How Racing won “el Clásico de Avellaneda” to stay top of the table

Artwork by @chapulana.

Racing came up big in this season’s showdown against Independiente, taking the “El Clásico” by a 1-3 score at the Libertadores de América Stadium. With these three points, “Chacho” Coudet’s men sit alone at the top of the table with five matches left in the season, after Defensa y Justicia lost 0-1 to Boca Juniors. Racing will have to face the runner-up Defensa y Justicia in the last game of the season, in what could be the championship game.

The historical breakdown of this matchup belongs to Independiente, as they have played 192 times, of which Independiente have won 75, with Racing winning 52 and 65 draws. Racing’s win at Independiente this Saturday was only their second win at the Libertadores de América in the last 19 years. This time around, as the season winds down, both teams from Avellaneda have much at stake in these remaining five games, Racing fighting for the title, while Independiente are in the tight race to remain among the Cup qualifier spots in the Superliga Argentina.

Racing’s context

On one side, one of the better Racing sides in the past decade sit at the top of the table with 48 points and are in a neck-to-neck battle with Defensa y Justicia with 45. Attempting to win their first title since the Superliga in 2014 with Diego Cocca at command, Racing boast the highest-scoring attack in the league with 38 goals in 20 matches (1.9/ match), and the second best defensive record with only 13 goals conceded (0.65/match).

They have led the table since the fourth week and have only lost two games all season. One to San Martín de Tucumán in an odd, 2-1 match, where Walter Coyette’s outfit scored two goals in 8 minutes to shock the leaders. The second was to current Copa Libertadores champions River Plate, where Gallardo’s men imposed their hierarchy in a solid 2-0 victory.

Despite honing the finest scoring record in the league, the league leaders bolstered their attack in the December/January transfer window, with experienced goalscorer Dario Cvitanich and brought Andrés Ríos from Vasco da Gama and young Mateo Cassiera from Ajax, on loan. Ríos scored on Racing’s Copa Sudamericana debut, tying Corinthians in Brazil 1-1. Meanwhile, Cvitanich scored in his debut in the Superliga four games back and has put in great performances off the bench, which earned him the starting role in this match.

Racing´s line up was no surprise as they went with their 4-1-3-2, their preferred formation all season. In goal, the 31-year-old Chilean Gabriel Arias has had a fantastic season and would go on to become one of the key players of the game. The back four was composed of Renzo Saravia at right-back, Alejandro Donatti and Leo Sigali as centre-backs, and young Alexis Soto on the left (over veteran Eugenio Mena). Marcelo Díaz played in the vital holding midfielder position, accompanied with Matías Zaracho, Neri Cardozo, and Guillermo “Pól” Fernández further up the pitch in midfield. Ricardo Centurion was not called upon for this game as his disciplinary issues have seemingly topped Coudet and he had moved him to the reserve squad. Up top, the two battle-tested veteran forwards Dario Cvitanich and Lisandro López.

Racing Independiente Tactical Analysis Analysis Statistics
Racing Club’s lineup

Independiente’s context

On the other side, Ariel Holan’s Copa Sudamericana conquest seems long ago. The memory of Independiente’s win over Racing at “El Cilindro de Avellaneda,” Racing’s stadium, that helped hurry the departure, of then-coach Diego Cocca, has been put behind. Angered by the loss of league-leading scorer Emmanuel Gigliotti and World Cup squad member Maximiliano Meza, Independiente fans seem to be split over the amount of patience left with Holan at the helm, often questioning his decisions in-game. Their best moment of the season came on the back of five wins in six matches in October/November. However, since they have only won one match, tied four and after this defeat, lost three.

While Independiente sit fourth in the Superliga in goals scored with 29, their 22 goals against are 10th from the bottom (out of 26 teams in total). The arrival of veteran Guillermo Burdisso has yet to bring the quality or stability to their defence they hoped to get when they signed him. Despite having captain Martín Campaña in goal, one of the best goalkeepers in the league,  Independiente continue to have issues conceding untimely goals.

Still “El Rojo” turned to the backline composed of Fabricio Bustos, Alan Franco, Burdisso and Gastón Sílva at left-back. With former Boca Juniors captain Pablo Pérez suspended, Holan went with the midfield trio of Nicolás Domingo holding, and Fernando Gaibor and Pablo Hernández in more freed roles. Up top, newcomer Cecilio Domínguez has been looking good on the left for Independiente since his arrival from América, joined by Gonzalo Verón on the right and Martín Benítez as a centre-forward.

Racing Independiente Tactical Analysis Analysis Statistics
Independiente’s lineup

Match breakdown

The game began scrappy, as could be imagined, with both teams pressing intensely and not allowing much play. Racing had the first chance in the fifth minute, with a combination from Zaracho to Cvitanich, who turned and played Lisandro López in for a closed-angle shot. Campaña sent the shot wide for a corner. As Racing’s midfield formation often does, their three loose midfielders look to stay close and create numerical superiority in sectors of attack.

Racing Independiente Tactical Analysis Analysis Statistics
Numerical superiority in sectors of attack by Racing

From this corner-kick, Racing got the first goal in the match, from a Guillermo Burdisso own-goal. Credit where it’s due, Pol Fernández’s cross was a spot on, curve-filled ball, and Donatti’s imposing presence and ball seeking skills forced Burdisso into an awkward defensive position, in which the ball deflected off his leg into the goal.

Racing’s set-pieces

Despite only scoring four goals in this Superliga, one of Racing’s most dangerous weapons are set-pieces. With dribblers like Centurion, Solari, and Zaracho, Racing consistently earn corners and free-kicks. In fact, Racing sit fourth in the league with 14.6 fouls won per game. With Sigali (1.80cm, but looks much larger and elevates really well) and Donatti (1.91), Racing threaten with every ball into the box. Add to that the ball-hawking instincts of Licha López, and now Cvitanich, and set piece taking ability from Pol Fernandéz or Neri Cardozo, and you get a formula for creating goal-scoring opportunities.

After the goal, Independiente settled into the match looking to control the possession and work its play out wide. From the beginning, Hérnandez and Gaibor looked to get on the ball often.  Independiente’s build-up play had a tendency to lean on the right side, with Bustos, a more attacking full-back than the Uruguayan Gastón Silva. Bustos was the player who completed the most passes in the match with 54. With the tireless right-back always looking to play forward and join the attack.

Independiente’s midfield structure was very predictable, yet effective. Nico Domingo holding back and working closer to the defensive line, looking to relay the attacking full-backs, recycle play, and challenge any loose balls that fell to the midfield. Fernando Gaibor played more closely with the forwards and wingers on the half-spaces, looking to string passing chains together. Pablo Hernández was in the more the box-to-box role, and when attacking, looking to get in the Racing box and use his size to get on the end of crosses.

As Independiente grew, Racing began to show nervous signs first giving away a few easy balls. Then a miscommunication between Saravia and Sigali would end up in a Sigali handball that would earn him a yellow. Meanwhile, Independiente began generating chances. Benítez found himself played through on a chipped pass by Gaibor, which he could not head past Arias. A few minutes later Bustos had a shot from inside the box that went wide.

The business for Independiente was clearly on the wings, as their 4-3-3 favoured outside play against Racing’s 4-1-3-2. With Benítez, a natural winger, in the centre-forward position, Independiente looked to use his movement to drag defenders out of position. Using the individual skill of Domínguez, Benítez, and Verón, they looked to create mismatches on the wings and find space for crosses. Gaibor would play closer to the wingers as well, looking to make use of the spaces there to put in crosses. Independiente put in a total of 14 crosses from open play and seven from corner kicks.

Racing Independiente Tactical Analysis Analysis Statistics
Cecilio Dóminguez’ wing play leads to shot.

In this play, Domínguez draws three defenders wide, including the centre-back Sigali. He puts in a dangerous cross to Verón. With Benítez already lurking in and around the six-yard box and Hernández crashing the box, Verón pulls down the header to the penalty spot. Díaz closes down Hernández, but the ball falls to Benítez, who has a powerful shot saved by Arias. Even Lisandro López had to join in the defence in the box, filling the void left by Sigali.

A few minutes later, Hérnandez had a great header saved by Arias after a corner-kick. Independiente’s hunger for the equaliser was palpable. Racing seemed to be unable to get on the ball and keep it. Independiente pressed often and with a very intense backline, led by the youngster Alan Franco, would constantly harass the forwards when they looked to receive with their back to goal.

Nico Domingo did a great job snuffing out link-up play between the three advanced Racing midfielders with the help of Hérnandez and Gaibor. In the 42nd minute, a head clash between Hernández and Sigali forced the latter to be carried off on a stretcher. Sigali’s injury only continued to unsettle Racing. His replacement, former Independiente player Nery Domínguez, came on to receive a shower of whistles from the crowd, only intensifying an already tense stadium.

Racing Independiente Tactical Analysis Analysis Statistics
Wide open space in midfield for Hérnandez during Independiente´s goal.

In the 47th minute of the first half, Domingo stole a ball in midfield from Cardozo. Hernández sprung forward with the ball and space in midfield after Marcelo Díaz was caught out of position. He played Verón through, who took a touch and played a low cross into the far post. Gaibor had gotten ahead of Saravia and simply had to push the ball into the net. With this goal, Gaibor became Independiente’s top scorer (4) and assister (4) on the season after the departure of Emmanuel Gigliotti.

The end of the first half saw Independiente push and nearly get the second after another Hérnandez header went wide. The Chilean had one of his better performances since arriving, demonstrating his aerial ability with eight aerial duels won. His box-to-box work was key to Independiente’s intensity.

The second half began with similar dynamics, with Independiente using full intensity, while Racing struggled to slow down the tempo and play their possession game. Cecilio Dóminguez was looking dangerous, with Saravia having a tough time one-on-one with the Paraguayan and Independiente continued to look the better side. However, a moment of youth by Alan Franco, mixed with veteran smartness from Cvitanich, would change the game.

While Franco looked to shield a long ball out of bounds Cvitanich, was able to win a position, and drag the ball with him into the box. Franco saw himself forced to grab him and commit the penalty. Licha López cooly struck home the 2-1 from the penalty spot, which he celebrating by pointing to his head, asking his teammates to think and be smart.

The match kept getting scrappier and although Racing now led, Independiente were still the dominant team. Benítez missed a sitter after Verón had gotten to the byline and pulled back a low cross, a consequence of playing a winger at striker. Domínguez also had a clear-cut one-on-one chance with the goalkeeper, after eliminating two rivals on the dribble, but Gabriel Arias’ timely save prevented the tie.

Independiente’s superiority could be seen through the stats, as they had 54.8% of the possession, won 58.7% of the 138 duels in the match including, 76.3% of the 38 aerial duels. Independiente had 24 successful dribbles, three through balls, 14 key passes and had 19 shots against Racing’s nine. They set foot in Racing’s penalty area 32 times, against Racing’s 18 entries into theirs.

Independiente continued to push as time continued to run out, as Holan brought on Silvio Romero and Jonathan Menéndez of the bench. However with a stellar performance from Arias, and the Racing back line kept them at bay.

The “Licha López” show

This match very accurately summarized and embodied what Lisandro López has been doing throughout this whole season. Next Saturday, the former Lyon star turns 36 years old, and to many, he has never been in finer form. He’s scored 16 goals in 20 matches as the league’s top scorer. An even better ratio than his time at Lyon or Porto. He’s scored seven in the last 7.

Not only has he become a killer in the box, but he has become vital in Racing’s build-up play, always making himself an option, holding up play with his quality and old-man strength, associating with the midfielders. H’s almost 36 years of age, it doesn’t stop him from being one of the hardest-working players in the league, constantly helping out on defence and harassing defenders.

As seen in the game, where he ended several plays defending in the box. In the second half, he recognised Bustos had too much space out wide on the right. He then settled on the left side, worked the left wing, defending up and down the field from the 70th minute to the end of the match.

He is a symbol for his institution. His leadership and selflessness were on display in Racing´s third goal on Saturday night. In the 94th minute, López chased down a loose ball after a clearance off a throw-in and went on a 50-metre sprint. He took on the goalkeeper, and with only a defender and an empty net in front of him, he pulled it back, setting up Matías Zaracho for an open net tap in and make it 3-1 for Racing.

Racing Independiente Tactical Analysis Analysis Statistics
Lisandro pulls back pass for Zaracho instead of having a shot.

Choosing to assist his teammate, instead of increasing his goal tally (his penalty goal was his sixth against their historic rival Independiente, his highest tally against any other team in the Superliga) shows the selflessness and character he transmits to his teammates and to this institution. 

Back in 2004, when he was 20,  he became the first Racing player to be the league top scorer since 1969 leaving as a very loved player. He came back from Europe at almost 32 years of age and has gone on to become captain, emblem and enter the rop-20 club scorers, surpassing Diego Milito’s (his sporting director) 59-goal mark, with 68 goals in his 170 appearances. 

Final comments

Since Coudet’s arrival, Racing have only lost nine of a total of 43 matches, with a 66% effectiveness. With Diego Milito as sporting director, Coudet at head coach and Lisandro López leading on the field, Racing seem to have established institutional stability, stemming from their figureheads and translating onto the field and on to the fans.

With this massive 1-3 win, “La Academia” are one step closer to the title. They will look to consolidate this great project with the clubs’ first title since 2014 and Coudet and López’ first with the club. Coming up they have the second-leg fixture against Corinthians during the week and a home game against Estudiantes for the Superliga. Meanwhile, Independiente will face Gimnasia de la Plata, as they continue to push for cup spots. 

If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the February issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.