Grêmio – Santos: Sampaoli’s Counterattacking Game Plan Overcomes The Assault Of A Powerful Grêmio (1-2)
Santos manager Jorge Sampaoli debuted in the Brazilian national league with an unexpected away victory over a strong Grêmio side. Sampaoli went against his usual principles with a more counterattacking approach, eschewing midfield play in favor of reinforcing his team’s defense. Thanks to this measure and some clinical finishing, Santos managed to score twice in the first half. Chasing the game, Grêmio completely controlled the game and put Santos’ box under siege, but Santos managed to survive.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Perez.
The Brazilian football calendar is madness. The first four months of the year are occupied by state championships, and then from May to December the Brazilian Serie A runs at a blistering pace alongside the final rounds of the Copa do Brasil, the domestic cup tournament. And a team like Porto Alegre’s Grêmio also plays Copa Libertadores, which means playing two games per week for almost the entire year.
It is by no means an exaggeration to say that Grêmio are one of the strongest teams in South America, as shown by their consistently good results in the Copa Libertadores over the last couple of years. However, due to this calendar they will rarely get to play at full strength in Serie A. Manager Renato Portaluppi has made it clear that, as much as he would love to win the national league, the priorities for the club are the cups, both the Copa do Brasil and the Copa Libertadores.
Thus, it came as a surprise when Renato chose what is arguably his strongest possible eleven for this opening Serie A game against Santos. It was the same 4-2-3-1 lineup that won a key Copa Libertadores game midweek against Paraguay’s Libertad.
The goal of keeper Paulo Victor was defended by the dominant central defender pair of Pedro Geromel and Walter Kannemann, with Bruno Cortez and Léo Gomes as fullbacks. 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’. consisted Matheus Henrique—the young prospect with the impossible task of replacing Arthur Melo—and Maicon. At number ten played the young Jean Pyerre, who is seeing a lot more game time this year. On the wings, Alisson plays on the right while star attacker Everton—who might leave for Europe as early as this summer—plays on the left. Up front started striker André, who’s returning to Grêmio after a loan at Sport Recife.
The reality for Santos is very different. They are one of the household names of Brazilian football, but apart from two state championships in 2015 and 2016, success and titles have mostly eluded them after the 2010-2013 Neymar era. Club finances are in shambles to the point they have been unable to even pay their players in the last months. After a lackluster tenth place in last year’s Serie A table, Santos appointed Jorge Sampaoli—still fresh from his 2018 World Cup debacle—as head coach. And unfortunately for Santos and Sampaoli, their first steps have not been great. Santos failed to win the São Paulo state championship, losing in semi finals against rival Corinthians. They were also knocked out early from the Copa Sudamericana – basically the South American version of Europa League – by Uruguay’s River Plate.
Sampaoli has tested his team with an aggressive 4-3-3 formation that practically takes on a 2-3-5 shape when attacking. They create many chances but look vulnerable when counterattacked or when forced to defend for extended periods of time by a superior opponent. This is perhaps the reason why, against Grêmio, Sampaoli used three central defenders for additional protection, taking on a 5-3-2 shape.
Keeper Vanderlei was protected by central defenders Gustavo Henrique, Felipe Aguilar and Lucas Veríssimo. In midfield played a trio with the young Jean Lucas, Diego Pituca and Jean Mota, with the latter having more offensive duties. This midfield trio was flanked by Felipe Jonatan and Víctor Ferraz as wing backs. Up front, Eduardo Sasha and Yeferson Soteldo, who have usually played as wingers, played as strikers with full freedom to move through the attacking front.
Santos’ three at the back nullify Grêmio’s attacking threat
While top-flight European football is all about the midfield battle between pressing systems and buildup phases, South American football is more direct and will often involve teams trading long passes and long balls and trying to win the individual duels. In this context of directness, reinforcing both ends of the pitch is usually more important than reinforcing midfield zones.
This is the key reason why Sampaoli’s adjustment with three at the back succeeded. Grêmio are a very competent attacking team, but a careful one too. Their front four have some freedom to move around the pitch and create passing combinations, but the behavior of the fullbacks and double pivot is more conservative. Fullbacks will be more cautious about making aggressive runs into the final third and the double pivot midfielders rarely load the box, preferring instead to shoot from a distance. This is done to protect Grêmio’s defensive transition from opposition counterattacks.
Grêmio’s fluid 4-2-3-1 shape in attack against Santos’ 5-3-2 low block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box.
By using three central defenders at the back and a 5-3-2 low block, Sampaoli made sure that his team would always have numerical superiority in the box. The wingbacks would track the slippery Grêmio wingers Everton and Alisson – who would often switch wings – while the three defenders kept watch over the outmanned André and Jean Pyerre. This allowed Santos to win most individual duels during the first half, with a total of eighteen clearances, eight of them from a towering Gustavo Henrique. Out of Grêmio’s eight shots in the first half, only three of them happened in the box.
A conservative stance in a back-three supplemented with a very mobile pair up front.
Santos attackers exploit moments of shaky Grêmio defending
Sampaoli’s other good adjustment for this game was deploying his usual wingers—Sasha and Soteldo—as free-roaming counterattacking strikers, taking advantage of their speed and dribbling. Grêmio defenders Kannemann and Geromel had some trouble dealing with this threat, but they were good enough to win most tackles and aerial duels. However, football is a cruel game of details, and all it takes is one slip to lose. In the sixth minute of the game, fullback Cortez lost an aerial duel against Jean Lucas close to the box. Lucas headed the ball to Sasha, and the forward managed to control the ball and finish in spectacular fashion despite the marking of both Kannemann and Geromel.
Likewise, Santos’ second goal came from another Grêmio defensive issue. During a 35th minute set piece, keeper Víctor cleared the ball into winger Alisson’s feet. However, Alisson failed to notice that his opponent—left wingback Jonatan—was lurking behind his back, ready punish any loss in concentration. Jonatan quickly stole the ball, and with no other Grêmio man to mark him in the box, unleashed a fierce shot that turned into Santos’ second goal.
Even if Grêmio had more possession and chances during the first half, Santos’ victory was well deserved. Grêmio’s mistakes in their box led to higher quality chances that Santos took advantage of, while Santos made no big mistakes in defending their box and conceded no big chances in the box.
Lots of possession for Grêmio’s midfielders in a formation that gradually turned more and more offensive.
Santos survives the Grêmio siege in the second half
The best way to summarize the second half is that Grêmio had seventeen shots and 67% possession against Santos’ three shots and 33% possession. Grêmio dominated, and the key substitution that brought about this game state was veteran globetrotter Diego Tardelli — one of Grêmio’s new signings — for Alisson.
Tardelli was the most inspired of Grêmio’s attackers, expertly moving throughout the attacking front, creating passing combinations and triangles that broke down Santos’ deep block, and even dribbling past defenders several times. Many of Grêmio’s best incursions into the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. came from Tardelli’s boots. However, Santos’ defense of their box continued to be mostly solid, with eighteen clearances throughout the second half, once again led by Gustavo Henrique.
The solution of coach Renato to break the Santos defense was simply to add more attackers to the mix. In the sixtieth minute, the more aggressive Luan replaced Jean Pyerre. And most importantly, in the 74th minute, Felipe Vizeu — a loan signing from Italy’s Udinese — replaced left back Cortez. Rather than re-adjusting the formation, Grêmio essentially played without a left back, with midfielders Maicon and Henrique covering that position as needed. At this point, Grêmio was essentially playing with five forwards – Everton and Tardelli on the wings, Vizeu – André – Luan in the center – to counteract Santos’ five defenders.
Grêmio’s 3-2-5 attacking shape against Santos’ 5-3-2 low block. Who needs left backs?
As simple as this strategy might seem, it was working. Grêmio generated many good shots in the box in the final twenty minutes of the game, finally forcing Santos keeper Vanderlei to perform miracles with six saves in that time span. Sampaoli could only counter this with more defensive substitutions, replacing the young Jean Lucas with the veteran Uruguayan warrior Carlos Sánchez in the 82nd minute. In the end, Grêmio’s efforts led to an injury time goal thanks to an outstanding individual action from Everton, but it was too late to tie the game.
Grêmio showed that despite their defeat, they are still one of the most intimidating teams in Brazil. Their collective structure and movements are well drilled after three years under Renato, the combination play of their attackers is quick, fluid and intelligent, and their defenders—despite the occasional hiccup—are still very good at winning individual duels. However, their midfield structure post-Arthur still struggles to control games and progress the ball as well as before. That’s a key reason why Grêmio could not control the game and be more aggressive in the first half in the face of Santos’ goals.
In the case of Santos, the result was certainly prettier than process required to get the result. One must commend the flexibility of Sampaoli in shifting over to a counterattacking approach, and the players having the focus and grit to execute the plan. By using three defenders at the back and converting his fast, skillful wingers into strikers, Sampaoli allowed Santos to compete and defeat a superior opponent. Santos excelled at protecting their own box and were clinical when taking their chances.
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