How a change in formation returned River Plate to winning ways


Reigning Copa Libertadores champions River Plate returned to form after a run of three Superliga Argentina defeats on Wednesday evening as they romped to a 4-0 away victory at ninth place Godoy Cruz. 

Los Millonarios took the lead inside 12 minutes as Lucas Pratto swept the ball past Roberto Ramirez from close range and the home side were two goals down and a man down by the half-time whistle. River Plate continued their dominance after the break, with Pratto heading home his second of the game and Matias Suarez sealing the deal in the 82nd minute. 

The following analysis will discuss how Marcelo Gallardo’s formational and tactical shifts from their previous outings positively influenced his side as they managed just their sixth league win this season and their first since their Club World Cup exit in December.


River Plate Godoy Cruz Superliga Tactical Analysis Statistics

Home side Godoy Cruz lined up in a traditional 4-3-3 with a midfield three of teenage prodigy Valentin Burgoa, Juan Andrade and Jalil Elias who completed just one dribble between them in the game and were all substituted before the ninety minutes were up. 

Marcelo Gallardo, however, noticed and solved some of the tactical flaws of River Plate’s recent run of defeats with a 4-2-2-2 formation with a holding midfield pivot of veterans Ponzio and Perez shielding a defence whose full-backs were used to provide width in the new system. Left-back Milton Casco, in particular, was a threat from the wing as he clocked up three dribbles and an assist.

Overloading the midfield

Marcelo Gallardo is one of Argentinian football’s smartest tactical minds and after seeing his side were failing to turn vast amounts of possession into goals and results in their traditional 4-3-1-2 formation he switched things up to a 4-2-2-2 which helped the visitors both defensively and in attack.

When playing in their own half, the holding midfield-two of Leonardo Ponzio and Enzo Perez dropped into a narrow back four whilst the full-backs offered width in the midfield to resemble more of a 2-4-2-2 system whilst in possession. Another common occurrence was Ponzio joining a back-three between the two-centre halves when River Plate were building play from the back with Perez acting as more of a screener and would often dribble out of the backline and lay on balls to either the attacking midfield-two or high-flying full-backs. 

River Plate Godoy Cruz Superliga Tactical Analysis Statistics
The two full-backs played just behind the attacking midfielders, making runs down the wing frequently.

In defence, the whole side, bar the front two, dropped back and pressed deep meaning there were sometimes seven or eight players tracking back to nullify any attacking threat that Godoy Cruz may have, though the physicality of the home side’s no.9 Santiago Garcia was causing some problems early on. 

River Plate Godoy Cruz Superliga Tactical Analysis Statistics
Both the back-four and two sets of midfielders are covering defensive areas early on in the game

The system also had some offensive benefits. In attack, the 4-2-2-2 system was able to create situations where River Plate had six players approaching a backline whose frailties were exposed by the width and pace the away side came forward with. The ten men of Godoy Cruz just could not put up with the intensity of River Plate’s forwards and the front two both had exceptional games, often peeling off the last man to latch onto through-balls – as was the case with Pratto’s opening goal. 

River Plate Godoy Cruz Superliga Tactical Analysis Statistics
Godoy’s zonal marking was poor throughout – especially in the midfield areas- as even the defensive midfielders have plenty of space to run into.

However, the obvious benefit of a 4-2-2-2 formation is to crowd the midfield areas and give every player ample passing options – especially when the full-backs were pressing as high as they were. As the game progressed and the ten men of Godoy Cruz tired, the visitors found it easier and easier to find spaces in the midfield and therefore, create high goalscoring opportunities. 

River Plate Godoy Cruz Superliga Tactical Analysis Statistics
Players had plenty of passing options in the midfield as the game wore on, as well as the additional option of Casco bombing up the left wing.

Providing the width

The obvious pitfall of the 4-2-2-2 is a lack of width in attacking areas but River Plate full-backs Gonzalo Montiel and Milton Casco were arguably their side’s most dangerous attacking outlets. 

The visitors often pulled the Godoy Cruz defence into one side of the field as they made cute midfield passing triangles before spreading the play to an exposed wing (usually the right in the first half) where a full-back would put in a delivery.

River Plate Godoy Cruz Superliga Tactical Analysis Statistics
The midfield-four’s passing ability helped make the River Plate attack wider than the initial short passes Godoy Cruz had to press. 

Despite the narrow formation, River Plate still dominated the wide areas during the game and this is admittedly in part due to to the early red card. After centre-back Tomas Cardona was dismissed in the 34th minute, Gudoz brought on defender Facundos Cobos to take his place and adopted a 4-3-2 system which had very little defensive cover in wide spaces aside from the full-backs. This lead to Montiel and Casco ending up in quite frankly ridiculous positions such as the one underneath. 

River Plate Godoy Cruz Superliga Tactical Analysis Statistics

In the end, Casco and Montiel were arguably River Plate’s best players throughout the 90, alongside Pratto, and were the key to the domination the away side established early on and the attacking momentum they managed to maintain throughout the second half. 


All in all, this was a very strong return to form for a River Plate side who have struggled for form since returning from the Club World Cup in December. Against a relatively strong side away from home, they dominated the ball, attacked with width and intent and really demonstrated the benefits of the 4-2-2-2 formation. River Plate’s revival will hopefully continue against Velez Sarsfield at the weekend before they play top of the table Racing Club next Sunday and it will be fascinating to see if this formational shift was just for Wednesday night’s game or a new system Gallardo is trying to implement. 

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