Last December, River Plate had been crowned champion of the Copa Libertadores after beating Boca Juniors in a historic final in Madrid.
Marcelo Gallardo, who came to River Plate in mid-2014, has now achieved his tenth title as manager – becoming the most successful coach in the history of the club in the process.
Much could be said about the decisive goals of Lucas Pratto, the steel of the central defenders Lucas Martínez Quarta and Javier Pinola or the brilliant saves of Franco Armani that are worth as much as a goal.
The entire team always looks mentally switched on when facing their rivals and demonstrate this with their on-field display. Overwhelming and superior in every aspect to their rivals, but a vital component to the team’s success comes from its midfielders, whom I call ghost midfielders.
River Plate has a firm structure and a solid base defensively with its goalkeeper Franco Armani and his back four. It can change due to various circumstances including injuries and suspensions. Their side is a well oiled collective operation that is born of pressure, power and mobility that originates from their attackers Pratto and Rafael Santos Borre or Matías Suárez. However, there is something that often goes unnoticed and that is the functioning and positioning of the midfield.
Enzo Pérez: He began his career playing as a right midfielder and over time has transformed into a complete midfielder. Initially shining in Valencia’s midfield as the only central midfielder, today he is River Plate’s undisputed star player with his personality and general play. He can be the midfielder who acts as the focal point generating danger with his vertical passes, or one who surprises by making late runs into the area. He can start or finish any offensive action and is a vital component to the team.
Exequiel Palacios: having emerged through the academy, Palacios quickly gained a place in Gallardo’s side thanks to his natural talent and his predisposition to play where he is required. His versatility also makes him able to play as a link-man or on the wings. He can also act as the second link in behind the strikers. Multifunctional and useful where required, he also perfectly fulfils defensive functions as an offensive player.
Nacho Fernández: A fundamental player for Gallardo even when his levels fall, he was selected by the coach who gave him a leading role in the team. Gallardo’s faith was repaid with his response. He has the capacity to play a multitude of roles. Combining great inside passes and exquisite vision, he likes to arrive in the rival’s area and make surprise diagonal passes. He is an important part of the overall transition thanks to his mobility and great physical condition. A true ghost midfielder who appears in any sector of the field to surprise his rivals. Possess a good long-distance shot, too.
Bruno Zuculini: He earned an important place in the team working in the shadow of Leonardo Ponzio with humility and willingness. He took every opportunity he had to play and is highly regarded by his coach. His main characteristics are to press, mark and give a safe pass, and with time adapted to the demands of Gallardo. He won several minutes as a starter in important matches of the season. Zuculini provides great value in both areas for his height and good heading ability. He has a great personality and showed that the heavy pressure of playing for River Plate did not phase him.
Leonardo Ponzio: The great captain, Ponzio is fundamental both inside and outside the pitch. He is the driver who carries the coach’s message to the youngest members of the squad. On the pitch, he acts as the third midfielder. He is also useful as a defensive midfield option. His voice of command and tactical thinking is fundamental at key moments of the match. He is also the player with the most titles in the club’s history.
Nicolás de La Cruz: The Uruguayan player was the one who took the longest to adapt to the River Plate way of playing, but today he is a key player through his ability to drive the midfield. His positioning makes a difference and contributes towards running the midfield exceptionally. He handles both areas very well, is quick, is a good dribbler and executes precision passes very well. He has taken advantage of every minute that Gallardo has given him to show what he can do.
Juanfer Quinteros: An exquisite player that quickly won the love of the fans. He is currently injured but remains a fundamental piece of the team that won the Copa Libertadores. Masterful in and out of possession, he provides vision and passes between lines. He regularly has a goal in him and knows how to handle a match. He can be the initiator, driver, play on the wings and in behind the strikers. A high performing, polyfunctional midfielder.
River Plate vs A.Paranaense
In Brazil, River Plate came out to play 4-3-1-2, and in a surprise move by Gallardo he did not use either Leonardo Ponzio or Bruno Zuculini as defensive midfielders. Instead, he placed Enzo Pérez as the axis in a line of three midfielders, with Ezequiel Palacios and Nicolás de La Cruz on the flanks. Nacho Fernández was positioned next to Pérez out of possession in a defensive 4-4-2.
In the return in Núñez, he also played 4-3-1-2, but Leonardo Ponzio was the defensive midfielder with Pérez on his right, Palacios on his left and Nacho Fernández more advanced. We see that Palacios now played on the other side initially and, Perez left his more defensive role to contribute in the circulation of the ball, trying to deepen the game with his vertical passes between the lines.
Different tactical variants of the midfield
According to the circumstances, Gallardo has used many variants in his midfielders, granting them some freedom when deciding on the field of play to their players but always without negotiating in terms of pressure, mobility and attitude.
What for many may seem a tactical mess, for the coach of River Plate it is an elaborate, synchronized and perfectly designed plan to disrupt their rivals through their ghostly midfielders, who appear and disappear in different sectors of the field, confuse their rivals, rotate positions permanently and play mixed-length passes.
It is clear that the pressure begins with his two strikers. But, opponents know that if they beat this first line of pressure then a much more suffocating one will come soon after, where the person with the ball always faces at least two men and generally will not know who they are.
River Plate have gained results with support from all over the pitch: from the hands of the great goalkeeper Franco Armani, the important goals of Pratto, or the tactical wisdom of his Gallardo. But it is, of course, the performance of midfield players that is a fundamental contribution in obtaining all the achievements during these years.
Having ghostly, polyfunctional midfielders, smartly messed up on the field of play and then ordering the team give them a different imprint to the rest. There will always be four who play, but their rivals hardly know who they are until the moment of the game and what role each of them plays until the game starts. What they do know is that generally, the four that play will do so with perfection and that they will likely be defeated by this great team.
It is said that players who play in many positions usually do not play well in any, but with intelligence and much work Gallardo has revoked this preconception and turned each of his midfielders into ghost midfielders.
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