Flamengo – São Paulo: Stubborn São Paulo Clip High-Flying Flamengo At The Maracanã (0-0)

A stalwart São Paulo side dug in against a confident Flamengo outfit at the Maracanã,  holding the hosts to a 0-0 draw and ending their eight match winning streak. São Paulo gradually faded further and further back into an imposing defensive shape – relying on stellar play from their center-back tandem, as well as sharp goalkeeping, to escape with a single point against Brazil’s strongest team. 

Match report and tactical analysis by K.T. Stockwell.

São Paulo’s notoriety has grown exponentially in European circles after the club made headlines with their acquisition of Dani Alves and Juanfran over the summer. The two veterans bring more quality to the line-up, but on Saturday night also proved capable of sitting deep and defending against one of Brazil’s best sides. 

Flamengo were frustrated throughout the evening by a stubborn São Paulo defense, which was deft in limiting the effectiveness of the club’s fluid front four. Gradually throughout the night, São Paulo manager Fernando Diniz – who has replaced Cuca as manager –  moved his defensive block further and further into his own defensive third and leaned heavily on his center-back pairing of Robert Alboleda and Bruno Alves. 

A slow defensive retreat

Early in the fixture, São Paulo looked as though they were happy to play a more expansive style of football, a brave choice against the offensively potent Flamengo side. In the opening ten minutes, São Paulo seemed intent on pressing from the front, in a bid to turn the ball over and play in quick transition. São Paulo managed to have some success with this tactic, as Flamengo uncharacteristically faltered several times in the early going and were bailed out by goalkeeper Diego Alves, as well as wayward São Paulo strikes. 

Goalkeeper Alves started to play the long ball more often as a reaction, and his deliveries  frequently found the Flamengo forwards in higher positions, which left São Paulo clambering to recover defensively. As early as the seventh minute, there was a mad goalmouth scramble, which saw São Paulo defenders splayed across the goal line in a bid to keep out the flurry of Flamengo chances.

Humbled, São Paulo reverted to a 4-4-2 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. in which his side stacked the middle of the pitch and left very little space between their two banks of four. The São Paulo defensive pairing pressed Flamengo’s central players quickly upon receipt of the ball, and the usually evasive Éverton Ribeiro and Bruno Henrique, found very little space in and around the opposition box. 

As a consequence, Flamengo reverted to trying to play down the right flank, but were met by a highly physical Reinaldo, who enjoyed a great deal of support from central midfielder, Luan Santos. It became clear part way through the first half that São Paulo intended to test Flamengo’s physicality and frustrate its attacking talents by grinding the match down with frequent fouls. For the most part, São Paulo were effective in their pursuit, as the match saw a whopping 47 fouls shared between the two sides.   

Flamengo’s buildup against the stifling São Paulo medium block. 

In buildup Flamengo used a three-man backline with central midfielder Robert Piris dropping in between the center-back pairing of Rodrigo Caio and Pablo Marí. This arrangement forced Éverton to drop into deeper positions to receive the ball, while the more defensive midfielder Willian Arão also preferred to take up low-lying opinions. This suited São Paulo well, as they were able to enjoy a numerical advantage in the center of the park. Unable to find a way through, the Flamengo defense began holding a higher line, and thus became more susceptible to the São Paulo’s counterattack, which had its chances in the first half. 

Flamengo adjusts the midfield  

Coming out from half-time, Jesus sought to rectify his side’s issues in midfield and swapped Gerson for Piris in the middle of the park, as well as Rafinha for Rodinei at right back. Gerson’s entry into the match meant that Arão now slotted into Piris’ role in the buildup, while the substitute was more comfortable in higher positions and therefore brought more impetus to the Flamengo attack. 

However, Gerson’s admission slightly destabilized the left side of the Flamengo midfield where Arão had done a laudable job containing São Paulo’s 18-year-old winger Antony. Without Arão’s muscle, São Paulo found more space on Flamengo’s left flank and Antony, along with Juanfran and Dani Alves, was able to play several successful combinations to find himself in space behind Flamengo’s left back, Renê. 

Once again, while this was promising offensively, by committing extra players, particularly the right back Jaunfran, to attack São Paulo left itself open to Flamengo’s counter and Jesus’ side began exploiting the space vacated on their opponent’s right flank. In so doing, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Henrique, and striker Gabriel Barbosa, finally began to force the São Paulo medium block deeper into its own defensive third. 

Seeing the opening, Jesus elected to bring on Felipe Luís in place of Renê in order to put more pressure on São Paulo’s now flailing right side. Luís did just that, injecting a much needed shot of pace and awareness to FlamengoI. The fullback made darting runs into the box, drawing São Paulo midfielders with him and opening up room for Flamengo’s front four to circulate the ball and launch attacks. Moreover, Luís also proved comfortable in an inverted position in buildup, once again bringing more solidity to the middle of the pitch and compelling the opposition deeper into its own half. 

At this juncture São Paulo simply defended for its life, as Flamengo began coming at them in waves, having pinned the defensive line in its own box. What followed were a series of glorious saves from São Paulo’s goalkeeper, Tiago Volpi, as well as a multitude of towering clearances from Alboleda and Bruno Alves.

The six minutes of stoppage time must have seemed like an eternity to the São Paulo center-back unit and there was a sense that if the match had lasted another two or three minutes, Flamengo would have found a way to snatch the lead. Fortunately for the visitors, the whistle sounded before the hosts could make a mark on the scoreboard and Diniz and his men escaped with a hard-earned point. 


São Paulo will find solace in its ability to hold off Brazil’s most potent offence and keep a clean sheet away from home at the Maracanã. The point also means the club was able to stave off the chasing Grêmio for at least one more round, as it heads into more manageable fixtures against Fortaleza and Bahia in the coming week. 

Meanwhile, Flamengo will perhaps be frustrated it was not able to break the dam against São Paulo. Nonetheless, it has now been almost two months since Flamengo last lost a match and after second place Palmeiras settled for a draw with Internacional on Sunday, the league leaders are unlikely to sweat dropping two points to a stubborn São Paulo outfit. At the same time, Flamengo’s focus will likely have quickly shifted to the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final against Grêmio mid-week, as Jesus and his men continue to balance two competitions.

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