Copa Libertadores Final: Tactical Analysis

Much of the hype ahead of the historic Superclásico in the Copa Libertadores final has related to off-the-field issues…

The first off-the-field incident related to this Copa Libertadores final was the Gallardo suspension scandal, which resulted in a personal ban and fine for the River Plate manager rather than a sanction against the club. Then there was the wrangling over when the games should take place and whether away fans should be allowed to attend for the first time in five years. Then on Tuesday, the hysteria hit a new high as the clubs and CONMEBOL argued over whether visiting teams should be able to decorate their dressing rooms.

With so much media focus on what is going on off the field, this article will look purely at the tactical issues of Copa Libertadores clash itself.

The only thing that is certain in this epic encounter is that there will be over 180 minutes of intense and frantic football played. River go into this final on the back of a handsome run of decisive wins in superclásicos, while Boca will look to bring an emphatic end to their opponent’s vein of good form.

El Millonario’s last two victories in the Argentine Supercup in March, and in the league in September, shared some interesting tactical features. River manager Marcelo Gallardo is recognized as one of the great strategists of the modern game in his homeland. He has devised methods to overcome rivals Boca Juniors despite their ability to outspend River and build bigger and superior squads.

The golden rule is this: Boca Juniors love to exploit the space in behind defenses that come to face them at their home, La Bombonera stadium. You must deny them that space. Week after week, visiting teams hold a high line in the iconic stadium and are torn apart by through balls for Boca’s speedy attackers to latch onto in dangerous areas. A typical Boca goal over the last couple of years involves a defense-splitting pass by a midfielder into the space behind the opposition left-back, Cristian Pavón racing onto it, and squaring for Benedetto or another forward to tap in an easy finish.


Gallardo’s idea is to completely nullify any attacks of this kind. He generally sets his team out with the goalkeeper on the 6-yard box, the defense just outside the edge of the penalty area, and the midfield working hard as a screen about 10 yards in front of that. This effectively reduces the space between the lines and forces players like Pavón to play with their backs to goal, which goes against their natural instinct.

You often see Boca’s central defenders or midfielders in comfortable possession 50 yards from goal in these matches, but the pitch ahead of them is so crowded that they find it difficult to make passes of any real meaning. This often translates into frustration too, as was seen in the last derby match when Mauro Zárate and Edwin Cardona confronted each other over a misplaced pass.

River’s predictable game plan has run into a problem however. Their captain Leo Ponzio pulled a hamstring in the semi-final in Brazil and will be unable to take part in the first leg. Ponzio in a crucial part of the team’s defensive strategy, as he has years of experience being River Plate’s midfield anchor. That responsibility will fall to either Enzo Perez, Bruno Zuculini, or potentially both on Saturday.

Boca manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto has given indications that he seems better prepared this time. It looks as if he will put faith in Cristian Pavón and Sebastian Villa to provide pace and width in attacking areas, and use Ramon Abila’s physical strength at number 9.

He will also have his lethal weapon ready to come off the bench in Dario Benedetto. Boca’s 2017 top scorer has struggled with injury in 2018, but he recently proved he is returning to his best just in time for this clash by rifling home two superb goals vs Palmeiras to clinch the Copa Libertadores semi-final for his team.

Whilst Boca will likely have a lot of possession just inside River’s half on Saturday, they need to be very careful. The other half of Gallardo’s game plan in recent derbies has been to hit quickly on the break while Boca have committed men forward out of position. The second goal of March’s Supercopa match in Mendoza was the perfect example of this. Boca trailed 1-0 and sent players forward for a corner after 60 minutes, looking to equalize. River cleared a poor cross and Nacho Fernandez and Gonzalo Martinez drove a rapid counter-attack that resulted in Ignacio Scocco scoring the second goal and securing the Supercopa for Gallardo’s side.


Gonzalo Martinez actually deserves a special mention in the build-up to this game, and not just because he is the man who scored the heroic 95th minute penalty to secure the semi-final win vs Grêmio in Brazil. River’s number 10 has tormented Boca since his arrival in 2015. On his last two trips to La Bombonera, he has opened the scoring with spectacular left footed volleys. Both resulted in victories for his team. He seems to have agreed on a switch to Atlanta United in January, so this grand final will be his personal goodbye to the Superclásicos, at least for now.

The scene is set for Argentina’s “final of the century”. Expect Boca to have plenty of possession in the first leg, but to face a hard-working red and white machine that will do its best to close down every single blade of grass in La Bombonera, and then use its own ability to spring counter-attacks. It remains to be seen whether one team will look to put the tie to bed in the first leg or if the teams will favor a more conservative approach to make sure they have a chance in the second leg. Regardless, this historic Copa Libertadores clash is not one to miss.

Kick-off is at 17:00 (GMT-3) on Saturday the 10th. The return leg is at the same time on November 24.

Written by: CARP_English