Jorge Sampaoli’s Santos side got off to a great start in this year’s Brasileirao. They beat Gremio 2-1 at the Arena do Gremio in Belo Horizonte. Goals from Eduardo Sasha and Felipe Jonathan were enough to hold off the 2017 Copa Libertadores champions. The following tactical analysis will show how Santos managed to sneak away with the 2-1 victory.
Gremio’s team news
Gremio came into this game with tons of momentum, having had a very competitive preseason. They won the Copa Gaucho final against their fierce rivals Internacional whilst competing in the Copa Libertadores. Having beaten Libertad, the group leaders, 2-0 in Paraguay, they now have the chance to qualify into the next round if they can beat Universidad Catolica at home next Wednesday.
Despite keeping the majority of their squad intact, there were a few departures. The exit of Marcelo Grohe, midfielders Ramiro (to Corinthians) and Cicero (to Botafogo), and striker Jael (Tokyo FC). All significant rotation players who helped Gremio win the Copa Libertadores two years ago.
During these matches, Gremio has been able to help several of their new signings get some much needed playing time. Giving them time to gel with the core group of players. Paulo Vitor came up huge in goal during the Copa Gaucho final saving two penalties, establishing himself as the frontrunner for a starting role.
In midfield, their two youngsters Matheus Henrique and Jean Pyerre have done well to integrate themselves in the squad. The former has slid alongside captain Maicon seamlessly, providing quality passing and great skill in possession. Meanwhile, Jean Pyerre has shown excellent attacking ability. He is capable of beating players with his excellent dribbling and possesses an adept long ranged shooting ability.
Other interesting signings include former Atletico Mineiro player and Copa Libertadores winner, Diego Tardelli, as Jael’s replacement. While the former Sevilla man Walter Montoya will provide depth in the midfield.
Santos’ team news
On the other hand, Santos has had quite the opposite of a preseason. They crashed out of the Paulista tournament at the hands of Corinthians and were eliminated from the Copa Sudamericana against River Plate (Uruguayan River Plate, that is).
They lost their two key frontmen in Bruno Henrique and Gabriel Barbosa to Flamengo. Despite their financial troubles they managed to hire Jorge Sampaoli, a relatively high profile coach.
His management of the Argentina national team in the World Cup and the club’s financial issues don’t seem the right fit. This only furthers the pressure on Sampaoli to get the team back to winning ways. They have been trophy-less since winning the Paulista back in 2016.
In order to do so, the board has managed to put together a good blend of youth and experience. They signed Peruvian international Christian Cueva, Colombian centre-back Felipe Aguilar, and left-back Jorge (Monaco). Add several interesting young players such as Rodrygo, Jean Lucas and Jefferson Soteldo, Santos have been able to blend youth and experience. Vanderlei, Victor Ferraz and Carlos Sanchez will be needed to lead the young side forward. Sampaoli might just have enough to turn this squad into a top-five team.
Gremio lined up in their typical 4-2-3-1, with no changes in regards to how they played their past two matches (1-3 Libertadores win against Libertad, and their PK win against Internacional in the Gaucho final).
Renato Gaucho went with his established backline, with Maicon as his holding midfielder. Matheus Henrique, playing as the second holding midfielder. Henrique looked to play further up the pitch and link up with Jean Pyerre, Alisson and Everton. The skilled target man André was tasked with leading the line against a three-man defensive unit.
Jorge Sampaoli tinkered between the 4-3-3 and 4-2-4 all preseason surprised everyone with a 5-3-2 formation. The back three of Gustavo Henrique, Felipe Aguilar, and Lucas Verissimo brought strength and physicality to the defence. Felipe Jonathan and Victor Ferraz two able defenders covering the flanks.
Santos’ attack was based on the interchangeability and mobility of its forwards and midfielders. Diego Pituca, Jean Mota and Jean Lucas are capable of playing in different positions in midfield. Soteldo and Edu Sasha lead the line, neither are considered natural strikers. They are rather versatile wingers who move between the lines across the forward channel.
Santos jumps out in front early
At the 5th minute, after a bad pass in build up by Leonardo Gomes, Santos found the chance to go up early and Eduardo Sasha did not let the chance slip.
Soteldo’s ability to drift wide draws partial attention away from Gremio’s two central midfielders and the centre-back Geromel. This opened up space centrally, where Jean Lucas and Jean Mota found themselves free. Felipe Jonathan, played a chipped pass into the undefended central area which was headed on by Jean Lucas onto Edu Sasha’s run into the box. Drawn out by Soteldo, Geromel was unable to recover in time and help Kanneman. Sasha calmly tapped the ball over Paulo Victor’s head for the 1-0 lead.
Throughout the match, Sampaoli would use the forward’s and midfielder’s mobility to drag out the centralized rival players, and then overload the area. With Santos’ two wingbacks joining the attack, the would generate numerical superiority in midfield.
In the 9th minute, Sasha almost got his second, once again after a Gremio mistake in the build-up. This time the culprit was the young Matheus Henrique, who slipped when in possession. The ball fell to Sasha, who had a shot from a meter outside the box that went barely wide.
Santos’ defensive block
After 10 minutes, it was apparent Gremio were struggling to figure out how to penetrate the Santos defence. They did well to keep possession and string together intricate passing into the attacking third. Once they moved in the attacking third, Santos’ low nine-man block allowed for little room to create chances.
As can be seen in the image above, Santos low block consisted of the five-man backline, and one of the two forwards (mainly Soteldo), joining the midfield line to create a 5-4-1 defensive block. This way Santos had a player available to man-mark each of Gremio’s attacking players.
In the 25th minute, Jean Pyerre had a go from a long way outside the box. Which was beautifully struck and equally well saved by Vanderlei. A few minutes later, Maicon had a go from distance, which went over the bar. Even though it’s a valid resource, the long shots spoke to Gremio’s inability to generate chances near the box.
In their domination of possession, Gremio began to find ways into the box. A lovely one-two play between André and Leo Gomes saw the latter find room in the box for a shot. The attempt was parried safely to a corner kick by Vanderlei, who began to establish himself as a key figure in the match.
Santos score their second goal
However, in the 34th minute, Santos dealt Gremio a near knock-out blow. Felipe Jonathan fired home the 2-0, following a clearance from a corner kick.
He anticipated Allison, who got caught waiting for the ball after Paulo Victor had punched out the cross from the corner kick, and released a rocket into the first post. This was the young left wing-back’s first goal for Santos after coming over from Ceara. Many questioned why Sampaoli had started him over former Monaco left back Jorge, but silenced his critics with a great performance and a goal.
Through Matheus Henrique’s metronomic passing abilities and triangulations between Everton and Jean Pyerre, Gremio found their best play stringing together neat passing plays. Working their way around the Santos defence, Gremio’s passing gave them a possessional advantage but had a tough time translating it into chances.
Gremio almost drew one back in the 41st minute, with a great combination play between Bruno Cortez, who played a short pass from the left-hand side, and Jean Pyerre who split the defence with a pass. He left Cortez in a perfect position to square a pass onto Andre who pushed it into the back of the net. Unfortunately, this was called offsides and confirmed with VAR, as is new custom in Brazilian football. Logically Renato Portaluppi was outraged.
Second half, more of the same
Looking to protect their lead, Sampaoli made a precautionary substitution at half time replacing the more offensive minded Jean Mota with Alison, a more conservative midfield presence. The second half began much like the first ended. Gremio dominated the possession (64%) but continued to fall short of ideas when they met the 9-man low block in the attacking third.
Meanwhile, Santos looked to counter-attack, building through the flanks and exploiting the spaces left in the middle.
At the 51st minute, Renato Portaluppi replaced Gremio’s Allison with Diego Tardelli. Allison had not had a good match, contributing little to the attack, and getting caught flat-footed on the rebound from the clearance in the second goal. A few minutes later, youngster Jean Pyerre was replaced by the talented Luan.
Luan was perhaps the best player on the team during their 2017 Libertadores championship run, but off-field issues, as well as attitude problems, have staggered the growth of the very promising player.
Luan had an immediate impact on the game, firing a curling shot after great hold up play by Andre. He also had a free kick shot on goal, both were expertly dealt with by Vanderlei, who fully established himself as the man of the match in the second half.
Sampaoli’s unorthodox tactics
Still, Gremio remained unable to penetrate the Santos defence. On the other hand, Santos looked for any excuse to kill time, be it fouls, thrown ins, injuries, or subs. Edu Sasha was replaced by the Paraguayan Derlis Gonzalez in the 68th, even less of a forward and more of a winger/midfielder. Santos was fully withdrawn into their own half, most of the time defending with a 5-4-1.
Sampaoli, a coach known for his possession style of play and bold, attacking formations, showed a completely different facet in this match. Santos was defending so deep in their own half, Portaluppi even risked subbing off his left back, Bruno Cortez, in place of another center forward in Felipe Vizeu at the 75th minute.
Gremio put all their offensive firepower on the pitch
With Tardelli, Vizeu, and André on the field, Gremio now had three dangerous big men capable of winning headers. With Everton and Luan working on the wings, they consistently looked to fire crosses into the box.
In the image above we can see Gremio’s forwards stacking the box, while Everton works the wings.
Gremio put a total of 30 crosses throughout the match, only connecting on 26.6% of them. Countered by a total of 33 clearances from the Santos’ defence. Surely not the game Portluppi and his men had imagined pregame, taking into consideration Sampaoli’s past playing styles.
On those crosses that connected one came in the 84th minute, where Everton’s low cross found Tardelli’s back heel. Vanderlei’s heroic double save kept the Santos clean sheet, as he leapt across goal for the initial save and the dove forward saving the rebound shot by Vizeu.
Gremio finally found the back of the net, but at the 93rd minute. Everton received the ball inside the box, accelerated past Gustavo Henrique and fired a strong, low shot across goal. Despite Vanderlei’s effort to get a foot on it, the ball deflected into the back of the net, albeit too late for Gremio.
Sampaoli’s is known for his unorthodox tactics, however, this was unorthodox in the sense that it was his defensive solidary and order, rather than his typical offensive firepower and disorder that helped Santos get their first 3 points of the tournament. Santos will face Fluminense during the week in yet another tough matchup for Sampaoli’s men. Meanwhile, Gremio will be expected to pick up their first three points of the season as they face the weak on Wednesday.
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