With the international break over, River Plate returned to action with an away trip to mid-table side CA Huracan. Following a successful initial period to the season, this tactical analysis focuses on how River Plate’s aggressive pressing and quick, vertical passing was the key to demolishing the opposition.
Huracan headed into the Superliga fixture with just one win in their last six while missing their suspended young left-back Walter Perez. The odds were stacked against them, but unlike in the rest of the footballing world, there was no giant-killing here.
River made just one change following their goalless draw in their dominant display against Boca last time out. The Copa Libertadores champions set out in their usual 4-1-2-1-2 that effectively alternated between a narrow 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 to take advantage of the disorganisation of the opposition, especially when attacking on the counter.
As this tactical analysis shows, the home side attempted to press through a 4-4-2, using the strikers and one wide midfielder to pressure River’s split centre-backs into forcing errors during build-up. However, as this analysis demonstrates, it was the structure of their formation that lead to Huracan’s downfall.
River’s Direct Passing
A poignant feature of Gallardo’s River is the high volume of vertical passes to quickly bypass the midfield which has become key to their success, as the opposing teams struggle to contain the aggressiveness of their style of play. Pure “Heavy Metal” Football.
Sunday night’s game portrayed exactly why Marcelo Gallardo is so keen to have his side playing so directly, though not quite the Tony Pulis brand of direct.
Direct passing in general doesn’t relate to the amount of long-balls River play (only 65.1 p90), it is more so their determination to exploit lapses of concentration, spaces in-behind and the pace of their offensive duo.
As the still conveys, River were direct more so in their use of vertical passing, a crucial element in creating big chances. Huracan’s poor pressing triggers left gaps open at the back and passing lanes to be capitalised on.
In this instance, the home team’s press was evaded through a centralised chipped ball, one pass, and then with one progressive run, Huracan had been cut up easily.
This time River turn the ball over within the centre circle. Rather than holding onto the ball, retaining it by laying it off into the space behind, the conviction straight away was to play the ball forward. A key concept to Marcelo Gallardo’s style of play: aggressive, bold, rapid, vertical football.
Huracan’s Poor Pressing
Yet why River Plate’s physical and dynamic football smothered Huracan’s midfield so effectively was also down to their own incompetence off the ball which aided River Plate.
River rotated the ball between the centre-backs (above), luring the pressing forwards in before playing it back to keeper Franco Armani. But the press is disjointed, over-aggressive and is backed up by a static midfield that allows too much space for River to play out.
With just one pass and the only pressing line was suddenly broken through.
As the press is broken, the midfield becomes disconnected with no real incentive to win the ball back in a certain way. Enzo Perez (circled) is able to turn, control, look-up and open up varying passing possibilities.
Through three passes, River have broken the press, played vertically and quickly and have opened up a 3 vs 2 on the break.
One of the biggest factors in this victory, just like with the rest of River’s opening games, is the opposition’s failure to control the midfield. The use of the diamond allowed the midfield’s structure to adapt, to make use of the half-spaces, to create infinite options for the passer.
As per the tactical board below, the image represents the sheer potency the formation has during build-up. The right centre-back has an abundance of options, whether it’s in breaking the lines or just simply rotating the ball.
The narrow midfield means the opponents have to decide who to mark, what space to cover. For instance, in this image, the tight/medium block from Huracan shows how River can then take advantage of the wide areas by pushing their full-backs forward.
With full-backs pushed up, a three-man midfield tucked inside, and Enzo Perez (number 6) dropping between the defensive pairing, River on the face of it have switched from a diamond midfield to a 3-5-2. Again, this shows the versatility of Gallardo’s system.
River came up against a low/medium block as La Quemeros tried to nullify the threat that the likes of Palacios and De La Cruz offer with their technical ability.
Huracan attempted to sit their midfield pivot and back four close to each other as they strived to keep the two strikers quiet. But instead, River unsurprisingly adapted as the image below shows.
The midfield dropped deep to utilise the space left by Huracan’s midfield. Then by enticing pressure by overloading the left-hand side, it creates spaces on the opposing side with the right-back used as a potential out-ball.
The still pictures the poor structure of Huracan’s midfield. The away side used slow build-up only in the middle third while rotating it from side to side in an attempt to disorganise the opposition, something they did quite successfully and often.
The slow build up combined with intuitive switches of play created gaps within the midfield and opened up various passing lanes that River Plate frequently exploited.
The fusion of weak pressing triggers and poor midfield structure made it easy for River Plate to play their game as they consistently overran their opponents.
If anything, it would be fair to say that the scoreline flattered Huracan. River were heavily efficient in terms of tempo and their occupation of ball possession across the middle zones.
Huracan struggled to contain the movement of Gallardo’s players. The different movement patterns across the centre of the pitch from the midfield diamond lead to an interesting dimension within the game.
Huracan were forced to cope with varying threats and positional structures depending on the circumstance that River attacked in. Whether it be on the counter or playing through the narrow block, the home team had no answers to the problems they faced.
Following last year’s Copa win, it remains to be seen whether Gallardo will switch the main focus to winning the league following a 4th place finish that year, but it’s so far so good for River Plate.
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