Boca Juniors came into this game one point behind table-toppers River Plate, aiming to build on their impressive run of six straight consecutive victories. Their last defeat came in December 2019, with Sebastian Ribas’ goal giving Rosario Central all three points. Nicolas Capaldo was also dismissed late on in a miserable afternoon for the Azul y Oro. Boca’s opponents Gimnasia La Plata were also in good form going into the game on the back of three successive victories, with El Lobo losing only two of their last 10 games in all competitions.
Miguel Ángel Russo made 10 changes to his side following the Copa Libertadores outing against Caracas, with Franco Soldano partnering Carlos Tevez up-front. Diego Maradona, one of Boca’s greatest footballing icons, made a welcome return to La Bombonera with his side who were in desperate need of points in their fight to beat the drop. Maradona, who left Boca for La Liga giants Barcelona in 1982, made one enforced change with 39-year-old left-back Lucas Licht replacing Matías Melluso, who missed the game through suspension. Without further ado, this tactical analysis will inform you how the match unfolded.
Russo chose the 4-1-3-2 shape for his team in a bid to prevent Boca’s arch-rivals from their first title since 2014. Esteban Andrada was supported by the duo of Carlos Zambrano and LOSC Lille loanee Júnior Alonso in the heart of Boca’s defence. In the engine room, Jorman Campuzano protected the back four, with talented wide players Eduardo Salvio and Sebastián Villa forming a midfield three with Guillermo Fernández that supported the two up top. The hosts were dealt with significant blows as they were without defender Lisandro López (injured), Carlos Izquierdoz (suspended) and Mauro Zárate (injured).
In the opposite side, Maradona set up his side in an initial 4-4-2 shape. A flat back four was protected by the midfield duo of Víctor Ayala and Harrinson Mancilla. El Lobo’s width in midfield was provided by Pablo Cuadra and top goal-scorer and assist maker Matías García, who provided six goals and three assists in the 2019/20 campaign. The duo of Matías Pérez and Leandro Contín was chosen to spearhead Gimnasia’s attacking line.
Gimnasia’s defensive tactics
In this part of the analysis, we’ll take a look at Gimnasia’s defensive tactics. Maradona set up his team in a flexible 4-2-3-1 out of possession. In the process, Gimnasia deployed a medium defensive block and forced to close the central lane, encouraging Boca to play wide. More specifically, they used a rotating three-man pass to stop Campuzano receiving the ball from the centre-backs, therefore forcing Boca wide with their high and relentless pressing movements.
When Boca move the ball to the flank, they would utilise their full-backs in Frank Fabra and Julio Buffarini to progress with the ball and provide the attacking impetus. However, Gimnasia nullified this intelligently by asking their full-backs to step up and mark them tightly, whilst also managing the inverted runs of Salvio and Villa.
Per statistics, Gimnasia are a physically imposing side that have won 58% of their aerial duels this season, compared to Boca’s 47%. Maradona encouraged his midfielders to drop deep to protect the defenders and prevent any in-roads for a potential runner. This forced the Azul y Oro to provide Tevez and Soldano with longer balls against Gimnasia’s physical centre-back pairing that largely frustrated the home side all evening. If they allowed Boca to occupy the wide channels too much this would require the three central midfielders to do more work and be dragged out of position, which would allow Boca to exploit the gaps in the middle of the pitch with their central talent.
Boca’s clever offensive plays (part one)
When in possession, Boca used 4-1-3-2 with their full-backs moving up to provide width in more advanced areas. Gimnasia’s initial defensive plan was to defend in a high 4-2-3-1 press with man-oriented defending. Upfront, Contín aimed to close down the ball-carrier, with Pérez staying close to Campuzano. The visitors’ narrow front three opened up the flanks for Boca to push forward and allowed one of the centre-backs time and space to present themselves for a passing opportunity.
Russo’s side had the majority of possession in their Superliga games in the 2019/20 season, averaging 51.5% possession. To create spaces and cut the passing lanes that Gimnasia attempted to block, the centre-back (ball carrier) would receive the ball and progress quickly before exploiting the spaces between the midfield and defensive lines. The wide players would hug the touchline, therefore stretching the play and creating little gaps for Tevez to exploit. This allows them to receive the ball in more advanced areas and nullify Gimnasia’s high press.
Boca’s clever offensive plays (part two)
It was clear to see that Boca attacked with more impetus in the second half. In the first half, 11% of their passes were long passes, compared to only 7% in the second half. Gimnasia sat deeper in the second half, allowing talented ball carriers in Campuzano and Fernández to have more time on the ball. Gimnasia reacted by defending in a 4-4-1-1 shape and congesting the ball side. Therefore the space for Buffarini and Salvio to exploit was limited compared to the first half.
In this alternative, Boca tended to use the right flank before accessing Fabra in the far left. This was because Villa dropped inside to present a passing option when the ball was on the opposite side which created more space for Fabra to make an overlapping option.
As we can see here for the build-up to the goal, Villa and Fabra play a massive part in making the move happen. Campuzano drops deep and almost acts as a third makeshift centre-back to provide some added quality on the ball, allowing Campuzano to receive the ball and show his supreme qualities in tight areas of the pitch. Gimnasia’s high press slowed them down in the second-half and allowed the likes of Fabra to utilise his pace and exploit the overlapping areas as aforementioned.
Boca Juniors’ improvement in the second-half of the game was outlined by their pressing intensity, which increased from 4.5 in the first half to 4.8 in the second-half. Boca’s lowest stage of pressing intensity was between the 16th and 30th minute, where they only managed 2.5. It was clear to see that Maradona’s side would have been content with a point at La Bombonera, as their pressing decreased from 7.8 in the first half to 7.3 in the second-half.
The world-class quality of Tevez was ultimately the difference in a cagey game against a physical Gimnasia outfit. Despite only 17% of the Argentine veteran’s shots being on target, he made this one count with his long-range expertise.
Russo’s second-half tactical tweaks
Boca’s first-half game plan was managed well by Gimnasia. Russo made a bold switch in the second half with Nicolás Capaldo replacing Zambrano for some added firepower. Not only that, Ramón Ábila also came on in the place of Soldano for some added physicality up front. Russo switched his team to a 5-3-2 out of possession, with Campuzano dropping into the defence as an outside centre-back.
The substitution of centre-back Zambrano was a bold move by Russo considering his defensive ability, which meant that Campuzano and Fernandez were forced to join the defensive line when Gimnasia had the ball in the final third. Though, the risk was worth taking as it allowed Boca to dictate the play with the added ball quality of Capaldo.
Not only that, but the introduction of Ábila added some much-needed physicality against Gimnasia’s strong centre-back pairing. Per statistics, Boca only won 38% of their aerial duels compared to Gimnasia’s 62%, which justified their need for a change in attack. This allowed the Azul y Oro to be more competitive and win more duels against the opposition. The tweak also encouraged Tevez to advance further up the pitch and pin onto Gimnasia’s right-back.
Abila’s run between the two centre-backs creates space for Salvio to come in on the defender’s blind-spot and have a free shot at goal. Russo’s tactical tweaks were well thought out and ended up winning the game for Boca by giving Tevez more of an advanced role that allowed him to showcase the qualities that he showed in the Premier League for Manchester City and Manchester United.
Despite a frustrating first half for Boca, Russo’s tactical tweaks ultimately won Boca the game. Maradona made it difficult for his side on his welcomed return through a high simultaneous press that put pressure on the defenders when they had the ball. However, Russo’s experience and tactics eventually paid dividends with Tevez’s strike proving to be the difference in a competitive encounter which saw Boca win the Superliga title in a dramatic finale. River Plate’s six-year-long wait without silverware will continue, as Boca hit top spot once again – this time by the finest of margins.