Flamengo – River Plate: Heroic Gabigol Strikes Twice To Take Down An Intense And Dominant River
During the first half, River nullified Flamengo’s offense through a compact and intense pressing block while also being efficient in scoring one of their few chances. Flamengo made better use of the wings during the second half to overcome an increasingly tired River press but struggled to score, until Gabigol punished two mistakes by River players to stage a late and historic comeback.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez.
Before yesterday, the one and only time Flamengo had won the Copa Libertadores happened in 1981. Such a feat required the leadership of the great Zico, whose goalscoring and playmaking prowess made even Pelé acknowledge this white boy from Rio de Janeiro as the most similar player to himself.
More than thirty years later, Jorge Jesus and Flamengo managed to build the hottest team in South America, dominating rivals with a spectacular, fast-paced possession game and an asphyxiating press. With a lead of more than ten points in the Brazilian Série A, the league championship seems inevitable. However, winning the Copa Libertadores and achieving a historic double required Flamengo to overcome Gallardo and River Plate, the most dominant force in the competition for the last five years. And, ironically, after months of outplaying opponents, Flamengo would defeat River in a match where they, themselves, were largely outplayed.
Both teams came out to the pitch with their best elevens. Flamengo lined up with their nominal 4-2-2-2 formation. The goalkeeper, Diego Alves, was defended by center backs Pablo Marí and Rodrigo Caio and fullbacks Filipe Luis and Rafinha. Midfield featured the double pivot of Willian Arão and Gerson, with the attacking midfield pair of Éverton Ribeiro and Giorgian De Arrascaeta. Up front, the inspired Gabigol and Bruno Henrique.
Meanwhile, River came out in their usual 4-4-2 shape. The goal of Franco Armani was defended by center backs Lucas Martínez Quarta and Javier Pinola and fullbacks Gonzalo Montiel and Milton Casco. The double pivot featured Enzo Pérez and Exequiel Palacios, while Nacho Fernández and Nicolás de la Cruz played the wide midfield roles. Up front lied the hard-working striker pair of Rafael Santos Borré and Matías Suárez.
River’s mid-block pressing plan dominates the first half
Despite Flamengo having the ball most of the time, Gallardo and River managed to effectively implement a pressing plan to stop their buildup phase. It worked so spectacularly well that the strongest offense in South America was reduced to a single long-distance shot in 45 minutes.
As we discussed in the preview to this game, River had a tough task from a tactical perspective. They had to press Flamengo’s buildup intensely, while not conceding space behind their midfielders, in the zone guarded by holding midfielder Enzo Pérez. This way, River could prevent the opponents from stringing together long, continuous possessions in their half, while closing down spaces against the incredibly dangerous Gabigol and Bruno Henrique. To achieve these tactical goals, River maintained a compact medium block, A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. which always pressed or defended deep as a unit.
Flamengo usually builds up their possessions with a back three – holding midfielder Arão dropping in between the center backs. To avoid leaving too much space in midfield areas, Gallardo did not have any of his midfielders push forward to follow Arão. Instead, Palacios would track Gerson, while wide men De la Cruz and Fernández, would hound the Flamengo fullbacks. Behind them, a trio of holding midfielders, comprised of Pérez and fullbacks Montiel and Casco, would mark the corresponding opposition trio of Henrique, De Arrascaeta and Éverton. Meanwhile, Pinola and Martínez Quarta would guard Gabigol.
River’s 4-4-2 diamond pressing scheme against Flamengo’s shape in possession. Notice that no River player follows Arão when he drops in between center backs.
Thanks to River’s pressing scheme, even if Flamengo’s back three had numerical superiority, they had no free man to which to pass. Since River kept enough men at the back, long balls to Gabigol and Bruno Henrique would not work either.
As pointed out by analyst Alejandro Arroyo, Flamengo’s inability to occupy the full width of the pitch when attacking made it even harder to overcome River’s defense. Henrique, De Arrascaeta and Éverton rarely act as wingers, preferring, instead, to operate in the middle of the pitch. This freedom of movement usually promotes the attractive passing combinations of Flamengo’s possession play. However, River closed down spaces in the middle so well that accumulating more of their attackers in these zones proved, in this case, to be detrimental for Flamengo. The middle closed down and no attackers on the wings, Flamengo had very few options for ball progression aside from the occasional counterattack.
River’s mobile strikers were efficient at taking chances
River’s defense was achieving the hard task of nullifying the Flamengo attack. Now, their strikers had to honor their part of the deal, and they very much did.
River’s offensive mechanisms depend a lot on long balls and vertical passes. Their strikers must be able to receive those passes and hold the ball for long enough to allow their other teammates to move forward and join the attack. Suárez and Borré are not stronger than opposition center backs, so they achieve these tasks by moving more quickly and intelligently than the opposing defenders. They would often drift wide to receive passes, away from the Flamengo center backs and quickly lay off the ball to full backs and wide men.
In this particular game, they were also efficient with their first shot of the game – in the 14th minute – resulting in the first goal. Nacho Fernández produced a low cross into the box, while Suárez drew the attention of a number of Flamengo defenders, making space for Borré to find a good shooting position and score.
River now had the game exactly where they wanted. They would still press aggressively when needed, but with the advantage in the score line, they didn’t need to be overly assertive – instead they could focus on closing spaces. The rest of the first half went by with Flamengo unable to figuring out a solution to River’s mid-block scheme.
Flamengo remembers they can use the wings
The second half began in a very similar fashion to the first, with River effectively shutting down the middle of the pitch and Flamengo not succeeding at moving the ball forward. However, by the 60th minute, Henrique, Éverton and De Arrascaeta were operating on the wings more often, providing their team some much-needed outlets for ball progression. In the 58th minute, these wider attacking mechanisms almost led to a goal, with De la Cruz and keeper Armani blocking big chances from Gabigol and Éverton in the box.
With Gerson mostly failing to make an impact in the game, coach Jesus opted to replace him in the 66th minute with a veteran many European football fans might remember: 34-year-old Diego Ribas. Gallardo followed suit and replaced a tired Nacho Fernández with 19-year-old forward Julián Álvarez in the 69th minute, as well as swapping goal scorer Borré with a heavier target man, Lucas Pratto, in the 75th minute.
Despite Gallardo’s changes, the combination of Flamengo’s improved attacking width and River’s increasingly tired legs, led to a final half hour dominated by Flamengo, both in terms of possession and shots. Éverton and Filipe Luis finally had the space they need to consistently move the ball forward, even though River managed to successfully cut off most of the attacks early enough. With the slower Pratto instead of Borré, River were mostly limited to producing long distance shots.
Gabigol and River’s mistakes turn the tables at the last minute
Apart from the pair of big chances in the 58th minute, Flamengo mostly struggled to break down River’s defense. It should come as no surprise that what flipped the game upside down was individual players rather than tactics. In the 88th minute, an uncharacteristic turnover from Pratto led to a Flamengo counterattack, with Bruno Henrique and De Arrascaeta skillfully taking out River defenders in the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. to set up Gabigol, who evaded his markers and found himself scoring into an empty net. Finally, in the 92nd minute, the normally unflappable, Pinola, committed a ghastly error, failing to clear a long ball twice – allowing it fall at the feet of executioner, Gabigol. The striker would make the defender pay.
Football is a cruel sport, where heroes often go unrewarded. In this case, however, Gabigol enjoyed a fitting end to a stunning season: not only has he been the top scorer in both the Brazilian league and the Copa Libertadores, but on Saturday he also became the hero of the final.
By stopping Flamengo with an intense, compact defense, River showed why they have been the dominant force in South America’s premier knockout competition. However, stopping Flamengo came at the cost of offensive power, with River only producing two shots in the box throughout the entire game. Despite this trade-off, River and Gallardo were only five minutes and two mistakes away from once again making Copa Libertadores history.
Flamengo figured out how to improve their midfield progression as the match went on, but they never fully cracked the River defense until the very end. This was far from their best attacking performance, but in this sport, the very best teams learn how to win not only when they play well, but also when they play poorly, and Flamengo did just that to bring the cup back to Rio de Janeiro.
Plots will be added to this article as soon as available.