As Europe’s football season is ending, Brazil’s season is still in its infancy and now into its sixth week. São Paulo hosted Cruzeiro at the Estadio do Morumbi hoping to build on what has been a positive start in the Brazilian Serie A. In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Cruzeiro had the home team on the ropes for the majority of the game.
São Paulo have played 4-2-3-1 four times this season with one win, one draw and two losses. Similarly, playing a 4-3-3 three times with one win, one draw and one loss. Both formations had seen varying success and it would be prominently a 4-2-3-1 played against Cruzeiro. During the game, the formation would shift due to Cruzeiro’s relentless pressure going forward.
Cruzeiro have stuck firmly to the 4-2-3-1 formation but have won once out of seven games. Although, they have fared much better in the Copa Libertadores group in which they came top. This game would see them stick to 4-2-3-1 and similarly to São Paulo their shape would change during the game.
Creating space by dragging defenders
Both sides started brightly to the game but it would be São Paulo to strike first. It was a clever move by the right attacking midfielder Jonas Toró, who cut across the pitch and dragged centre back Leo with him. This created a massive gap in a vulnerable place for Cruzeiro’s Alexandre Pato, who simply left his marker and ran into the newly created space, received the ball and finished. Simple, clinical, effective.
Wing backs push far forward
The transitional play of Cruzeiro caused a tremendous amount of problems for São Paulo. From defending in a flat back line of four in a mid-block, once possession was regained the wing-backs burst into a supporting position, wide and high into the opposition’s half. From there the wing-backs had a choice of either cutting inside to under-lap through the middle. Alternatively, they could stay out wide and get heavily involved in attacking down the flanks.
Although a fairly obvious tactic, Sao Paulo were unable to prevent Cruzeiro from playing this way. This was due to the speed in which Cruzeiro moved the ball about on the pitch, with short, sharp meaningful passes that penetrated the lines. We can see below, that the picture is ten seconds after the picture above. Note how high and wide the wing-backs are in such a relatively short space of time.
São Paulo invite pressure
Despite being at home, higher in the league table and favourites to win the match, São Paulo struggled with the relentless pressure of Cruzeiro. Perhaps being a goal up had lured the time into a false sense of security? The formation changed several times into a more defensive 5-3-2. This was surprising given how early it was in the game. Not only did São Paulo form into a 5-3-2 but they sat very deep within their own half.
Note in the picture below, the body positions of the two attackers. They are upright and not pressing Cruzeiro at all. Thus, inviting Cruzeiro to attack.
Cruzeiro: master class of rotation
The rotational play from Cruzeiro was extremely pleasing to watch as the game unfolded. The team passed and moved into new positions dragging players with them and opening up new spaces: exactly how São Paulo scored their first goal.
Below we can see an example of Cruzeiro’s rotational play from the first half. The wing-back Romero is wide on the flank. The left defensive midfielder Cabral has swapped position with the other defensive midfielder and taken the ball into the half space in São Paulo’s half. The right attacking midfielder Robinho is positioned in the half-space just in front waiting to receive the ball. The three have formed a triangle but don’t have a numerical advantage. The “British” way to play from here would be to knock the ball wide to Romero to run down the flank and cross the ball into the box.
What Cruzeiro did was completely different from that. Cabral underlaps into the half space, dragging his marker with him. Robinho moves with the ball out wide taking his marker with him and also inviting the other defender to tackle directly in front. This made Romero free of his marker and rotates inside. He is now free in an open half space.
Robinho quickly turns and gives the ball to Romero who takes the ball further inside and lays a pass off for a goal scoring opportunity.
Lack of support going forward
When São Paulo did go forward they struggled to break down Cruzeiro’s defensive shape. We can see below how Cruzeiro maintained a numerical advantage in the middle of the pitch. This stifled São Paulo’s attacking opportunities, limiting through balls and crosses.
What was also noticeable was the neglect of support from behind to make use of possession in the final third. We can see below how number 13 Santos, the left defensive midfielder,is incorrectly positioned for the attack. São Paulo struggled to win the battle down the right wing with a 2v2 and an extra man would solve the mini battle.
Defending in numbers
Along with São Paulo’s lack of attacking vigour, Cruzeiro’s disciplined defence cancelled out any attacking threat. The team could shift excellently around the pitch in units maintaining numerical superiority every time São Paulo tried to create an overload.
São Paulo struggle being overloaded
Conversely, Cruzeiro’s movement off the ball going forward did create overloads. Below we can see how São Paulo are man marking and pressing the opposition’s attack. Cruzeiro are trying to penetrate into the final third, and as the ball is moved back to a free player other players re-position into the middle and forward.
Although there is no numerical advantage São Paulo are poorly positioned to intercept Cruzeiro. The movement of players has opened up new passing opportunities. Note below how number Hudson faces a dilemma of staying with his original marker who he has just pressed, or to take up the player now behind the defence in whilst still onside.
Despite poor marking, great rotational play, and several big chances, Cruzeiro would even the score by a free kick.
The statistics show exactly how the game felt like to watch. Cruzeiro dominated nearly all aspects of the attacking game with 61% possession and three big chances missed. Strangely, São Paulo also managed only one shot less than Cruzeiro and had the same amount of shots on target. However, the shots were much less threatening.
São Paulo will be thinking themselves lucky not to have been on the end of a beating here, after originally thinking this was an easy three points. This game has highlighted there is much to be done on the training ground going forward and in their defence. Conversely, Cruzeiro will certainly be the happier of the two teams, but will be frustrated at not getting a vital win away from home.