A game with no favourites, the big Libertadores final had high expectations. Both teams that were dominating their countries were to face in an epic confrontation in Lima, Peru. It was the first final with this unique match-up in Libertadores history.
Flamengo arrived with a lot of confidence after destroying Grêmio in the semifinals by 5-0. Meanwhile, River Plate arrived in the final after a loss to their great rival, Boca Juniors, by 1-0, besides the aggregate score showed a 2-1 to the Red-and-White.
This was the seventh time River made it to the finals of the most important championship in America, accumulating four titles and two vices by now. It was the second time Flamengo made it to the finals, on the first they were the champions against Cobreloa, back in 1981.
In the last days before the final, River were testing a more cautions formation with 3 centre-backs. In this strategy Paul Diaz would enter the team, playing beside the captain Javier Pinola and Lucas Martínez. With this 3-5-2, the coach Gallardo tested the team with two variations: the first with Nicolás De La Cruz in the middle, who is more creative and the second with Exequiel Palacios, who is more technical and experienced. But in the end, Gallardo entered the match with his regular formation, the same team that had beaten Estudiantes by 2-0 in his last game, with a 4-1-3-2.
38 years after their last title, Flamengo, who faced Premier League giants like Liverpool last year, entered the match with their total force, disposing of all their main players. The Rubro Negro entered in a 4-2-3-1 that could migrate to a 4-1-3-2, with William Arão being the first man and leaving Gerson free to make part of a middle line with three.
River’s early pressure
Since the first minutes, we could see that River Plate’s strategy was to put a lot of pressure and intensity to the game already in the beginning. When Flamengo had possession, the Millionaire’s midfielders and forwards immediately pressed the ball handler, doubling and sometimes triplicating the cover, cutting the short pass options, forcing the long pass, and recovering the ball possession. The success of this tactic led to the first goal and the early score advantage.
After recovering the possession, they try to make a vertical pass as soon as possible, avoiding making pointless passes and were very aggressive, always seeking to approach the box. When pressed, the midfielders or defenders always tried to circumvent the marking by the sides of the field with high speed.
Flamengo’s build-up phase
In a lot of moments in the first minutes, we saw Flamengo working their attack through Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian Arrascaeta doing a lot of movement, with Everton leaving the right flank to the middle and Arrascaeta occupying the left as well as the middle, trying to link with the attack, but the main focus of Flamengo attack was the left side, exploring Filipe Luis and Bruno Henrique.
The strategy adopted by Jesus in the first half was using midfielders to carry the ball forward, instead of doing long passes. This tactic had its pros and cons in the game. The problem was that, when a midfielder like Gerson held the ball instead of making a pass, he attracted two or more markers and make life more difficult for the forwards getting into the box. This strategy was making the area around River’s box be a lot more congested, making it easy to work in the adversary’s defence.
The good part of this strategy for Flamengo was that playing against a team that do a lot of doubles and triples, hold the ball a little more time before making a pass, attract a marker, and makes it possible to find a free mate. Using River’s defensive strategy against itself, Flamengo could find some chances in the first half, with Gabriel Barbosa and Henrique, but it wasn’t enough.
Both teams used defensive systems posted in the same way but the behaviours were different. Flamengo’s defensive-midfielders and centre-backs prefer to be more static and fill the spaces, staying more retreated. Besides, River’s defensive works focused on advancing and anticipating Flamengo’s forwards before they can receive a pass.
That strategy worked for River in the first half, as right after the centre-backs anticipate the pass, they worked with quick short passes or one long pass to get in to attack quickly.
Flamengo’s tactical change
In the second half, things started to get better to Flamengo, due to a strategy change made by Jesus. The team was holding the ball too far from anymore and started to seek for vertical passes to break the lines. The change was accentuated by the substitution of the centre-back Gerson, for the creative midfielder Diego Ribas. His quality in passing made the team more able to explore the counterattacks. Besides the attack, Diego’s entry was very important defensively too, as he was always anticipating River’s passes in the middle and making doubles to steal the ball, which made possible a lot of counterattacks, with Diego linking with Henrique and Gabriel using long passes.
River’s physical aspect influenced Flamengo’s dominance in the late second half too. Some of River’s key players were showing clear signs of tiredness, like Pinola, which made Flamengo’s first goal possible, and that completely changed the face of the game. In this play, already in 87 minutes, River were still keeping the same mentality and strategy, keeping half of their players in the attack and making acute passes.
Due to this, one loss of ball possession in the middle (a thing that hadn’t happened in the game yet) made Flamengo come in the counterattack in a superior situation as Pinola, who needed to make the cover of Henrique, didn’t succeed to follow the move. Already near the box, Henrique holds the ball, attracts four markers, and yet manages to make the pass to Arrascaeta, who crosses to Gabriel for the goal.
After this, River’s strategy was to close itself and take it to penalties, but three minutes later, Diego with the ball in the middle, in his defensive field, makes a long pass to Gabriel, trying to force the combat and make the direct link. Gabriel, in a one-versus-one situation, uses the body, chasing the contact, to unbalance the defender, winning the dispute in the air, which made the ball to drop in his good feet, just in front of the goal with perfect conditions to score, which he did
In the end, we could see in this tactical analysis that River’s strategy was perfect in the beginning, but with Flamengo’s change of tactics, it became obsolete. Another thing was the stubbornness of the Gallardo, who kept the same tactics until the final minutes. The strategy of continuing to attack until the final could have worked for River, as they had more than two chances to score when it already was 1-0, which would have made the match virtually over, but they didn’t manage to make the most of these changes and made Flamengo seek the goals they needed. It’s import to highlight the performance of the two Flamengo’s centre-backs, who were almost perfect in the defence. Rodrigo Caio won ten out of twelve duels in the game and Pablo Marí, four out of six.