The semifinals of the Copa America are here. Hosts Brazil had to face classic rivals Argentina in the first game of this round while defending champions Chile have to face Peru a day later. Playing on home soil, Brazil managed to win all their previous matches, scoring eight goals, and conceding none, making them the clear favourites. On the other hand, even though Argentina finished second in their group, they successfully reached the last four without going to penalties; the only team to do so.
Even without their main man Neymar, Brazil managed a win 2–0 against Argentina; thus bringing them one step closer to a long-awaited Copa America triumph. This tactical analysis will tell you how Tite’s Brazil outsmarted Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina with their tactics in this match.
Tite opted for 4–2–3–1 in this game. Champions League winner Alisson started between the sticks, supported by Paris Saint-Germain duo Thiago Silva and Marquinhos in front of him. Barcelona midfielders Philippe Coutinho and Arthur were tasked to control the engine room, while Premier League stars Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino led the frontline. Names like Willian, Miranda, and Allan had to start the game from the bench.
Scaloni opted for a 4–3–1–2. Ajax’s Nicolás Tagliafico and Tottenham’s Juan Foyth started as full-backs, while Leandro Paredes was given the task to support the back-four just in front of them. Upfront, the duo of Sergio Agüero and Lautaro Martínez was supported by talisman Lionel Messi just behind them. In the bench, there were household figures like Ángel Di María, Paulo Dybala, and Giovani Lo Celso ready to help when needed.
Argentina enjoyed more ball possession than the hosts in the first half. They forced the home side to sit and be reactive while trying to find their way in against the men in yellow’s block. Off the ball, Brazil used 4–1–4–1. In this shape, sole defensive midfielder Casemiro was tasked to protect the defensive line and bridge them to the midfielders at the same time.
Not only that, but Casemiro was also instructed to mark Messi out of the game. The Real Madrid player would follow Messi when he dropped deep in order to prevent the Argentine to receive possession comfortably. He didn’t do it heavily though and would let Coutinho or Arthur close Messi down if he dropped too deep.
This defensive tactic deployed to stop Messi was quite risky for Brazil’s defence. The reason was simple, if Casemiro followed Messi when he dropped, there would be a huge gap in between Brazil’s defensive and midfield lines ready to be exploited by the visitors. However — luckily for Brazil — Argentina didn’t utilise that space enough to their advantage.
Messi’s smart movements damaged Brazil’s defence on one occasion. In one sequence, he drifted wide, pulled Casemiro with him, and open a forward passing lane for Martínez. The Inter striker then would receive the ball on the half-turn and managed to beat his marker with his first touch; even though the defender was able to control him shortly after that. Nevertheless, the sequence was a one-off.
Argentina’s counterproductive possession
The team who enjoy more possession of the ball should be the one who have a better chance to affect their opponents; therefore increasing their scoring probability. However, it didn’t happen for Argentina. Their use of possession in the first half was problematic — to say the least — and partly happened due to their over-reliance on Messi.
In this match, Messi played as an attacking midfielder, supported by three midfielders: De Paul, Acuña, and Paredes; therefore he could focus on the final third and damage Brazil’s defence more frequently. What happened in the first half was the exact opposite. Messi repeatedly dropped deep to collect the ball, sometimes just in front of the centre-backs.
What Messi did was in part due to the midfielders’ lack of creativity on and off the ball. It seemed like De Paul, Acuña, and Paredes had little if no spatial and offensive awareness at all. They couldn’t do the basics, either by positioning themselves into the space left by Coutinho, open clear passing lanes, or drifting wide to stretch Brazil’s mid-block. This decreased Messi’s (and Argentina’s) offensive threats heavily.
Possession for Argentina, goal for Brazil
It took less than 20 minutes for Brazil to get their first goal; credits to their players’ smart movements and clever positioning. Speaking from an analytical point of view, the play started by Coutinho, who dropped to collect the ball and found Dani Alves inside the right half-space. Before Coutinho made his pass, the 36-year-old defender had moved inward from the flank so he could be more accessible for Coutinho; after making sure the flank was occupied by Gabriel Jesus.
As this analysis above shows, the sequence continued by Firmino’s dropping movement; thus offering himself as a forward passing option for Dani Alves and pulled Nicolás Otamendi with him. Not just Firmino, but Coutinho — who started the play — was coming next to him and offering another forward passing option for the right-back.
Smart movements from the Brazilians
Coutinho happened to be Dani Alves’ choice in that scenario; thus allowing him to carry the ball forward against Argentina’s backline, facing Otamendi in the process. When Otamendi followed Firmino, he opened a space in his position which was exploited directly by his Manchester City man Gabriel Jesus.
At the same time, Tagliafico followed G. Jesus and had to surrender the space in his position; therefore enabled Firmino to drift wide, away from everyone’s focus. Otamendi did enough to stop Coutinho, but after a mini pinball sequence, the ball came into Dani Alves’ feet, who cleverly positioned himself inside the half-space just behind Coutinho and Firmino.
Dani Alves then calmly dribbled past Acuña and Paredes and pushed the ball to Firmino in the right-flank with a no-look pass. Then the Liverpool striker found G. Jesus in the goalmouth, who finished the sequence without any mistake. 1–0 for Brazil.
Argentina made it uncomfortable for Brazil
Despite leading the match, Brazil had no great goal-scoring chances apart from their actual goal. The reason was mainly due to Argentina’s defensive tactics when Brazil got the ball. Off the ball, Argentina pressed Brazil in a narrow 4–3–3.
In that shape, the visitors mainly tried to close central passing lanes to the midfielders. By congesting central passing lanes, Argentina made it hard for Brazil to progress the ball clearly. Argentina did some damage to Brazil’s build-ups by forcing them to play long balls from their centre-halves directly to the attackers. Advantage then would be given to Argentina since their defenders have more physical quality than the Brazilian forwards.
Brazil’s magic square
Brazil seemed to have no problem even if playing with lower ball possession. The home side adapted by utilising their quick and agile attackers, especially in transitional attacks. In the process, Brazil’s 4–2–3–1 shifted into something like 4–2–4; resembling the old famous Brazilian magic square also known as carre magique.
To utilise his front four, Tite did two things. First, he positioned his forwards in advanced areas so they could pin Argentina’s defenders back in their offensive scenarios; also enabled them to start their counter-attacks just near the halfway line. Second, he tasked his defenders to abandon Arthur and Casemiro in the build-up so the back-four could find the attackers quickly.
Apart from Everton and later Willian, Brazil’s attackers played really good in transitions. Coutinho, Firmino, and G. Jesus all possess good ability in tight spaces, therefore allowing them to play through the packed defence with great composure. On top of that, they also got another support from the back. Dani Alves who sometimes offered offensive runs from the right side half-space or flank whenever needed.
Albiceleste seriously improved their possession game in the second half. One notable change was Agüero’s role change. Previously, as a striker Agüero was tasked to back himself to the defender; in the second half, he was given the license to drop in between the lines, especially in the left-side half-space.
That movement was quite similar to what he did at Manchester City last season by switching roles with David Silva. From this area, he could receive the ball with a half-turn, and had some options after: carry the ball forward in space, make short combinations with Martínez, or square the ball to the flank so the receiver could send a cross into the box.
Another change was the introduction of Di María. As said before, Argentina lacked presence in width, largely due to Acuña’s questionable positioning. When Di María came in, he was tasked to stretch Brazil’s defence by occupying the left side flank. From there, the winger could send his notorious crosses into the box. He did the job quite well and managed to make some problems for Willian and Dani Alves.
More productive possession from Argentina
Not only putting Agüero and Di María in such advantageous area, Scaloni seriously improved his team’s quality in possession by allowing Otamendi and Paredes more time with the ball. By doing so, he allowed more players to play within Brazil’s defensive block, and most importantly, reducing Messi’s offensive burden.
Had the referee noticed Dani Alves’ unseen-and-controversial challenge on Agüero just before Firmino’s goal or had Messi not hit the post earlier, Argentina could have threatened Brazil more seriously. Unfortunately for them, those things didn’t happen and they had to accept the result graciously.
Scaloni’s boldness to adapt and change his tactics in the second half almost paid dividends, but almost is never enough in football; especially in the semifinal of a major tournament. His Argentina side had to accept Brazil’s tactical superiority and effectiveness in the final third.
Meanwhile, for Brazil, they reached the semifinal quite comfortably and proved to the world that they can cope without Neymar. With a tactically-astute Peru waiting in the final, it’s interesting to see how Tite could help Brazil to win the prestigious Copa América trophy.
Let’s wait and see.
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