Two of the most well-supported clubs in Brazil went head-to-head in a top-five clash in the Brazilian Serie A. 

Atlético Mineiro is the oldest club in Minas Gerais and a very popular club within Brazil. Having finished in 13th in 2019, they are trying to reestablish themselves in the top 5. With firebrand coach Jorge Sampaoli at the helm, Atlético have enjoyed a good start to their campaign. So far they have only lost two games and have beaten defending champions Flamengo and a solid Corinthians side.

São Paulo is the third-most supported club in the country and finished in 6th place in 2019. Led by former Palmeiras player Fernando Diniz, the Tricolor are also enjoying a great start to the 2020 restart, only 3 points behind league leaders Internacional. 

This tactical analysis will look at this back-and-forth game where Atlético Mineiro comfortably beat São Paulo and closed the gap between the top three teams in the league.

Lineups and Formations

Sampaoli set the home side up in a 4-3-1-2. Goalkeeper Rafael started between the posts. From left to right the back four consisted of Guilherme Arana, Junior Alonso, Igor Rabello, and Mariano. Allan and Franco flanked the holding midfielder Jair. The creative Hyoran was the attacking midfielder behind strikers Keno and Eduardo Sasha.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

Fernando Diniz also sent out São Paulo in a 4-4-2, with a notable absence due to injury in former Barcelona and PSG stalwart Dani Alves. Tiago Volpi started in goal, with Diego and Léo as the centre-backs. Liziero and Igor Vinicius were the left and right-backs respectively. The central midfielders were Hernanes and Tchê Tchê, while Paulinho Bóia and Gabriel Sara were the wingers. Leading the line were strikers Pablo and Luciano.

São Paulo’s bright start

The Tricolor went right at Atlético Mineiro from the first whistle. The visitors had 8 shots in the first thirty minutes of the game. Using the numerical superiority in the wide areas, São Paulo found success using passing combinations out wide. The frequency of their attacks from the flanks can be seen with the following analysis.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

Using an analysis of their most frequent combinations, we see exactly how São Paulo’s players combined on the right side. We can also see that average positioning of the players, with the full-backs utilising the space against Atlético’s wing-backs.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

Part of the primary tactics that São Paulo used was to exploit the spaces between the midfield diamond and wing-back. The way they went about this was by bringing the ball-side forward and a winger to aid the full-back.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

Early in the first half, we see Igor Vinicius in the wide area after receiving the ball from the goalkeeper. Gabriel Sara moves to support his teammate in the half-space. This draws Atlético Mineiro’s wing-back to Vinicius.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

Once the defender has committed to Vinicius, he passes to Gabriel Sara. The midfielder is now able to dribble into space comfortably and easily pick out his next pass. As Sara approaches the penalty area, striker Pablo then makes a diagonal run.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

This run allows him to receive the ball behind the defence inside the penalty area. Although the resulting cross to Luciano was deflected by the goalkeeper, this was the primary form of attack for São Paulo.

Tricolor’s losses come back to haunt them

Although São Paulo did enjoy a bright start, they were plagued by their losses and poor shot selection. While they did boast a total of 15 shots, only 2 shots were on target inside the penalty area. Using the shot analysis we see that two of the scoring chances inside the box went wide, one hit the post, and two were blocked. The Tricolor also spent long periods of time without taking a shot. Their longest dry spell ran from minute 39 to minute 63 and no shots were taken after that.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

Some of the 123 losses can be attributed to Atlético’s pressing tactics, but some of those losses were due to poor passes or control. Below we see how detrimental these losses were in the first and second halves.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

6 losses led to a shot by Atlético Mineiro, one of which was a goal. While they were able to adjust and keep the majority of their losses to the flanks, the damage was already done. São Paulo was slow to react in transition, and this is where a team led by Jorge Sampaoli will excel.

In the following section of the analysis, we will see exactly how Atlético Mineiro capitalised on São Paulo’s lack of speed in transition.

Atlético’s transitions

While Sampaoli’s men were content with giving the visitors access to the wide areas, they fiercely protected the middle. Once they would win the ball back they would attack São Paulo right down the centre of the field. Using the analysis of their 80 total recoveries, we notice that while they would recover the ball in the wide areas, the majority came from the centre of the field.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

A perfect example of this tactic being executed is in the lead up to their first goal. As São Paulo’s Tchê Tchê is losing the ball, Alan Franco begins to run at the space between the centre-back and full-back.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

Once Jair comes away with the ball, he immediately plays a through pass to Franco. The São Paulo defence is caught reacting to the play, and Franco is able to put his side ahead with a simple finish.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tacticsBrazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

This was not the first time that Atlético utilised runs between the defenders to their advantage. In the next section of the analysis, we will see how the home side used this tactic in possession.

Sampaoli’s high-speed attack

Although São Paulo had 121 possessions compared to Atlético’s 106, the home side had a higher percentage of attacks that reached the penalty area. With 61% of their attacks reaching a dangerous area, Atlético were going forward as quickly as possible.

When Atlético were establishing possession they would push their wing-backs higher up the field, while keeping the two central midfielders in position. The defensive midfielder would split the centre-backs, and the two forwards and attacking midfielder would step to the defensive line. This would form a 2-3-5, which is a tactic similar to what Liverpool have done.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

In the build-up to the second goal, we see this formation perfectly illustrated above. The five forward players have positioned themselves between São Paulo’s back four. This tactic spreads the defenders and gives them all a decision to make between marking two different players.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

Before the ball is played to Eduardo Sasha, we see the São Paulo full-back split between the two Atlético attackers. This causes Sasha to receive the ball in space behind the defence. He is able to pass the ball first time to Hyoran, who is also running between two defenders.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

The attacking midfielder then plays a clever pass into the path of Alan Franco. Since the defenders closest to Hyoran were busy attempting to stop his pass, they were not able to pick up Franco’s run from a central position.

Brazilian Serie A 2020: Atlético Mineiro vs São Paulo - tactical analysis - tactics

Franco again finds himself on the correct side of the defender, and scores once again.

Conclusion

São Paulo wasted their early chances and gave up ground to a very intense Atlético Mineiro. Sampaoli is clearly enjoying his second season in Brazil. After leading Santos to a second-place finish, he has improved Atlético with his intense style of football.

The Tricolor still looks to be a contender in the title race and will need to overcome the absence of their captain Dani Alves to maintain their momentum this season. Fernando Diniz has his work cut out for him but he can adapt to the challenges ahead. Both teams will continue to push for the title in the 2020 campaign.