November’s international break brought us the “Clásico del Río de la Plata” between fierce rivals Argentina and Uruguay. Although this match was technically a “friendly”, no match in this over-century-long rivalry is ever that.
Through analysis, we see that Uruguay heavily allocated defensive tactics and tried to dictate the game while out of possession. Argentina sought to use all the fire-power at its disposal and march the ball down the pitch calmly and collectively. This tactical analysis will show exactly how it happened.
Team notes and line ups
Both teams come off disappointing runs in this summer’s Copa America. Uruguay lost in penalties in the first round of the knock out stage to eventual 2nd place finishers Peru. Argentina lost in the semifinals in an extremely controversial match against Brazil. Earlier this international break Uruguay beat Hungary in a friendly in Budapest while Argentina took revenge with a win against Brazil in another “friendly”. Both teams will be looking to solidify personnel choices and team tactical concepts. Their next national team matches will be the beginning of the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers in March.
Uruguay: out of possession
Uruguay entered the match with a tactical plan that revolved around controlling the course of play through their out of possession shape. By aligning in a mid/low 4-4-2 block, Uruguay aimed to restrict forward progression for the Argentinians. The movement of the block prioritized directing play wide and snuffing out any forward progress by engaging in situational aggressive man-marking on the flanks.
When Argentinian defenders possessed the ball in central areas, Uruguay focused on retaining a compact 4-4-2 shape that cut off any access to central passes. As the ball was passed to defenders on the flank, the Uruguayan block shifted as a unit to the relevant side of the pitch. As long as Argentinian defenders possessed the ball in non-threatening areas, the Uruguayans were comfortable with conceding possession.
Conversely, the instant the ball was played forward to an Argentinian midfielder or forward, the Uruguayans would instantly move into an aggressive man-marking scheme. By quickly converting from a zonal block to man-marking near the ball, Uruguay were able to quickly shut down any hopes of Argentinian progression through the midfield line. We saw this scenario in action throughout the match.
In the sixth minute, Argentina have gained possession of the ball and move their team shape up the pitch. Uruguay have settled into their typical 4-4-2 zonal block and are cutting off any central passing access. Argentina circulates the ball wide.
In this moment, Lionel Messi is on the right flank and has dropped to receive on the shoulders of the Uruguay midfield line. As the ball is travelling to Messi, four nearby Uruguayan players move into action. The Uruguayan left-back and left midfielder, Matías Viña and Brian Lozano, immediately close down Messi and restrict any forward or central access.
The left central midfielder, Federico Valverde tightly marks Paulo Dybala, who has dropped into space between the lines to support. Uruguayan central midfielder Lucas Torreira steps forward to no longer cover his zone within the block, but to create a cover shadow (blue triangle in the image above) that eliminates two Argentinian passing options.
In this moment, Argentina has no real options to progress forward and pass the ball back to the defensive line. As the ball circulates across the central channel, Uruguay re-form their compact 4-4-2 block and prioritize restricting central access once again.
By switching between zonal and man-to-man marking schemes, Uruguay were able to prevent Argentina from cleanly progressing upfield.
Argentina: third man runs
Argentina recognized that by holding their expanded shape in possession and employing no off the ball runs, forward progression would be extremely limited. They decided to employ third man movements to progress into attacking areas and create chances on goal.
The Argentina forward line of Sergio Agüero, Dybala and Messi began to drop into space between the lines to receive. These movements were meant to manipulate the Uruguayan man-marking triggers to create space for teammates. Argentina saw a few spells of success from these movements.
In the twenty-ninth minute Argentina possessed the ball centrally and subsequently, Uruguay remained in a zonal scheme. Agüero has dropped in between the lines to open himself up to receive the ball. Upon receiving the ball, Uruguayan right-back Martín Cáceres aggressively pressures Agüero from behind to prevent him from turning upfield. Agüero is fully aware that Cáceres will pressure him from behind and holds the ball momentarily to draw Cáceres as far away from his former position in the defensive line as possible.
Argentina left-back, Nicolás Tagliafico, recognizes that Agüero has opened up a massive gap in the Uruguayan backline and quickly sprints forward to attack the space. Tagliafico’s run occurs on the blindside of the closest Uruguayan player and therefore buys him time to move upfield into the gap. As Tagliafico’s run begins, Agüero returns the ball back to the Argentina midfield line who is facing forward and have a good body position to play the ball forward on the left flank.
Tagliafico arrives in attacking space as the ball is played forward for him to run onto. He receives the ball and penetrates forward towards the attacking third of the pitch.
By employing off the ball movement and runs, Argentina were able to manipulate the shape of the Uruguayan defensive block. This created space to attack and helped to move the ball into the attacking third of the pitch.
Argentina also chose to utilize numerical overloads to progress up the pitch as well. By repositioning attacking players near the ball, Argentina overwhelmed Uruguay in areas of the pitch to progress through the midfield line.
When defending in a zonal marking scheme, the important points of reference are (in no specific order): the ball, your teammates and location on the pitch. If the ball is located here, the team moves here as a compact unit. If the ball is located there, the team moves over there as a compact unit.
Because the opponent is not typically an important frame of reference, zonal marking teams can be attacked with positional overloads. Knowing that Uruguay would shift its block to one side, and seek to keep its 4-4-2 shape, Argentina sought to bring in additional players to where the ball was. This allowed Argentina to outnumber Uruguay in that area and progress cleanly through the lines.
This tactic was employed numerous times through the second half. Below, we can see that Argentina have progressed up the left flank and the ball is located in front of the Uruguayan midfield line. On the other side of the pitch Argentina’s forwards and midfielders have drifted over to the left side of the field to assist in progression through the midfield line. We can see in the image below that there are no Argentinian attackers on the right side of the pitch. In this moment seven Argentina players surround three Uruguayan midfielders.
Dybala drifts into the middle of the temporary ring of Argentinian attackers to create a passing outlet to all nearby players. Tagliafico, who possesses the ball on the touchline, drives at the Uruguayan midfielders. Tagliafico’s drive with the ball draws in the three midfielders and opens up space behind them for Dybala and Messi, who are now lurking in space.
Once Tagliafico has dribbled forward and created enough space for his teammates he releases the ball to Dybala in the left half-space. Dybala one-touches the ball forward to Messi, who is waiting in a pocket of space in front of the Uruguayan defensive line. Messi receives and turns upfield to create immediate problems for the Uruguayan defenders.
By sacrificing an expansive team shape, Argentina were able to shift players across the pitch to create overloads. These overloads gave Argentina a temporary numerical advantage and allowed them to progress through the lines and create chances on goal.
Because Uruguay presented a stout defensive block, Argentina were left struggling to progress through the lines throughout the match. Although this did present an interesting tactical battle, three of the four goals scored were created through set pieces or penalty kicks. The final 2-2 scoreline fairly represents the successes and failures of each team within the match. Both teams move on to the beginning of World Cup Qualifying with plenty to improve.
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