, Mano Menezes following a quarterfinal shock exit at the World Cup. Dunga preferred Brazil to play in a counter attacking style with a solid defensive line and Kaká at the centre of the park for creative excellence. He made the more defensive minded Felipe Melo a game breaker and posed Luís Fabiano as the target man. His defense-oriented strategy garnered a lot of criticism.

Formation

Menezes got rid of his predecessor’s strategy and came with a dynamic 4-2-1-3 formation. Brazil’s 4-2-1-3 initially had Dani Alves as the right wing back dropping Maicon, as a result of his flying performance with Barcelona last season. The two central defenders Lúcio and



Thiago Silva played well but André Santos was a surprise selection for left back.The team’s performance was expected to rely mostly on the two midfield pivots – Lucas and Ramires. The Santos sensation, Ganso had a similar role to play like Kaká. He employed Neymar, Pato and Robinho as the three. roaming forwards. It was a striker-less formation, which can be converted to 4-2-3-1 (with Pato upfront) or 4-2-2-2 (putting Robinho a little down) whenever required.

Tactical Analysis: Dani vs. Maicon

Coach Mano Menezes received strong criticism from the pundits during a friendly match against France when he had substituted a forward with a midfielder while trailing 0-1. Menezes’ team had a poor start followed by a goal-less draw against Venezuela and a not-so-impressive 2-2 draw against Paraguay. In these games, Dani Alves started as the first choice right back. But the strategy did not work as per expectations. Alves is the kind of player who can exploit free space off-the-ball. He does the same in Barcelona colours when Lionel Messi cuts inside with a defender. Robinho being more of a wide player, effectively created much traffic on Dani’s path. Menezes’ next match line- up was more sensible when he picked Jádson over Robinho, who plays in a narrower role. Maicon, however, was given a chance in place of the Barcelona full back. Maicon is definitely more comfortable with the ball and more secure defensively than Alves. His inclusion in the team accommodated Robinho in the top half. Maicon did pretty decently when given the chance and made the wing-play better. While Alves, the former Sevilla man attempted 6 crosses from the right with 16%

accuracy, Maicon delivered 17 crosses with nearly 30% accuracy.

What Went Wrong – Poor Finishing et al: Butterfly Effect

The two deep midfielders Lucas and Ramires both sat a little too deep in the park. Though Ramires pushed up more than Lucas, it was not enough to emphasize the attacking potential. As an obvious outcome, the creative midfielder, Ganso lacked support. With an unimpressive record of 154 successful passes and 32 missed, he failed to live up to Brazil’s expectations. As Ganso was barely effective, it was up to Lucas and Ramires to feed the ball forward. As they were sitting deep, playing long balls was the key although not much effective, since the average height of their forward trio was less than 5’10”. Pato had a great first touch, but his second touch spoiled it. His poor conversion of goals to shot ratio let him down, though he managed to score 2 goals. Being a lone target man fed with the long passes, he was not that effective as he ended with making 62 successful passes only. Neymar came in with much expectation after his fantastic season with Santos, decorated with 42 goals. Though he managed to complete 27 dribbles (second highest at the tournament after Lionel Messi) and drew 13 fouls around the box, overall it was a big disappointment. Once again poor accuracy (5 on target out of 13 shots) by him and failure to provide successful crosses from the wing (13 unsuccessful crosses and only 1 successful) kept the left flank barren. Along with these, Andre Santos primarily concentrated on distributing balls (a whopping statistics of 276 passes by a left wing back) rather than using the free spaces created by Neymar on the left, and ended up with only 1 successful cross per match on average. As such, Brazil appeared pretty ordinary before the



opponent goal area. Menezesneeded to boost up their shooting skills as they kept only 46.77% shots on target and alarmingly only 6 shots out of their 22, during the quarter final against Paraguay. The failure to convert chances put massive pressure during the horror penalty shootout show where they managed to miss all of their 4 penalties.

Potential for Future

Brazil might need a few tactical switches to revamp their glory. Perhaps a 4-1-2-3 formation would help improving Ganso’s performance where Ramires should be pushed into a more attacking role. Deploying a dedicated target man might be a key as none of Neymar, Pato or Robinho is a natural target men. It is really hard to attain success with a striker-less formation for National side, but to find a replacement of Ronaldo is even harder. A European exposure for both Neymar and Ganso could do the trick.

Chile: Sensational, but no Cookie

Claudio Borghi had prepared his team from where Marcelo Bielsa had left off. The pool of talent he inherited, supposedly the golden generation of the La Roja, helped in Borghi’s tactical choices.

Formation

Bielsa’s Chile was quite brilliant throughout the World Cup qualifier matches, and was a tactical sensation at the South Africa World Cup. He mostly stuck to a super attacking 3-3-1-3 formation where he put one defensive minded midfielder to support the 3 man defensive and one ‘number 10′ behind 3 forwards. Two of his three forwards played far wide to stretch the defensive and also gave freedom to the wide

midfielders to play narrowly. This eventually gave the midfield a diamond shape. Borghi – another Argentinian who managed Colo Colo previously, didn’t tinker much with the formation after taking charge. He relied on the three men defensive line and modified the system to a more midfield heavy 3-5-2. The wide midfielders were given the responsibility to stretch the opponent’s wingbacks while one forward would drop down to strengthen the midfield. Borghi used his two wide midfielders, Jean Beausejour and Mauricio Isla in more wide roles and former Cesena man Luis Jiminez – as the attacking midfielder. Isla provided enough width to make the midfield spacious

which was exploited by the tricky Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez, though a front man, eventually dropped back into the midfield and always provided a numerical edge to his team in the midfield battle. This is an advantage in Borghi’s tactics that he didn’t restrict his team within a single formation. His 3-5-2 often switched to 3-2-3-2



or 3-3-3-1 while defending and 3-1-4-2 or 3-2-4-1(3-6-1) while attacking.

Tactical Analysis: Bielsa vs Borghi

One behavioural difference between the two systems was, Bielsa believing more on direct pressing game with electric pace while Borghi’s team preferred gradual build-up,

more possession and allowed the midfielders to come forward from the deep. The pace of the game was relatively slower. As Borghi tended more towards possession game, he used a double pivot as Artuto Vidal and Gary Medel. Dropping down Sanchez helped them to put an extra man in midfield and hold on to the possession. This transfer market sensation, though not in his best form, was tricky enough to complete 11 dribbles and extracting 20 fouls. Commensurate with his phenomenal success at Udinese as a more central threat from being a winger, Borghi also changed his position in the

national team, from being a wide player during Bielsa days.

Butterfly Effect: Vidal Underutilized?

After an awesome season with the German club, Vidal was pretty much used to play with the double pivot system with a four man defensive line. Though his team-mate, Alexis Sanchez hogged the limelight, Vidal silently lay claim to be one of the most complete midfielders of the past season. During the last season, he had the second best defensive record in Bundesliga (with 4.7 tackles per game and 2.8 interceptions per game). This skilful midfielder also exhibits effective dribbling skills and a vision for long passes. His attacking prowess makes him a complete footballer as he ended the season with 11 assists, second best in the Bundesliga and 1.9 key passes per game. He also rattled up 10 goals. While playing for Chile as a protection of a 3 man defensive, though, he was not given the license to attack and his talents were heavily under-utilized in Borghi’s formation. While he maintained an excellent average of 57.2 passes per game last season, in a more defensive role he only had 45.67 passes per game statistics in the Copa America. Other than this, though the defensive trio of Gonjalo Jara, Waldo Ponce and Pablo Contreras were pretty good in the open play, the tendency to commit a foul around the box proved costly ultimately.

Suicidal Substitution: Borghi, The Criminal

Opponents often exploited the three man defensive play by shooting long balls and turning it into a 3vs3 battle. Committing fouls seemed the only way to gain time for the out-of-position midfielders to fall back. The shock



came from Venezuela as they capitalised on the dead-ball situations perfectly. The decision of replacing Carmona for Valdivia instead of Medel proved to be fatal against Venezuela. As Medel was already on a yellow card and being the single defensive screen before a 3 man defensive, his misdemeanour eventually cost him a marching order.

Future

With this golden generation, Chile will definitely be among the favourites for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Playing Vidal as a free player with license to attack would provide a new dimension to their attack.

Colombia: Group Leaders Derailed

Colombia did not arrive with much of an expectation, but they were the first team to qualify from the group stage after claiming the top spot above the favourites Argentina, but their limp performance against Peru in the quarter finals put forth a lot of questions.

Formation

Manager Hernan Dario Gomez used a very popular 4-1-4-1 formation spear-headed by Porto’s talismanic striker Radamel Falcao. After a slow start against Costa Rica, Colombia was excellent against Argentina and Bolivia. Gomez had a very dependable back line led by experienced Milan man Mario Yepes. At the age of 35, he had an excellent tournament and was instrumental for the three consecutive clean sheets in the group matches. It was not that easy for a player like Cristián Zapata on the bench, but the Yepes-Luis Perea pair appeared to be pretty formidable. They did not concede a single goal in the group league matches. Also, the two wing-backs, Juan Zúñiga and Pablo

Armero helped relentlessly in attacking. Gomez employed Gustavo Bolívar as the dedicated defensive minded midfielder.He used a rather flat four man midfield formation against Costa Rica – pressing the young U-23 opposition. This style left gaps between them and Gustavo Bolívar, which could have been exploited extensively by any good attacking side. In order to tackle this issue, from the next match onwards, Gomez tucked his two central midfielders, Fredy Guarín and Abel Aguilar a little deep, to establish the link between defense and attack.

Tactical Analysis: Carlos Sanchez at the heart

Though Gomez started with Bolívar against Costa Rica, despite showcasing a decent performance, he was replaced by Carlos Sanchez for the Argentina game. This strategy was immensely successful as Sanchez was



excellent throughout the crunch game and the rest of the tournament. Guarín was Colombia’s key player in the midfield and essentially the driving force behind their attacks. The Porto man scored 5 goals from 8 games in the UEFA Europa Cup and was keen to score for his national side too. He mostly attempted long rangers with high success rate to keep the opposition goalkeeper busy. Alongside him, Aguilar was also decent in his distribution. The midfielder duo shared an impressive 71.5 average passes per game in aggregate. Yet Sanchez was the most vital man for them in the midfield. He was superb against the undisputed best player of the world, Lionel Messi, and only committed 1 foul on him using all his experiences of French Ligue1. Throughout the tournament he made 16 successful tackles (5.33 per game) which quite reflected his character.

Keeping the Wingers High

Colombia’s main threat came from their flanks, where Dayro Moreno and Adrián Ramos were very active. By constantly running, shooting at the goal, and swapping flanks – they created havoc in the opposition defense. Gomez instructed them to stay up in the field and their strong appearance kept the opposition wingbacks quiet. Against Argentina, Gomez countered Pablo Zabaleta’s running on the right flank by keeping Ramos high up the pitch and forced Argentina to switch play to the left where Zanetti was playing, who is not very comfortable with his wrong foot. Since the wide forwards were not coming down, Aguilar and Guarin were instructed to tuck in centrally while defending to support Sanchez. Falcao’s duty was to move back a little to fill up the void left by their two central midfielders. Essentially Colombia converted to a defensive minded 4-3-3 while defending, and this two-layered defending worked out extremely well to stop the brilliance of Messi.

Seeking Creativity and Keeping Ills

However, in the quarterfinals they lost the game, despite being a better team than Peru. Though they had created more chances than Peru, tactically they were subjugated. In this game, both their central midfielders were man-marked, which made them ineffective in the context of their natural game. Aguilar was never that tricky to break through the marking. Peru allowed Sanchez enough time, but his lack of attacking vision let Gomez down. It’s only when Guarin who, when tried to dribble past his marker, did Colombia look threatening. As a result, the constant pressing was absent from Colombia’s game. With limited creativity in the midfield and in the reserve bench, Gomez failed to extract the best from his team. Incidentally, a penalty miss by Falcao, one of Europe’s finest strikers of the last season, and two deciding errors by their goalkeeper, ended their journey in this edition of Copa.

Future: Central Creativity

Colombia seriously needs a playmaker behind Falcao to improve the situation. The lack of creativity at the centre-of-the-park cost them a lot. While they have a sound defense and a great finisher upfront, a certain amount of creativity in the midfield can lift their game and may find a place at the world cup finals.

Argentina: Of Tactical Blunders, Human Errors

After the World Cup 2010 embarrassment, Sergio Batista took over from Diego Maradona and a fresh start was expected. Argentina was possibly the most interesting team from a



manager’s perspective. A traditional top heavy team decorated with perhaps the world’s current best player – compromised by a weak back four and an inexperienced goalkeeper. The whole world was looking forward to seeing how Batista managed the team, but yet again a shock defeat against Uruguay and an underwhelming performance throughout, forced AFA to sack him.

Formation

The main challenge for Batista was to extract the best out of Lionel Messi. With no disrespect, he was a complete failure in the first two matches. He started the tournament with a 4-3-3 formation, keeping Messi at the heart of the forward line. Nicolás Burdisso and Gabriel Milito were the two centre backs. New talent, Marcos Rojo started in the left back position and the ageless Inter Milan figure, Javier Zanetti started on the right. Batista employed 3 defensive midfielders to protect his weak defense at the

cost of a creative midfielder in the midfield. Batista was trying to emulate the Barcelona formation around the brilliance of Messi. But eventually this tactic failed.Batista had to change the formation after two poor performances by his team. He brought Zabaleta back as right full back and switched Zanetti to the left to replace the inept Rojo. This change of tactics gave Argentina a little more of width. And then he re-jigged his formation completely for the do-or-die Costa Rica match. He moved to an attack minded 4-2-3-1 from the previously defensive minded 4-3-3. It must be said that 4-2-3-1 is not the likely name to call that shape. It was actually an extremely fluid top half, to make it 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-1-3, whichever was required.

Tactical Analysis: Messi Drops Deep, Deeper…

Batista’s 4-3-3 with three defensive minded midfielders actually put an immense task for the 3 forwards to beat a 5 man opposition defense (back four + one defensive midfield at least). For the first two games against Bolivia and Colombia respectively, his midfield trio, Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano, Inter’s Esteban Cambiasso and Valencia’s Éver Banega were instructed to sit deep in their half. Mascherano and Banega rarely made forward runs, although Cambiasso was given a little license to attack. Surprisingly among these three, Cambiasso was far less creative than Banega, who though the most creative player was restricted within his own half. As a result, Messi had to move deep into his midfield to get the ball and sometimes even deeper. Though Batista claimed to try to emulate the Barcelona model, in reality it was not happening. In Barcelona, other players play their game to support Messi to the fullest. Whenever Messi receives a ball, he dribbles



past a couple of defenders and either passes the ball to his closest player and expects a return, or switches the ball to the wide forwards like David Villa or Pedro. But for this Argentine side, he was left alone in the midfield (as there were no attacking intents from the 3 defensive midfielders) and the only mode of passing the ball was towards the flank.

Butterfly Effect – A Misplaced Carlos Tevez

Unfortunately, the inability of wing play by the full backs did not leave much option for Messi either, and Tevez not being a natural wide player, his poor off-the-ball positioning made defending easy for opposition teams. In a three man forward line with Messi playing deep, Tevez should be on the far left to stretch the defense, so that Messi can run through or send through passes for midfield runners. Instead, Tevez’s tendency to move into

the centre directly towards the defender, made the formation narrow and easy for opposition to crowd out Messi.

New Formation Worked Well

Batista’s 4-2-3-1 did work pretty well against Costa Rica. Batista brought in three Real Madrid men – Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Fernando Gago, and Atletico Madrid front man Sergei Aguero. As usual, Mascherano sat deep and was given a dedicated game breaker role. Gago played further up and his distribution skills meant that Messi need not always drop deep back for the ball. Di Maria started from a deeper position on left and Aguero started as wide left. The tactical switch was to get rid of the striker-less formation to a formation with an out-an-out striker played by Higuain. Di Maria’s runs helped as he exploited the space left by Aguero who cut inside. And Lionel Messi was playing in the hole as the roaming enganche. His dribbling and passing was suddenly most effective and he had 32 successful dribbles, 3 assists and numerous key passes. This formation was mostly left-centric allowing Zabaleta to run forward from the right, with frequent helps from Messi and Higuain.

What Went Wrong: Batista Was Beaten by Tabarez

Batista started with the same system against Uruguay. The much effective fluid system forced Óscar Tabárez to play rash football and Uruguay ended the day committing 28 fouls. Even after the early sending off of Diego Perez, Batista failed to take advantage of the extra man. Mostly missed chances from Argentine forwards and a goalkeeping clinic by Muslera, were enough to put Argentina out. Batista made another major mistake by substituting



both Di Maria and Aguero with Tevez and Pastore. As a result, Tevez, Pastore and Messi were all trying to play from the middle, with no width left on the far left. One couldn’t possibly expect 120 minutes of overlapping service from the 36 year old Zanetti, that too on the left side.

Future: Messi Is Not Maradona Yet

With the best player of the world leading their attacks, Argentina will always be a great force, however, it’s time they employ a tactically sound manager who can motivate the team in the key clashes. Leo Messi was good with his new role of playmaker but not quite in his Barcelona form, and a zero goal tally says it all. However, excessive dependency on Messi might lead them nowhere.

Venezuela: Tactically Vehement

Venezuela confounded expectations by reaching the semi-final, beating one of the tournament favourites, Chile and subsequently losing out to Paraguay in the tie-breaker and Peru in the 3rd/4th deciding match.

Formation

César Farías played his team with a 4-4-2 formation which was often recognizable as 4-2-2-2 form with 2 defensive midfielders sitting deep and 2 wide midfielders playing up. Farías played four-man defense line led by Oswaldo Vizcarrondo. He had an impressive tournament, committing only 4 fouls throughout, and made 9 absolutely vital tackles at the deep defense. Along with this, he proved to be an aerial threat in the opponent’s box in the dead ball situations. Left Back Gabriel Cichero also put a notable performance and for a defender, his distribution

skills were impressive. César had two defensive midfielders, Tomas Rincon and Franklin Lucena, to protect his back four. Both made numerous interceptions and tackles and broke up opposition attacks.Venezuela faced significant issues in breaking the defense as they were always a man short in attack. Juan Arango tried hard to complement this with his long distance shooting – a tally of 16 long shots and 2 goals though isn’t very productive. Other than these, his free kicks were a source of danger, especially against Chile. César kept rotating his front duo, and his creative forward, Giancarlo Maldonado was effective as a traditional number 9.

Tactical Analysis: Don’t Chase the Game

César initially instructed his two central midfielders to chase the game by constant off-



the-ball pressing and closing down opponent midfielders. This didn’t appear to be a safe policy as they were leaving huge spaces behind them in front of the back four. So as the tournament progressed, they were asked to sit deep and wait for the attackers, providing more steel in the defense. This tactic proved successful as heavyweight teams like Brazil and Chile were kept quiet for a significant amount of time.

What Went Wrong: Missing a Classic #10

Venezuela always lacked a creative ‘number 10’ in the hole. César, with his limited resources, tried to switch the game to the right. In the semi-final against Paraguay, he missed his pivots – Rincon, for suspension and Maldonado, for slight injury. Later, deep in the second half, he employed Maldonado and asked him to play from right to make diagonal runs to the centre. His presence brought about a significant change in the momentum of the game, and they looked a far better team during the extra time. Having two defensive midfielders seated deep, reduced the attacking threat. As both of their midfielders were playing wide, there was no creativity from the central position to seek out Maldonado’s runs.

Future

There is hope for La Vinotintos. Their counter attacking football has been praised by many, and although playing with only 10 men, they enjoyed better possession in the semi finals. Had they pursued consistently, they could have ended up playing at the Copa America finals for the first time.

Peru: Counter Attacking At Its Best

Peru was the biggest surprise package of Copa America 2011 as they played way better than usual and secured the third spot. Sergio Markarian took the flag from Jose Del Solar, under whom Peru had in the past, gone through one of their most disastrous pre-world cup campaign when they finished last. Markarian had stated his aim was to lead Peru to the 2014 World Cup after six consecutive failed campaigns. He himself has a World Cup experience, having led the Paraguay national team to the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan-Korea. The performance of the Peruvians in this Copa America definitely shows that this is a team we should keep an eye on; one can expect them to qualify in the tough South American qualifying round.

Formation



Starting as underdogs, Markarian mostly concentrated on a defense oriented formation for which he employed 3 midfielders with major defensive duties in front of 4 men back line. His 4-3-3 starting formation eventually turned to a 4-3-2-1 pyramid. Not a traditional pyramid; rather a skewed one as Markarian had a left balanced formation where the single striker was mostly paired with the left wide midfielder. The naturally aggressive Vargas shone in that role.

Tactical Analysis: Defense First, Defense Second, Attack Third

The Peruvian defense was led by Braga’s central defender Alberto Junior Rodríguez. Even after suffering an injury stricken season, he contributed a lot to Braga’s second spot in the Portuguese League and the UEFA Europa League respectively. The 27 year old centre back committed only 4 fouls in the tournament. With numerous interceptions, he managed to make up for the mistakes by inexperienced fellow defenders, Christian Ramos and Walter Vílchez. The 3 defensive midfielders, whom Markarian employed, were pretty comfortable playing long balls to break through quick counter attacks. He relied mostly on Adan Balbín and Rinaldo Cruzado for this, and a little aggressive license offered to Luis Advincula. Balbín, a natural defender, was given the duty of playing the holding role and his success in that role was instrumental in Peru’s rise.

Peru’s primary threat was their three attacking players. William Chiroque and Juan Vargas were given the license of an all-out-attack, and their presence high up the pitch pinned the opposition fullbacks. Chiroque, an experienced player from their domestic league, provided much fluidity to

their counter attacking system with his fast-paced runs and dribbling skills. This 31 year old finished with 17 successful dribbles and most of them were inside the opponent’s half. On the other side, Markarian fitted Fiorentina star Juan Vargas. Last season he was one of the few bright spots for them and he topped the assist chart for the club. His wing-play and link up play with Paolo Guerrero was responsible for the best attacking plays of Peru.

The Guerrero Effect

Paolo Guerrero, the Hamburg striker, was the main spearhead of Markarian’s counter attacking tactics. His admirable physical presence and holding capability provided enough time for Vargas and Chiroque to time their runs and stretch the defense for him. His dribbling ability forced the opposition to man mark him. Thus his movements – down the centre or to the left – always created a hole in the defense – which was suitably exploited by Vargas, who adroitly changed his position. Playing as the lone forward, Guerrero completed 16 successful dribbles and drew 22 fouls on him.

Both Vargas and Guerrero kept shooting from long range and in a combination averaged more than 6 attempts on goal per game with around 50% accuracy. Guerrero marked the performance by being the tournament’s top scorer with 5 goals and the sole hat-trick.

Future

Peru played better than many had expected, and their counter attacking tactics bore fruit. The attack could be deadly, though with a couple of attacking fullbacks. They could also do with a substitute for Guerrero who can fill in ably for him.



Paraguay: Ugly yet Admirable

Since the time of José Luis Chilavert, Paraguay has been a tough nut to crack, and the latest Copa loudly proclaimed the same when they ‘crawled forward’ to the grand finale against Uruguay. That Paraguay played the final after not having won a single game in open play said a lot about their spirit and tactical setup.

Formation

Manager Gerardo Martino who guided Paraguay to their first ever World Cup quarter final, achieved success yet again when he took his team to the Copa final. His ‘safety first’ approach may not look great but was the most effective. Paraguay played mostly with a defensive minded 4-4-2 formation. Like most of the Latin American teams, this is a hybrid formation and can be quickly converted to

4-3-3. Off-the-ball, one forward would track back to make it an effective 4-5-1.They had Justo Villar, who was the outstanding player of both the quarters and semis, a back four of Darío Verón on the right, Paulo da Silva and Antolín Alcaraz in the centre and Aureliano Torres on the left. Enrique Vera played in the defensive midfield zone with Marcos Riveros to his left, slightly ahead of him, and Néstor Ortigoza to his right. Marcelo Estigarribia and Nelson Valdez played wide of the main striker Lucas Barrios. Estigarribia was employed in a deeper midfield position on the left. Valdez played in a more forward role making the system turn into a 4-4-2, when Paraguay had the ball. Martino had changed the front three frequently, by switching the position of Barrios and sometimes using former Manchester City man, Roque Santa Cruz as the withdrawn forward.

Tactical Analysis: Narrow Defending

Martino let his team play with a philosophy of narrow defending. His two full backs were playing narrower to have the crowd out the central spaces in front of the goal. They allowed much space in the flanks to draw opponents in the open area, and Paraguay’s wide midfielders did not miss a single opportunity to exploit that open space. Dani Alves was made to crawl in the first match with Brazil, by the tricky Estigarribia.

Though Martino formed his team with prior defensive decorations, Paraguay was never too eager to press. They allowed opponents to play in the midfield and on the flanks.

Often Vera came down to make the back 5, and kept deep-lying Nestor Ortigoza at the middle



of the pitch. Ortigoza had a superb tournament as the playmaker. His ability to dictate the pace of the game had been used magnificently in the narrow formation. He finished with 202 successful passes and 17 successful through passes. Due to his excellent vision and passing ability, he drew at least one opposition midfielder at the middle to close him down, eventually creating free space for others.

What Went Wrong? Direct Defending Cost Them Dear

Though Martino employed a defense-minded strategy, the execution was not at its best. Jamming the goalmouth is a good option when you have a two layered defense with minimal gap. Practically, when Vera came down deep in the defense, Ortigoza and Riveros were not pressing the game. As a result, Brazil and Uruguay both had sufficient space between their midfield and defensive lines, which was heavily exploited to penetrate the defense. Brazil was dreadful in front of the goal and an almost superhuman performance from the goalkeeper, Villar kept Paraguay moving ahead in the race. However, a razor-sharp finishing from Luis Suarez and Diego Forlán showed us the defensive flaws in the Paraguayan model. Beside this, Paraguay tried to employ a heavy traffic in front of the goal which actually made no room for a second cover behind a defender. This was frequently exploited by Suarez in the final, as he dribbled past the defender to get into the open.

Future: Pragmatic in True Sense

It was a sorry state of affairs, but with limited resources, injuries and red cards, this was the most pragmatic form of game Paraguayans could produce. The passion of their fans was also instrumental in keeping their spirit up (Larissa

Riquelme had already declared her desire to “present herself” if the team won). Strange as it is, they still needed to work on their defense. Playing a defensive strategy yet feeling uncomfortable while defending is a poor banner for their model. It appeared that Villar was protecting the defense instead of the other way round.

Uruguay: Tactical Superiority

Following their strong World Cup run, Uruguay led by the evergreen Forlan and guided by ‘The Professor’ Óscar Tabárez, snatched the crown of Copa America 2011 proving that their World Cup success had not been a fluke. After a dull low scoring affair, Uruguay proved themselves stronger than other teams. Success doesn’t usually come by easily and smoothly and it is to Tabarez’ credit that after a poor start and many a hard time, Uruguay managed to place their nation on the path to success.

Formation

Uruguay didn’t play with a steady formation throughout. Tabárez kept altering the formation depending on match situations and the opponent’s shape. Mostly he started with a variant of the classic 4-4-2 but didn’t hesitate to switch to 3-3-2-2 with 3 centre backs. Not just the shape, Tabárez kept changing personnel too, depending on the opposition. Other than Diego Godin, who was ill, and their reserve goalkeepers, Tabárez utilised all other squad members. When he played with the 4 man defense, he employed skipper Diego Lugano and Sebastián Coates as the stoppers and Alvero Pereira and Maxi Pereira as the overlapping side-backs. When he moved to the 3 man defense line, he employed 3 centre-backs and achieved the numerical advantage



deep in the defense. He fully utilised the versatility of former Barcelona defender Martin Cáceres, who can play at different positions as a defender. To tackle the strong Argentine attacking threat, he employed Arevalo Rios and Diego Perez as two defensive pivots to protect their back line. His decision of going with 3 forwards was heavily dependent on the availability of in-form Napoli man Edinson Cavani; else he kept faith on his superstar forward pair of Suarez and Forlan as the front duo, where Forlan operated from a little deeper.

Tactical Analysis: Direct Football

Uruguay did not play fancy football like passing in the midfield or building up from the deep. They rather believed in directly placing the ball in the opposition’s half, and then press hard. Suarez was particularly instrumental behind this tactic. His ability to hold the ball and draw attention from the defenders made free space for

Forlan to exploit. He suffered 27 fouls and completed 12 successful dribbles. Diego Forlan on the other hand, was playing behind him more as a playmaker. His excellent vision was instrumental behind a lot of attacks and his pin-point passing also set up many counter attacks. Their defenders sat deep and were drawing opposition midfielders up in the pitch to make free spaces for quick counters and put their forwards in a dangerous 3vs3 situation. The tactic of pressing high up the field worked excellently in the final when they unsettled Paraguay’s key play-maker Nestor Ortigoza, and didn’t allow him to dictate the pace of the game.

Tackling the Perez Red Card

Uruguay mostly consisted of tireless players like Diego Perez, Arevalo Rios or Maxi Pereira. Perez was the heart of these three. After he got sent off during the Argentina match, Tabárez tackled



the numerical disadvantage by installing a narrow diamond shape in the midfield with Forlan at the tip and Rios at the bottom, allowing spaces at the flank. The full-backs didn’t press at the flanks, rather waited deep, allowing their midfielders to fall back and helped in defending.

What Went Wrong: Thin Defending

Uruguay suffered a lot. Inspired by Messi, Argentina exposed a lot of flaws in the system of the Uruguay team. Their high pressing game up on the field left a thin defense on the other side. Quick switch of game play easily exploits the flaw. Apart from that, closing down in the midfield left a huge gap between the midfield and defense lines. A slightly higher line of defense could possibly be a solution, a strategy that Tabárez was not prepared to risk, given that his defenders weren’t pacy enough.

Future: Brighter

The way Uruguay has been playing under Óscar Tabárez is inspirational. After reaching the semi-final in 2007 Copa America and 2010 World Cup, they are now the emperors of South American football. With the current statistics and form, they may achieve another World Cup glory. The primary concern for Tabárez, however, would be to find an appropriate replacement for Diego Forlan, who will be 35 in 2014. Diego Perez, who had an excellent Copa, will be 34 and the centre-back Lugano will be 33. Tabárez has a versatile pool of talent and the qualifiers will be the stage for experiments.

Is this a trend?

The chaotic imbalance of the recently held Copa raises some issues worthy of discussion. This tournament was not for those who came to watch free flowing football. It was a tournament of tactical formations, of pragmatic formations and approach over Jogo Bonito. Although in the last two editions of the tournament, we witnessed a goal flurry (an average of more than 3 goals per game),

Copa 2011 had barely 2 goals per match (2.07 goals per game).Most of the managers used double pivot system to protect their defense and installed a ‘safety first’ attitude. Other than this, one more topic that begs asking is – what is the preferred model for a national team: possession football or direct approach. In recent times, Barcelona has established their superiority by their possession oriented football game. How effective is that for a national side? The answer is doubtful. The following graph shows the possession %age of the teams in the Copa 2011, where the 4 teams who were eliminated in the Quarter Final, top the list.

Even in the final, Uruguay’s more direct approach with 37% ball possession, overpowered possession game of Paraguay. To draw another comparison with Barcelona, it is not how long you keep the ball but what you do with that. The smarter teams can do without less possession but discipline, organization and spirit must remain top notch.

The Copa America 2011 may have been a dull event in the perspective of goals scored and dearth of free flowing attacking football, it was a tactical lesson on how to combat effectively with limited resources.

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Srinwantu Dey is a football student and loves to analyse the game tactically. He can be reached @srinwantudey.