Tactical analysis Sao Paulo Santos 3-2 Brasileiro

São Paulo – Santos: An Open Game Between Two Sides That Struggle With Defensive Stability (3-2)

League leaders Santos suffered a painful defeat at the hands of São Paulo, to end a positive run that saw them take the lead in the Brasileiro. This was a very open game, with both sets of offenses dominating their defensive counterparts. Both teams opted for quick surges rather than constructed play, resulting in a free-flowing all-action affair.

Tactical analysis and match report by Luc Jeggo.

Santos came into the tie holding first place in the table, having recently overtaken Palmeiras. However, with the gap at just four points, any slip up against São Paulo could open the door for chasers Palmeiras. Santos manager Sampaoli persisted with starting Eduardo Sasha over new acquisition Fernando Uribe, who remained on the bench. Santos came into the match with a six game winning streak and entered the tie as favourites.  

The big question on all of the São Paulo fans’ lips was whether they would see a glimpse of either Dani Alves or Juanfran. Unfortunately the only time Dani Alves was seen was on camera and in the stands.

Promising wide forward Antony was also out injured and his absence was a loss for the red and white. Like their opponents, São Paulo came into the match on a good string of results, having not lost in their previous seven matches. 

As can often be expected in a derby, the match between Santos and São Paulo started in chaotic fashion. Both teams were similar in many ways. Both pressed high, both attempted to build from the back and both employed a 4-3-3 formation. 

The main difference between the teams was found in the pressing shapes without the ball. São Paulo aimed to press in a 4-3-3 formation. This meant that São Paulo’s striker was fairly isolated when pressing as he was outnumbered against two center-backs. Conversely, it allowed São Paulo to retain a man mark on the three-man midfield of Santos. São Paulo aimed to show Santos inside into a man marking pressing trap. A pressing trap is a predefined plan to leave a particular player or zone open, to invite a specific pass. Upon a pass to that player or into that zone, a rapid coordinated team press on that player or zone is exerted. Santos on the other hand morphed into a 4-4-2 pressing shape without the ball. 


The game was extremely end to end, with huge spaces in transition. Both sides played very wide, with their fullbacks and wingers stretching the whole pitch with their positioning on their respective touchlines. 

In theory, this creates bigger spaces in the middle of the pitch for each side to exploit. However, it also makes the teams much more open to a counterattack. This is especially true if they have just recently won the ball back. Both sides looked to break extremely quickly, therefore not allowing their other teammates such as the backline time to step up and reduce the space in anticipation of the next turnover.  

This then created open spaces in midfield. When either side lost the ball, they lacked a player in the vicinity to win the ball back. Consequently then, the team that won the ball had time to assess their options. With time and space they could either drive forward into the open space or pass it around. In particular, both teams’ fullbacks were regularly caught out of position, leaving huge spaces in wide areas for their opponents to attack. 

Santos kept two players on either sideline, thereby leaving a vast open space for the central players to cover.

For the reasons mentioned above, it makes sense why most top teams prefer a patient buildup. This allows players to set up not only to contribute offensively, but also to anticipate defensively on potential turnovers. The same principle also explains why these teams prefer shorter passes over longer and more direct passes, as these are safer and mean that any open shape has less chance of being exploited. Conversely some teams employ a quick build up style of play mainly utilizing formations where players are already in close proximity to each other and are able to press the ball straight away. These include formations with a more narrow set up such as a 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2 and narrow 4-3-3 variations. 

Santos then managed to take the lead just before half-time. The ball came to Diego Patuca who rifled one onto the post. The rebound fell directly to the feet of Eduardo Sasha who could not miss from five yards out. 

Second half

Both teams continued their fight for dominance, with neither side really taking control of the game. Again both teams were extremely susceptible to counterattacks and the game continued in an open fashion. What also became notable was the dichotomy between the quality of attacking play versus defensive play. 

Both sides’ attacking players seemed to get the better of their opposite counterparts in the game. Often beating their man one-on-one in counterattacking situations. This was not a total surprise as the Brazilian league is known for producing exceptional attacking players, but it certainly added to the chaotic and open nature of the game. 

In terms of scoring chances, both teams relied a lot on corners. Therefore it was not surprising that the equalizer for São Paulo came from a corner kick. Alexandre Pato peeled off to the back post, the ball fell to him, he controlled and slammed the ball through the keeper’s legs for his first goal of the match. 

A mere seven minutes passed and São Paulo had their lead. A penalty was awarded, courtesy of a handball by Felipe Aguilar in the box. The left back for São Paulo, Reinaldo, stepped up to score his third goal of the season and make it 2-1 for the home side. 

Santos finally began to gain ascendancy in the match. As São Paulo pressed their back four with three players, the space for Santos was with the opposite fullback. They began to recognize the pattern of the game and switched the ball to the opposite fullback in order to bypass the São Paulo press. Whilst their 4-3-3 setup allowed them to play through São Paulo, Santos’s high fullbacks were getting caught out in transition. Both Pato and Jonas Toró attacked the wide spaces. 

Santos’s lopsided tactical shift

In response to São Paulo taking control, Sampaoli sensibly altered Santos’s shape in the buildup. He inverted the left back and dropped the right back into a more central position. In effect this meant that Santos now built up with three-at-the-back and had better coverage of the wide areas if they lost the ball. 

Santos’s adjusted shape with nominal left back Jorge adding numbers in midfield.

The game started to be dictated by Santos. They managed to keep the ball more effectively with the extra man – left back Jorge – in midfield. However another awful error by Aguilar pretty much sealed the fate of Santos. 

Pato won the ball in the middle of the pitch and drove at the back three of Santos. He then took a heavy touch which should have easily been dealt with by Aguilar. Aguilar consequently missed the ball in unbelievable fashion, allowing Pato a straight avenue to a one-on-one with the keeper. As expected, Pato finished coolly into the back of the net to make it 3-1. 

For the last 20 minutes São Paulo sat in a 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. The introduction of Hudson for Hernani helped São Paulo in their defensive efforts. In general they defended extremely well in the low block, with each player putting in a shift for the side. 

Another goal was to come from a set piece. Santos won a free kick on the right hand side of the box. The ball was whipped in with pace, São Paulo attempted to drop their defensive line and Raniel headed into his own net from close proximity to the goal. It was 3-2 and game on with three minutes plus added time left. 

Unbelievably, Santos received another free kick in a similar area. São Paulo having learnt from their last conceded goal, stepped out in aggressive fashion leaving the Santos attackers offside. It was an extremely risky move, albeit one that paid off. Shortly after, the whistle blew, ending an extremely entertaining contest. 


Both sides will probably need to make adjustments in their defensive setups, especially in transition. If they continue to play in such an open fashion, they both will continue to leak goals. The game offered a good example of how the speed and risk at which teams play in possession can leave them open and vulnerable in the counterattack. 

Furthermore it was clear to see the difference in quality between the defensive and attacking players in the match between the two sides. The attacking players tended to get the better of their direct opponents, which led to numerous counterattacking situations and chances on goal. For the neutral this made for an entertaining game. Therefore, if you are a fan of attacking football, then the Brazilian league could be the one for you. 

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