Tactical tendencies: River Plate’s Marcelo Gallardo

Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Tactical Analysis
artwork by @chapluana

Marcelo Gallardo is a 43-year-old Argentinian who currently manages River Plate in the Superliga. As a player, his career spanned nearly 20 years for River Plate, Monaco and PSG to name a few. Regarded for his dribbling, technique and ability to beat players one on one, he regularly got compared to Diego Maradona in his youth.

After his playing career with Nacional, Gallardo naturally moved into coaching, taking his first manager job where he finished playing. With Nacional, he spent just one season in charge finishing with a 60% game win ratio and as league winners. He left the Uruguayan team to spend more time with his family who remained in Buenos Aires.

The ‘sabbatical’ would last just two years, and he even signalled in a 2014 interview

“One day I will be coach of River.”

The prophecy came true and Gallardo replaced Ramon Diaz who had quit River after leading them to the 2014 title. Gallardo made a massive impact, winning the Copa Sudamericana in 2014, their first continental trophy in 17 years.

In this short tactical analysis, we will look at how Marcelo Gallardo uses formations, his typical game plan and how his team defend and attack.


Marcelo Gallardo often goes for a 4-3-1-2 formation. Sometimes variants will be used such as 4-3-2-1, 4-1-3-2, 3-4-1-2, 3-1-4-2. But mainly, the 4-3-1-2 is often used as the opener in a River Plate match. Gallardo likes his players to have numerical superiority in the middle of the pitch to provide a springboard for an attack.

Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Analysis Tactical Analysis
Obvious triangles with the half-spaces zoned in red.

The obvious benefit of using a 4-3-1-2 is the structured triangulation of the team. At any one time, a player with the ball should be able to find at least one teammate in space looking for the pass, possibly two. The focus of the attack is generally down the middle which we will go into later on.

Gallardo also likes to utilise the ‘half spaces’. One player in particular that plays within the half spaces superbly is Juan Quintero. The pictures below show Quintero getting into these half-spaces. These spaces can be vulnerable weak points for any team trying to keep its positional shape and are often overlooked.Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Analysis Tactical Analysis

River Plate tend to exploit these areas well from playing through the middle. Quintero is often playing line breaking through balls in the half spaces putting oppositions on a back foot.

Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Analysis Tactical Analysis


Another one of Gallardo’s favourite formations is the 4-2-2-2. This is sometimes switched to if the game plan isn’t working. The idea is to exploit the space between the opposition’s defence and attack by having at least six players involved in any phase of the play. The formation only really works with teams that can pass exceptionally. Gallardo’s River Plate are one of these teams.

An overload in the middle is usually achieved by having two defensive midfielders protecting the four in defence enabling the front four to attack with wing back support. The wings are quite vulnerable. However, Gallardo views this as collateral with the opposition needing to get the ball into the centre to score anyway.


When defending, Gallardo likes to keep emphasis in the middle of the pitch. A middle block is usually employed. We can see below River have numerical superiority and have shut all passing options down against the opposition. The wings look super vulnerable, but as mentioned above is not a concern. Even more so if the opposition does not take advantage of the obvious spaces out wide.

Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Analysis Tactical Analysis
Credit: Dževad Čota

Transitioning: defence to attack

Once the ball is won back or River win a goal kick the main effort is to get the ball into the final third of the pitch as quickly as possible. This is often done by long balls from the back to the middle three attacking players.

Once the ball has been controlled by River and the opposition’s half is penetrated ‘Los Millonarios’ make short, sharp passes to dislodge their opponent’s organisation. If the wing backs push further up the field, the two defensive midfielders cover the spaces that are left as you can see below.

By doing this the opposition may follow the two midfielders further up the pitch if they have been told to press high. However, this leaves a huge space in the middle where Quintero and Pratto can operate freely.

Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Analysis Tactical Analysis
Credit: Stew Gurney. Red lines show movement. Purple circle is Quintero and Pratto in space.


In the opponents final third, River always give themselves multiple passing options. As you can see below, River always manage to implement a high volume of players forward and usually have six players in a phase of play. Just look at how many options the player in possession has to pass the ball and note the left wing back in a huge amount of space.

Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Analysis Tactical Analysis
Credit: Elliot Kendal

Again we can see below how eight River players have pushed forward and at least six are directly involved in the play. The distance is also fairly short between each player enabling a better chance of completing accurate passes. A lethal weapon to be using in the opponents final third.

Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Analysis Tactical Analysis

River Plate usually make a riskier pass directly through the middle rather than spreading it early to the wings. As you can see below the player has two easy passes to the left of him and one to the right. Yet, the more direct, central ball is still favoured to initiate the attack.

Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Analysis Tactical Analysis


To summarise, River Plate have been given characteristics by WhoScored. When River play, these characteristics are quite visible to see which in turn reflects Gallardo’s playing favoured playing styles.

Marcelo Gallardo River Plate Superliga Analysis Tactical Analysis


Marcelo Gallardo is River Plate’s most successful coach and has pretty much won everything there is to win in Argentina. Youth also get a chance to flourish at River. Palacios, Alvarez, Montiel, Beltran and Ferreira have all broken their way into the first team at some point.

With much speculation of who will be in charge of European giants Manchester United and Juventus next season, could we see El Muneco taking charge of one of them?

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