In a much-awaited confrontation, River Plate and Boca Juniors met each other in the first leg of Copa Libertadores semi-final after facing in 2018 high voltage final in Madrid. In this occasion, River took the right step in their way to the final again. River Plate’s high-intensity pressing performance led them to a 2-0 win in the Argentinian derby. It was an unquestionable superiority for the home team, scoring a quick goal in the early minutes of the game and clearing the path to the victory.
Boca Juniors‘ defensive-minded gameplan was not enough to control their rivals, being outplayed for long stretches of the game and looking ineffective defensively and weak offensively.
In this tactical analysis, I will discuss the tactical keys that helped Marcelo Gallardo’s team beat Gustavo Alfaro’s tactics in the first 90 minutes of this series.
River Plate lined up their usual 4-1-3-2, while Gustavo Alfaro’s team started with a 4-2-3-1 structure that lasted just a handful of minutes, as they switched to a 4-1-4-1 after Santos Borré penalty kick goal at the beginning of the game.
There were no surprises from either team, as both repeated the same formation used in their Superliga last meeting, played just a month before at El Monumental. In that opportunity, Boca Juniors managed to end saving a point in a 0-0 draw.
River’s pressing made the difference
Being aggressive in the chase of the ball from the first minute was a decisive factor for River to control this match. For this reason, Boca players never felt comfortable in the pitch and it also affected them offensively.
In the image above we can see how just a few seconds into the game River players were already pressing Boca’s backline.
Since kickoff, they made clear their intention to press high up the pitch. They pressed Boca defenders straight from the build-up in the defensive phase, while also showing great ability to counter-press and recover the ball quickly in their defensive transitions.
The rhythm River displayed in this aspect was very difficult for Boca players to match, as they ended up losing many balls (35) in their own half.
A sample of this aggressive style is that all but one foul against River Plate in the first 45 minutes were in Boca’s side of the pitch, 12 out of 13. This allowed River to avoid counter-attacks, as most of their defensive transitions ended with a recovery of the ball or with a foul against them.
Another metric to show River’s pressing intensity is PPDA. This metric measures opponent passes per defensive action in opponents 60% of the pitch. They allowed just 4.8 passes per defensive action in this game, which is a pretty low number, indicating their proactivity to recover the ball.
If we add into count that River ranked third in the tournament committing 17.66 fouls per 90 minutes, then we have a glimpse of what they tried to do defensively. Press, recover, or foul to adjust positioning.
Boca’s inefficient direct play
With this scenario, Alfaro’s team had great difficulties to target their one and only forward, Ramón Abila. River Plate central defenders, Javier Pinola and Martínez Quarta made sure Abila were always in numerical disadvantage.
In consequence, Boca had very few opportunities to construct quality attacks near River’s backline, though they had a big one (0.25 xG) toward the end of the first half in Nicolas Capaldo’s foot, after a good counter-attack.
Boca’s gameplan was to try to attack as quickly as possible with long passes, and with wide midfielders Soldano and Reynoso involved in such defensive duties, they were far from Abila.
In those few offensive phases, they positioned themselves too narrow, and none of Boca’s wide defenders could make attacking runs to give some needed width. Boca managed to make just 6 crosses in the game.
Summarizing, Boca suffered from the lack of speed (Abila) to counter-attack. Also had bad width management to attack through offensive phases. Finally, most of its players were too far from the opposite box when recovering the ball and were counter-pressed by River. The outlook was not encouraging for them.
Positioning to open passing lines
In this part of the analysis, we will take a look at how besides Gallardo’s team’s vertical style of attack, they are also able to make good plays taking advantage of their positioning when they have to break a mid-low block defence. In this case, they made some rotations in midfield so they could advance the ball behind Boca’s midfield line.
First of all, Boca Juniors’ mid-low positioning allowed River central defenders and Enzo Pérez to take the ball up to the opposite half. Then, both wide defenders Gonzalo Montiel and Milton Casco joined Nicolás De La Cruz and Ignacio Fernández and positioned behind Boca’s Midfielders.
As we can see above, on the right side, De La Cruz occupied the central channel so Montiel had wide-open space to run. On the left side, Milton Casco and Ignacio Fernández were constantly rotating their positions, with Casco being many times making runs through central channels.
Also, both River forwards tried to position themselves in between Boca’s central and wide defender, which was pretty effective in these situations to allow numerical superiority if they surpassed Boca’s midfield line
The Gallardo move that improved River attacks
In the second half, Ignacio Fernández changed position and roles with De La Cruz. This move made a huge impact in the game, as Fernández had a great second half, making plays through the centre space and scoring the second goal. The image below shows Fernández breaking through the centre. Seconds after he would score.
An important point of River tactics is their quality vertical passing style. They are the best of the Copa Libertadores at making smart passes (9.47 per game while the tournament average is 5.15), and Fernández is the top contributor to that. In this game, he also made a stunning 11/11 progressive passes.
While Fernández was making damage in the centre, De La Cruz stayed wide on the left side waiting to receive in optimal 1v1 situations. The winger blossomed using his dribbling ability (fourth-best success rate of the tournament) to get to the box.
Alfaro’s attempt to react
To give Abila some company, Alfaro put former Juventus and Premier League star Carlos Tévez into the game. Tévez was responsible to link midfielders with Abila so Boca’s formation was now a 4-4-1-1. The substitution gave Boca some extra possession compared to the first half (43% instead of 32%), with Tévez being a fact in that statistic.
After Fernández’s second goal, Eduardo Salvio and Mauro Zárate jumped into the game. Salvio and the two-goal difference kept Casco more focused on defence for the final minutes. Zárate didn’t make much of an impact in the game. In that final stretch of the game, Boca had two chances to score what would have been crucial toward the second leg of this Semifinal.
In this tactical analysis, I showed how Marcelo Gallardo’s tactical display kept River Plate dominant over Boca Juniors from the first to the last minute of this game. Boca defensive tactics were already in doubt after taking an early goal, but Alfaro’s squad also had no answer to their historical rival after that, as they never could put River Plate defence into high risks.
This result gave River a fair distance from their rivals. Anyway, visiting La Bombonera stadium to face Boca Juniors can always bring a thrilling outcome.