Tactical analysis Boca Juniors River Plate 1-0 Copa Libertadores

Boca Juniors – River Plate: River Plate Advance To Copa Libertadores Final Despite Losing To Fierce Rivals Boca Juniors (1-0)

Argentine power houses Boca Juniors and River Plate clashed once again in the second leg of this huge Copa Libertadores semi-final matchup. Boca would need to take control early in their world-famous La Bombonera stadium and grab the goals needed to progress. In the end, Boca proved unable to produce the offensive prowess needed to get more than a disappointing 1-0 win. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Julian Chingoma.

One of the biggest matches in world football, let alone South America. After a relatively easy 2-0 win, River Plate went to the La Bombonera looking to close out the result. 

Manager Gustavo Alfaro lined up Boca in a 4-4-2 shape. Esteban Andrada was in goal for the home side. Julio Buffarini and Emmanuel Mas were the fullbacks while Lisandro López and Carlos Izquierdoz were the central defenders. The midfield four had Eduardo Salvio and Alexis Mac Allister out wide with the pair of Iván Marcone and Agustín Almendra between them. Ramón Ábila and veteran Carlos Tevez were the pair up front.

The visitors were set up in a 4-1-3-2 formation by Marcelo Gallardo. River Plate had Franco Armani as their goalkeeper, protected by Milton Casco, Javier Pinola, Lucas Martinez and Gonzalo Montiel, who formed the back four. Enzo Pérez was the single pivot behind the advanced midfield three. Nicolás De La Cruz, Exequiel Palacios and Ignacio Fernández were the three behind the two strikers, Matías Suárez and Rafael Borré.

Both sides left a lot to be desired when they had the ball. Possession would change hands frequently, which led to fairly even split of the ball, Boca ending with slightly more of it. The contest also saw a large amount of long balls played – 75 by Boca and 81 for River Plate – which also contributed to the disjointed sense of play.

River Plate in possession

The opening minutes saw the visitors perform better in retaining possession. When the visitors were building up, they would have their fullbacks, Casco and Montiel, move forward and tuck in alongside Pérez. This meant that Pinola and Martinez would initiate the buildup play and were usually matched up with Boca’s front two. Boca would also have three of their midfield line push up and man-mark Casco, Pérez and Montiel. Palacios would then roam in the areas behind this line and be monitored by the deepest of Boca’s midfield four, usually Marcone. De La Cruz and Fernández would then move forward to flank River Plate’s two strikers. This line of four would try to pin Boca’s entire defensive line back. 

The positioning while River Plate had possession.

The positioning while River Plate had possession.

At times, River would deviate from this pattern and try to find Palacios between the lines and work the ball out wide. Or if he moved to support play elsewhere, they would even have their wingers tuck in, which allowed the fullbacks the space to move forward. This ensured they always had some central options where they would try to get it wide eventually. From there they would work to send in some crosses to Suárez and Borré with combinations between the wingers and overlapping fullbacks getting them crossing opportunities. 

Pinola and Martinez also frequently opted to playing the ball long to the four men forward line, where it was Suárez and Borré battling with Boca’s central defenders in the air. The Boca backline dealt with the array of crosses and long balls well. Both López and Izquierdoz had impressive performances, registering thirteen interceptions, ten clearances as well winning twenty-two aerial duels between them. 

Boca Juniors with the ball

Boca would have their fullbacks move in line with the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. of Marcone and Almendra. Salvio and Mac Allister would then join Tevez and Ábila to form a line of four similarly to the away side. Tevez would also drop deep to combine with the midfield to decent effect. Pérez would often be the one to keep tabs on Tevez’s positioning in those areas just ahead of his defenders. 

Once they grew into the game, Boca would have some joy in getting the ball out wide. This may have been due to River, at times, remaining in their narrow 4-1-3-2 shape in the defensive phase. The advanced midfield line would be sucked in to press the double pivot and one fullback but this would free up the fullback on the opposite side. And the two strikers would usually be marking the two center-backs so they would usually be too advanced to recover and mark the Boca fullback if they were released effectively. When they were not caught out, River would have one of forwards drop into the wide position to help cover the fullbacks in a sort of 4-1-4-1 formation, or shift to a 4-4-2 shape with Pérez and Palacios in central midfield.

The usual setup when River were still in a 4-1-3-2 shape while defending. 

The usual setup when River were still in a 4-1-3-2 shape while defending. 

The best work from Boca was in the wide areas and their crossing in general. They would support Tevez and Ábila well with numbers in the box and sent in a massive 25 crosses. One of these crosses, sent in from an indirect free kick, led to a goal by Salvio. The goal was quickly disallowed though, as it ricocheted off a team mates arm before landing at his feet to finish the chance. The winger also headed a Buffarini cross over just before half-time which was probably their best chance of the first half.

Impactful Boca changes

About fifteen minutes into the second period, Alfaro decided to make some changes to bring some life into the attack. Mauro Zárate and Jan Carlos Hurtado were brought on for Almendra and Ábila respectively. This would lead to a change in shape for Boca who would go to 4-3-3/4-3-1-2 shape. Tevez would be in support of Zárate and Hurtado while Mac Allister and Salvio would be shift more centrally, although Salvio did venture forward more often on the right-hand side. 

The Boca Juniors shape once Zárate and Hurtado came on.

The Boca Juniors shape once Zárate and Hurtado came on.

River did start to threaten on the counterattack during this period, likely due to the extra room in midfield from Almendra’s exit. They found themselves running at the Boca defensive line on multiple occasions but the final ball or cross always evaded them. This meant they did not create a clear-cut chance from these counters. 

However, once Boca grabbed their goal, River refrained from sending as many numbers forward and mostly looked to grind out the result. It turned out to be the aforementioned Boca substitutes who were both involved in the only goal of the game in the 81st minute. Mac Allister swung in a free kick, which was headed back towards goal by López. Zárate and Hurtado both attacked the ball and it was Zárate who caused an approaching Armani to miss it, allowing Hurtado to tap it home from close range. Boca would press on for the crucial second goal and in keeping with the theme of the game, their best opportunities came from crosses via set pieces, but in vain. 


River Plate would not have minded the poor nature of the game as they held to qualify for the final. Ultimately, in defeating your fiercest rival and advancing to the final of the biggest club tournament in South America, anything goes.

Boca, on the other hand, will be disappointed that they could not impose more control over the match in La Bombonera. Their offensive play was mostly reduced to high volume crossing and it failed to deliver the goods.

After surviving this return leg, River Plate will now wait on the winner of the Flamengo – Grêmio tie to see they will face in the Copa Libertadores final.

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