Santos Corinthians tactical analysis

Santos – Corinthians: Santos Beat Corinthians With Positional Play And Inverted Fullbacks (1-0)

Is Jorge Sampaoli taking a leaf out of Jürgen Klopp’s book?

Santos FC awaited Corinthians in the Série A. Although the 1-0 result of the game might not sound spectacular, the match offered some interesting tactical tweaks, including Santos’ positional play and Corinthians’ defensive 4-4-2 setup.

Tactical analysis and match report by Max Bergmann.

Mid-table positioned Corinthians were the underdog in their game against second-placed Santos FC. The favorite Santos, on the other hand needed a win to stay close to the current top of the table Palmeiras.

Santos lined up in a 4-3-3 system with and without the ball. Only when defending within their own half, the wingers situationally dropped and created a 4-5-1 shape. Santos manager Jorge Sampaoli decided to line up Alison as the central player in a midfield trio, flanked by Diego Pituca and Jean Lucas. Up front, striker Eduardo Sasha was tasked to provide depth while the wide forwards Yeferson Soteldo and Marinho were supposed to stay on the flanks.

Corinthians set up in a 4-3-3 formation as well. Different to their opponent, Corinthians adjusted their shape to a 4-4-2 when defending, however. Head coach Fábio Carille chose to play with veteran striker Vágner Love up front, just recovered from a small injury. In midfield, Carille lined up Ralf as a holding midfielder next to Júnior Urso and Jádson.

Santos’ superior positional play with inverted fullbacks

Formations sometimes mean very little in the game of football, something this game proved. Despite both sides playing in a 4-3-3 system in possession, their attacking approaches were completely different.

The passmap of Santos displays a well executed positional play scheme, in terms of space occupation and distances between team mates. With their midfield trio positioned in a triangular shape on different lanes, Santos could make use of their midfield superiority against Corinthians’ two central midfielders.

Santos positional play including the usage of inverted fullbacks against Corinthians defensive 4-4-2 setup.

During their positional attacks, the wide forwards often stayed outside to provide width. In contrast to many 4-3-3 systems where the fullbacks move high up the line, left-back Jorge and right-back Victor Ferraz stayed deep during the buildup and occasionally even tucked inside and acted as inverted fullbacks. This allowed their wide forwards to stay wide and enabled the central defenders to play out from the back using short passes. Peak Sampaoli, as he has done this with almost all teams he managed.

Moreover, Santos were able to score the leading goal in the second half, after left back Jorge initiated an attack in the halfspace.

If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace.

As left winger Soteldo was positioned wide, he posed an option to play around the opposition block. After a simple square pass from the wide forward, striker Sasha scored the only goal of the day.

Corinthians’ defensive 4-4-2 / 4-5-1 approach

When defending, Corinthians set up in a 4-4-2 formation. Therefore, advanced midfielder Jádson pushed forward next to striker Vágner Love. At the same time, central defensive midfielder Ralf formed a midfield two with central midfielder Urso.

Whenever Corinthians were forced to defend in their own half, Jádson dropped back into midfield, forming a 4-5-1 shape. With the help of this additional midfielder in the center, Corinthians could force Santos to play into wide areas. By shifting towards the wing, the central midfielders could support the fullbacks in these cases. Alternatively, they closed the gap between fullback and central defender. That way, Carille’s team were able to prevent Santos from creating goal scoring opportunities for most parts of the match.

Corinthians lack of threat in the attack

Santos defended in a classic 4-3-3 shape, positioning themselves as Liverpool does out of possession. With a narrow midfield three, Sampaoli’s side tried to close any possible gaps for through passes while the wingers supported attacker Sasha during the press in higher areas. Evidenced by the xG values, this strategy was proven to be successful. Corinthians could not even create a single threatening chance from open play.

Corinthians’ pivotal player when they had the ball was holding midfielder Ralf. But since the single pivot was incapable of creating chances on his own, advanced midfielders had to drop to receive in midfield areas. Often central advanced midfielder Jádson took over this responsibility.

Corinthians biggest issue was their struggle to get into areas between the lines. Jádson was not the only attacker who tried to receive the ball in midfield. But in most cases Corinthians offensive players received the ball in front of the opposition midfield and unable to turn. That even facilitated Santos to press from the blind side and move further up the field as a unit. As several players of Corinthians wanted to receive the ball in midfield, Carille’s side completely lacked depth. As also displayed on the passmap, the spacing of Corinthians attacking department was way too flat.

Without even occupying the opposition last line of defense, it is difficult to penetrate any lines. As a result, the offensive harmlessness of Corinthians was unsurpassable.

Pituca’s halfspace freedom and counterpressing

Santos offered a lot more threatening attacks, due to several reasons. Left winger Soteldo often stayed near the touchline in order to receive the ball with the option to go for a one-versus-one situation against the opposition right back. However, in fullback Bruno Méndez, Soteldo faced one of the best tacklers of the opposition. As a result, only five of Soteldo’s eleven dribbling attempts were successful, while Méndez had six successful tackles in the course of the game. Eleven dribbles is a lot though, and it is clear to see where Santos attempted to hurt the opponent.

Nevertheless, fullback Méndez was occupied on the wing by Soteldo which offered left advanced midfielder Pituca a lot of freedom in the halfspace. 

Being positioned behind the opposition midfield line, Pituca was involved in many attacks. As Méndez did not cover right central defender Manoel, the center-back could not move out to defend which left Pituca without a direct opponent.

Being offered this much space, advanced midfielder Pituca was the engine of the Santos midfield. In a central role, the Brazilian played the most progressive passes and had the most progressive carrying actions. Due to Pituca’s involvement in the final third, it is not surprising that Santos attacked a lot through the halfspaces.

After losing the ball, Sampaoli’s team attempted to quickly regain possession and therewith constrict the opposition within their half. The positioning of their fullbacks was advantageous for this strategy as they were often positioned close to the ball due to their positional play based on short passing lanes. Their quick counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. also laid the platform to their winning goal as they were able to regain possession before.


To sum up, in a tough match, Santos held the upper hand against Corinthians. Santos did not offer any opportunities for their opposition and therefore only one goal was sufficient to gain three points. And even although the match ended with only one goal difference, Santos clearly had the better match plan.

Corinthians were incapable of creating any sort of threat up front. Due to a lack of depth in possession, Carille’s side was harmless. Although their defensive approach worked out in some parts of the match, Corinthians were clearly inferior and need to improve their attacking patterns in the upcoming matches.

Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots.

Max Bergmann (21) likes to watch football from every possible angle as an ambitious coach, player, (former) referee and analyst. Holding the UEFA B-Level license, he is coaching youth teams and making video analysis. In order to extend his knowledge about tactics, physiology and psychology in sports, he is studying sports science. Whenever Max is not on the pitch or at the university, he analyses football with a focus on the Bundesliga and the other European top leagues for TotalFootballAnalysis and Between the Posts. [ View all posts ]


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