Santos lifted the Recopa Sudamericana for the first time in their history after a 2-0 aggregate win over Copa Sudamericana holders Universidad de Chile. The first-leg in a wet Santiago finished 0-0 but the quality and pace of the Brazilians on the break proved too much for La U in what was an entertaining and fast-paced encounter.
Jorge Sampaoli had one player in mind when setting La U up in a 4-3-1-2 formation; Neymar. The conservative Albert Acevedo was played at right-back in a flat back four with Matías Rodríguez moved into a right of centre midfield position. In his comments to the press on the eve of the game it was clear how important Sampaoli regarded Neymar, stating that “Santos depend too much on one player (Neymar).”
Santos were sent out in a more functional 4-4-2 by coach Muricy Ramalho; Neymar given freedom to roam around Andre with Felipe Anderson and Patricio Rodriguez on the wings and Arouca and Adriano the holding pair in midfield.
Renowned for pressing but it can be their downfall
Every time you see the name ‘Jorge Sampaoli’ mentioned the words “Bielsa and disciple” are never too far away. And you can see why from last night’s match. Despite his anxiety about the quality of Neymar Sampaoli sent his side out to hound Santos. After Neymar had sent a shot zipping past the post from kick-off La U swarmed all over the Brazilians, disrupting their rhythm and not giving them time to settle.
The idea? Not to give Santos’ midfield time to find Neymar in dangerous areas. The extent of their pressing was shown in a flurry of fouls Los Azules gave away.
However there were two problems:
- Acevedo played at right-back expecting to be up against Neymar.
- If Santos broke the press Neymar et al had acres of space to run into behind La U’s defence. And they have capable players at running with the ball at pace – Arouca for example.
As mentioned in the introduction Acevedo was a conservative choice and he had clearly been told not to venture forward. Eugenio Mena at left-back had no such restrictions and constantly bombed forward (more on him later).
You would think with Acevedo sticking to his full-back position danger would come down Universidad de Chile’s left. However the opening goal came down La U’s right – as had much of the threat. Santos’ left-back, Leo, nutmegged Rodríguez – who had attempted to close him down – taking him out the game, before sending a ball down the line for Felipe Anderson to chase in behind Acevedo. That brought Osvaldo González out to a wide position he is not comfortable in. After travelling almost 80km Anderson skipped past González and cut the ball back for Neymar on the edge of the box. He exchanged passes with centre forward Andre and stroked the ball into the bottom corner.
La U’s left
Due to Acevedo’s conservative positioning and without a recognised regista/deep lying midfield playmaker La U focused their attacks down the left involving the triangle of Eugenio Mena, Gustavo Lorenzetti and Sebastián Ubilla.
The trio worked well opening up space on the left-hand space for Mena as Ubilla drove inside, giving two options to Lorenzetti. Bruno Peres struggled to deal with the threat and wasn’t helped out by Patrico Rodríguez – who had a poor game. However every time Ubilla was presented with the ball or opportunities in the box he was often blocked by Santos’ central defenders who also dealt with any crosses. Enzo Gutiérrez struggled to get involved.
The game could have been over before Uruguayan referee Martín Vázquez blew for half-time. And it came about as a consequence of Mena’s forward runs. Possession was ceded back to Santos easily in the midfield. By which time Mena had already made a run forward. The ball was fed into the vacated space for Neymar to chase and then take on José Rojas who had been pulled out. Neymar twisted and turned before being brought down for a penalty.
But once again Jhonny Herrera highlighted his penalty saving skills, denying Neymar a second while intensifying the debate for a call-up to the national side on the back of Claudio Bravo’s injury.
Sampaoli made a double change at half-time; replacing Rodríguez and Charles Aránguiz with Guillermo Marino and Francisco Castro. Marino slotted in beside Sebastián Martínez to form a double pivot and Castro moved to the right to form a front three with Lorenzetti in behind. The tactical switch was so that La U controlled more of the ball and kept possession for longer than they did in the first half. Not only an attacking manoeuvre but it was also aimed at keeping the ball of Santos and preventing the Brazilians from counter-attacking the way they did in the first half.
Marino and Martínez are more careful in possession, happy to play laterally or backwards. Rodríguez and Aránguiz are more dynamic and direct.
The change worked in essence. Marino and Martínez were influential and La U enjoyed more attacking territory but could not create sufficient chances to get back into the game.
They were then hit by a sucker punch as Santos doubled their lead through a glanced Bruno Rodrigo header from a Felipe Anderson cross.
Santos’ defensive position and Neymar
A lot of La U’s failings in attack can be put down to Santos’ solid rearguard and their deep position. Protected by Arouca and Adriano, the back four made sure not to leave any room in behind where they could be exposed. Both full-backs understood their defensive role, leaving the two central midfielders to take it in turns to support the attack. The full-backs stayed tight to their centre-backs and there were few gaps for Lorenzetti to thread balls through or Ubilla to wriggle his way through with his dribbling ability.
Gutiérrez should have been a threat in the air but was afforded little opportunity due to being well marshalled by Rodrigo and Durval.
With Acevedo’s inclusion at right-back it was clear that Sampaoli expected Neymar to take up positions on the left when in attack. But with Ganso – who Neymar dedicated the win to – having moved to Sao Paulo there was even more responsibility on the forward and Ramalho allowed him a free role, behind Andre, which he rose to. He was a constant threat with his lateral and vertical movements. The role gave him the freedom to pick up positions that he wouldn’t be able to playing from the left. And in this position it will help him mature as a footballer. There were still moments when he was left frustrated by Rodríguez’s decision making.