At the midway point of the Brazilian Serie A season, the first meeting between Brazilian heavyweights Flamengo and Santos was a match between first and second. It was also the first time the intense style of Argentinian Jorge Sampaoli and the patient buildup of the former Benfica manager Jorge Jesus would go head to head.
Flamengo continued their league dominance with their sixth consecutive win, although it was not an easy victory against the visitors from São Paulo. This tactical analysis will provide an insight as to how both teams played to their strengths.
Jesus lined up his charges in a fluid 4-2-3-1. Veteran goalkeeper Diego Alves and full-backs Filipe Luis and Rafinha were deployed on the left and right respectively. Rodrigo Caio and Pablo Mari, who is on loan from Arsenal, formed the centre of defence. The midfield three consisted of Arão as the lone pivot in possession, Gerson as the box-to-box player lined up alongside him, and Everton Ribeiro behind the striker. The Uruguayan de Arrascaeta and Bruno Henrique were the wingers with Gabriel Barbosa as the striker.
Santos lined up in Sampaoli’s favoured 4-3-3. Gustavo Henrique and Lucas Verissimo were in the centre of defence, with Luan Peres on the left and Victor Ferraz on the right of defence. Alison was the lone pivot, with Jorge and Carlos Sanchez acting as dual box-to-box midfielders. Eduardo Sasha was the centre forward, while the width was provided by Soteldo on the left and Marinho on the right.
Santos press to frustrate
The side from São Paulo came out with a press that is a hallmark of any team managed by Sampaoli. Any time a player from Flamengo would receive a ball, he would be swarmed by Santos players and forced back.
In this image Marinho and Eduardo Sasha pressure Filipe Luis and force his touch out of bounds resulting in a turnover. After de Arrascaeta plays the ball back, Marinho immediately cuts the pass down the line. Sasha then applies pressure from Filipe Luis’ blindside.
In the central areas, Eduardo Sasha would press the receiving player, in this case, Gerson, from behind while one of the midfielders would press from the front of the Flamengo player. Out wide, the wingers would then press with the aid of the midfielders which cut off the central pass.
Their aim was to disrupt Flamengo’s rhythm and get to the ball carrier with intensity. The analysis of this intensity is evidenced by the 24 total fouls committed by Santos.
Flamengo’s patience in build-up
While Santos were busy pressing intensely, Flamengo would circulate the ball using their back four and double pivot. Filipe Luis would move even with Arão, and Rafinha would tuck in with the centre backs. Gerson and Arão would never occupy the same line centrally – one would push higher if the other dropped closer to the back four. Arão would normally drop between the centre-backs or cover for Filipe Luis when he moved higher up the field.
At this point of the game, Rafinha has been forced to play back to Gerson, who then leaves the space for an advancing Rodrigo Caio (out of frame). Gerson and Arão (also out of frame) are in supporting positions, allowing Filipe Luis and Rafinha to move higher into the attacking third.
This rotation of space and ball movement was enough to shift the defenders slightly and create a passing lane for the centre-back, who was able to find Everton Ribeiro in the wide channel.
Flamengo were able to use the visitors’ aggressive press against them and create space with quick ball movement to get past the first and second lines of press. They were equally as frustrated with their end product since they had 12 shots on goal and only 2 on target throughout the game.
Santos direct play
Whenever Santos would force a turnover, they would immediately look to play either Soteldo on the left or Marinho on the right. This was part of their tactics to isolate their wingers with the full-backs or exploit the space left behind by either Filipe Luis or Rafinha. In the image below Marinho drags Filipe Luis inside, while Carlos Sanchez runs in behind and eventually receives the ball. This action leads to one of Santos’ better opportunities.
Late in the second half, Santos began to play more direct to their wingers. While they were able to receive the ball in space, the Santos players were more isolated. As Lucas Verissimo plays a long ball to Soteldo, it is clear that Santos are pushing all players forward.
In the image below, Felipe Jonatan runs into the box away from Soteldo. This makes Rafinha’s decision easier, and he delays the Venezuelan. That action allows Gerson and Bruno Henrique to surround and ultimately dispossess the winger.
Flamengo defensive balance and counterattack
Flamengo further nullified the visitors’ plan of attack by adding balance to their defence when the ball was lost. If one of the full-backs went to step, Gerson or Arão would slide in behind to cover. Such was their defensive solidity that Santos was held to merely 6 shots on goal with no shots on target.
After Flamengo lost the ball, Arão assumed the role of right-back and allowed Filipe Luis to recover. Gerson cut off the pass to Jorge and aided in the slowing down of the counter-attack.
In this point of this match, Rafinha misses a tackle on Soteldo. This is Gerson’s cue to continue his covering run and engage the Venezuelan winger.
He delays the Santos player enough so that Rafinha is able to create a numerical advantage and Flamengo end up winning the ball back.
Flamengo’s attackers would float behind the full-backs and exploit those channels consistently on each counterattack. The image above clearly illustrates this point. Everton Ribeiro dispossessed Eduardo Sasha and immediately releases Gabriel Barbosa, leading to the only goal of the match.
This match was an interesting tactical battle, with Flamengo adjusting to the press. Santos were not able to adjust the way they attacked until Sampaoli made subs in the second half.