Matchday two of the group stages in Copa Libertadores saw defending champions Flamengo take on Barcelona SC. The hosts were looking to build on their hard-fought victory against Junior, whilst the visitors looked to put their opening group-stage defeat against Independiente del Valle firmly behind them. This tactical analysis will use data and video analysis to understand the tactics applied by both sides and where the game was won and lost.

Copa Libertadores is a familiar competition for Flamengo following their dramatic showdown in the 2019 final against River Plate. Rafael Santos Borre’s opener for River Plate was cancelled out by Gabriel Barbosa’s late double to pip the trophy for Rubro-Negro, with the latter’s future still in doubt after recently being linked with a move to the Premier League.

Not only that, but 24 hours later they also won their first Campeonato Brasileiro Série A for the first time since 2009. Fast-forward a few months later and the footballing season has been cursed by COVID-19 and Domènec Torrent’s side currently sit 12th after two defeats from their opening three matches.

On the other hand, Barcelona SC were looking to reaffirm their status in South American football following Delfín Sporting Club’s first season as champions. The 15-time Ecuadorian Serie A champions were looking to make a statement in this match and the only thing in their way… Flamengo.

Lineups

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Flamengo vs Barcelona S.C. line-ups

Former Flamengo manager Jorge Jesus, who recently returned to Benfica, made two changes from the side that beat Junior F.C last time out as veteran defender Rafinha replaced Jean Lucas. Bruno Henrique also started in the place of Vitinho. Éverton Riberio kept his place in the starting line-up after scoring twice against Junior FC and dangerman Gabriel Barbosa continued as a lone striker.

Fabián Bustos also made rotations to his Barcelona SC side. Left-back Mario Pineida’s dismissal in Ídolo del Ecuador’s last game meant that he was suspended, with versatile defender Pedro Velasco moving to left-back and Byron Castillo moving to right-back. Jonatan Alvez came into the starting line-up, whilst Francisco Martínez and Leandro Martínez provided the ammunition out wide.

The hosts appeared to set-up in a balanced 4-2-3-1 formation with Thiago Maia and Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur target Gerson Santos da Silva operating as pivots to protect the back four and keep possession of the ball. The visitors set up in an initial 4-4-2 formation in the hope of launching counter-attacks.

Flamengo surpassing the high press

Barcelona SC set up a mid/high block as they looked to enforce a counter-attack from winning possession of the ball high up the pitch from winning a defensive duel or capitalising on a mistake. This can be shown by the average possession stats with Flamengo having 66% of the ball in the first half compared to Barcelona’s 34%. Flamengo like to transition from defence to attack by moving the ball quickly, but the visitors aimed to enforce a wide triangular press in the hope of winning the ball back high up the pitch.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Barcelona SC forward Alvez pin-points the top of a triangular press

As above, Barcelona SC players would look to cut passing lanes and potentially intercept Flamengo’s passes and this worked well for parts of the first half. As shown here, the visitors have narrowed down all the passing options available to Leonardo Pereira, subsequently forcing him to attempt a long pass to relieve pressure in a tight situation. This would allow their physical centre-backs to dominate the aerial battles against lone striker Barbosa. Per statistics, Darío Aimar won 50% of his aerial duels and Williams Riveros won 60% of his.

Despite their high press, the visitors’ high press was largely counterproductive as they only made 10 opponent half recoveries throughout the whole game. The Barcelona SC mid press was broken on several occasions by Flamengo as it was a fairly unsuccessful press throughout, allowing the hosts to play their usual style of fluid attacking football.

Rubro-Negro were unphased by the attempted block as they were able to transition from their defensive third to attack with minimal prevention, having made 71 progressive passes throughout the match, 40 more than Barcelona SC. Flamengo often created overloads in their defensive half when in possession which allowed them to nullify the opposing pressing players.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Flamengo transition into a back three when in possession and Luís presents an inverted overlapping option

Above, Gustavo Henrique releases the ball after being pressed by Damián Díaz, while Pereira is in a position to receive the ball and drive forward with the ball. Thiago Maia also drops deep and acts as a makeshift third centre-back for an additional passing option. Because of Flamengo’s width, Filipe Luís is allowed to bomb forward on the left and present an inverted overlapping option. This attacking fluidity allowed the hosts to dictate the tempo of the game and play expansive football, whilst also having ball-playing central midfielders in Gerson and Maia to pick out penetrative passes when required.

As mentioned earlier, Flamengo’s attacking talent proved to be too much to handle for Barcelona SC in the first half as they made quick and decisive passes to break the press. The visitors’ first-half positional press looked effective on the eye, but they allowed 17.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA) in the first half, allowing Flamengo to showcase their attacking quality. This was outlined by their 88% passing accuracy throughout the game, whilst the visitors were ultimately not as composed on the ball, despite a 13% increase in their passing accuracy in the second half.

Flamengo’s attacking fluidity

When Flamengo transitioned into the Barcelona SC half they were unpredictable and highly creative. Jesus’ sides creative play was outlined by their 10 key passes throughout the game, bringing their flair players into the game and playing between the lines.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Flamengo look to find a way through the visitors’ defence with incisive passing

As above, despite Barcelona’s compact defensive shape with three midfielders on the edge of the box, Flamengo look to play quick, incisive football to dazzle their opponents. Henrique drifts centrally from the left to provide a passing option for Ribeiro, whilst Rafinha and Giorgian De Arrascaeta appear high up the pitch in the hope of surpassing the deep midfield line. Ribeiro’s awareness of space allowed his team to keep the ball in tight areas in the final third, with his close control being a key component to unlocking the visitors’ stubborn defensive shape off the ball.

Despite Barcelona SC making 45 interceptions, they were stretched throughout due to the width of Flamengo’s full-backs. This provided further space for Luís and Rafinha to exploit on their respective wings and freed up space in key areas to provide crucial attacking moments. This was especially evident in the second half of the Copa Libertadores clash, where the visitors appeared to be tiring. This was shown by their 7% decrease in duels won in the second half as they aimed to engineer a comeback.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Luís and Rafinha operate as deep-lying wide midfielders whilst joining the attack to provide passing options when Flamengo are in possession

As seen above, Barcelona SC operate in a deep defensive line and aim to cut off the central passing options. This caused problems for the visitors as their structure allowed space for Gerson to pick up space and have time on the ball. As per the statistics, 45% of Flamengo’s attacks came from the left flank as they attempted to overload their opposition on that side.

The rotation of Henrique, Ribeiro, Barbosa, and Arrascaeta throughout was influential in creating attacking opportunities and freeing up space. The visitors struggled to handle this array of attacking fluidity throughout, with Flamengo having 17 shots compared to Barcelona’s six.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Ribeiro makes a run in-behind Barcelona SC’s defence, freeing up the space for Barbosa inside

As shown above in this tactical analysis, the visual shows the attacking fluidity Flamengo possess in attack. Barcelona SC drop to a back five in this situation which allows Ribeiro to make a run in-behind their defence. Barbosa carries the ball and cuts inside before unleashing a shot towards goal. This attacking freedom and the occasional rotation of Barbosa coming wide and doubling up with Ribeiro was key to unlocking the visitors’ defence and allowed them to pose a constant threat that was difficult to defend. Flamengo’s style of play resulted in an expected goal value of 2.69, showing their efficiency in front of goal.

An evening full of frustration for Barcelona SC

Flamengo’s performance off the ball was also efficient in limiting Bustos’ side options when in possession of the ball. Despite being in a comfortable winning position, Jesus’ side aggressive high press off the ball allowed 6.9 PPDA in the second-half. They stuck to their expansive 4-2-3-1 shape throughout to reduce the free space that Barcelona SC could exploit with the forwards working hard to close down the ball carriers and limit the passing options when possible.

Flamengo attempted to block off central areas as 84% of the visitors’ attacks came through the middle. Barcelona’s match tempo of 15.4 played into the opposition’s hands and allowed Flamengo to organise themselves off the ball and frustrate the opposition as they only completed 64% of their forward passes attempted.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Barbosa uses his acceleration to pressurise the ball carrier and force him into a mistake

The analysis example above is a clear example of the 4-1-4-1 shape employed by Flamengo off the ball, as they never allowed Barcelona SC time on the ball to pick out passes. The front two of Henrique and Barbosa pressed simultaneously whilst they operated a five-man box-press, blocking off potential in-roads in the middle of the pitch. This forced the visitors to play wide where Flamengo were stronger. As you can see, Barbosa presses the ball carrier and also blocks off the passing option to Byron Castillo which allows the hosts to win the ball back high in the opposition’s half.

When analysing Barcelona’s tactics their passing was their downfall, with a pass accuracy of 79% they were inefficient on the ball and wasted opportunities to progress. The visitors had 101 possessions which was only six less than Flamengo, but only 32% of their overall possessions reached the opposing half.

Flamengo’s high-press forced them into mistakes and frustrated them from keeping the ball and engineering a key goalscoring moment. Their wide players in Fidel Martínez and L. Martínez struggled to get into the game and were largely nullified throughout by Flamengo’s block that they rarely passed.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Flamengo overload the right side and prevent the visitors from exploiting the space in-behind

Flamengo’s tactics are shown above with their midfield and defensive lines. They let the two attackers do the pressing before isolating Castillo and winning the ball back. Per the statistics, Barcelona SC attempted 42 long passes throughout as they looked to relieve pressure and exploit behind Flamengo’s high defensive line. However, the positional sense of Luís and Rafinha made this difficult to engineer and added to the away side’s frustration on the night.

Barcelona SC’s defensive struggles

Despite Flamengo’s array of attacking talent, all three of their goals came from set-pieces, much to the annoyance of Bustos. Barcelona S.C. won 68% of their defensive duels and were relatively comfortable in that department due to standing taller than Flamengo’s attacking players, though the hosts won 52% of their overall aerial duels – compared to the away side’s 48%. As previously mentioned, the attacking fluidity of Rubro-Negro  freed up space for the likes of Ribeiro to showcase his quality from deliveries and pick out a teammate.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Ribeiro delivers an inviting cross towards Henrique for Flamengo’s first goal of the evening

Above we can see Ribeiro cutting inside before curling his cross towards G. Henrique at the back-post. The centre-back drifts inside and loses his man before directing his free header over the goalkeeper to give Flamengo the lead. As previously mentioned in this analysis, Riveros won three out of his five aerial duels but was ultimately to blame for this goal as Henrique somehow managed to drift away from him and in-between the two central defenders at this point.

Barcelona’s high defensive line ultimately led to their own downfall on this occasion. Their inability to defend two corners led to Flamengo scoring two free headers which were enough to win this Copa Libertadores clash.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Despite Barcelona’s numerical advantage in the box – their lack of positional sense leads to Rubro-Negro’s second goal

The visual above is moments before Flamengo’s third goal. Barcelona SC have learned from the first goal and placed two players on Luís to prevent them from being overloaded. The key to this goal is G. Henrique’s movement in the penalty area, moving to the front post and losing his marker before B. Henrique places his header past Victor Mendoza from six yards out.

This was a constant theme throughout for the Ecuadorian side as they struggled to deal with Flamengo’s movement in the penalty area. Despite this, the performance of Mendoza was crucial in preventing further misery for Barcelona SC, with the goalkeeper making three reflex saves.

Copa Libertadores 2019/20: Flamengo vs Barcelona SC - tactical analysis tactics
Flamengo’s shot-map against Barcelona keeper Victor Mendoza

The above image displays the saves that the Barcelona SC goalkeeper made. This is evidence of the threat that Flamengo caused and the goalscoring positions they constantly found themselves in. Mendoza made three point-blank reflex saves from Gerson, Ribeiro, and G. Henrique but also conceded from similar positions. Compare this to Flamengo goalkeeper Diego Alves who only had to make two saves throughout, with one of the attempts being from outside the area from F. Martínez.

Final remarks

Flamengo made it two consecutive wins in Group A of the Copa Libertadores and go into their next game against group leaders Independiente del Valle full of confidence. Their attacking dynamic of fluidity and emphasis on full-backs providing the inverted overlapping runs is unpredictable and provides a constant threat for the opposition. However, Independiente del Valle may look to exploit free spaces in-behind Flamengo’s high defensive line, as this weakness was highlighted in this tactical analysis due to the attacking tendencies of Rafinha and Luís, but Barcelona S.C. failed to lack any conviction in the final third.

It was a comfortable victory for Flamengo as they were too good for the visitors. Bastos’ side will rue their defensive lapses from set-pieces and the penalty conceded that gave them an uphill battle in an attempt to reduce their deficit in the second half. They will now turn their attention to the Ecuadorian Serie A ahead of a crucial season in a bid to reclaim their famous title.

Dan Woffenden
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