Game of the Week: Santos 2×0 Vasco

Upon choosing which game to feature in this Game of the Week section, I am more often than not left with a tricky decision. Each week I intend to cover the most ‘significant’ match, but with so many exciting games going on, naturally some decent candidates get ignored. What I prefer to do with these weekly articles is to cover a particular team(s)’s system, and to do so in a match which showcases the qualities and/or flaws of said system. The best examples of that are from October 15th when I covered Atlético Goianiense in their demolition of São Paulo, and just last week when I took a close look at Grêmio in their 4×2 victory over Flamengo. Following on in that style this week, I decided to study Santos’ home win against Vasco, and to delve in to the inner tactical workings of the 2011 Copa Libertadores champions.

With Vasco level on points at the top of the Brasileirão table and with only five rounds left to play, this game really should have been all about the visitors. So why is it that I am going to focus on the home side that are sitting quietly in ninth place? I assure you, all will become clear.

As you may well know by now, Santos triumphed in the 2011 edition of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier continental competition. With that victory, the Peixe automatically secured their qualification for next year’s tournament and more importantly, they earned a spot in the 2011 Club World Cup, which will be held in Japan this December.

The potential final against Barcelona is an absolutely gargantuan deal to Santos supporters, and even supporters of Brazilian and South American football in general. With Brazil’s massive economic growth, the standard of the domestic league is closer than it has been in decades to that of Europe’s top leagues, and this match against Barcelona is a great opportunity to gain some sorely deserved respect for a truly magnificent football league.

What has this got to do with their win over Vasco you ask? Well, due to injuries, international call-ups, suspensions, postponements and everything else under the sun, for the first time in what seems like an eternity, Santos coach Muricy Ramalho was able to field his (more-or-less) first choice eleven, and it’s the side that we should expect to take to the field in Japan next month.


As I mentioned above, Santos came out for this game with their first-choice eleven, something we haven’t seen very often. In simplest terms, their formation could be classed as a 4-3-1-2, but Muricy Ramalho employs a number of subtle nuances and quirks to make this a constantly evolving and fluid attacking system. The big news for this game was the return of playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso from injury, and he slotted straight in to the number ten role, behind the front two of Neymar and Borges.

Vasco lined up in a slightly different 4-3-3-ish shape as opposed to their usual 4-4-2 diamond, which I have admired for quite some time now. Even though today they played quite poorly, I hope to have a chance to cover them properly between now and the end of the year, on a day where their system functions better.

The Dani Alves factor

Looking at Santos’ formation in the diagram above, you will notice the stark lack of symmetry from one flank to the other. On the right side, they have the Porto-bound Danilo galloping forward from defence with Arouca supporting him with forward runs from the midfield, while it is very different on the left with Durval (naturally a centre-back) staying put at left-back, with the attacking duties left to Neymar high up the pitch. This has most likely been implemented with Barcelona in mind, or more specifically, with Dani Alves in mind.

Muricy Ramalho will certainly be aware of Dani Alves’ importance to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and he will be looking to protect against his attacking threats, while at the same time attempting to expose the area in behind him. Vasco’s right-back Fágner is certainly not up to Dani Alves’ standards, but he does match the description of a fearless, attacking full-back, and Santos dealt with him very well throughout the match. Santos’ early first goal even came from Neymar getting behind the Vasco defence in the space that Fágner vacated.

First half

Santos took the lead very early on in the match – in the third minute to be precise – when a curled Neymar free-kick dropped into the net at the back post after taking a deflection off Vasco’s Renato Silva. Santos then dominated large portions of the first half and were able to settle and knock the ball around a bit. Neymar was on typically great form, constantly dropping deep to recieve the ball, then turning and setting off on one of his now-trademark dribbles. Ganso was less involved, but still quietly effective, operating behind the front two and pulling off a few delicious tabelas (one-twos) with the aforementioned Neymar.

With the score still at 1×0, Vasco remained in the match and were unlucky to have a goal disallowed after Diego Souza headed into the net. He was harshly adjudged to have pushed his marker on his way to the header, but in truth it would have been undeserved as Vasco were poor and couldn’t seem to play their usual good football.

Second half

In the second half we saw much of the same as in the first, Vasco failed to squeeze Santos in the midfield and as a result the home side remained in control. Playing more advanced in Vasco’s half of the pitch, there was an increase in link-up play between Santos’ forward three, with Ganso and centre-forward Borges being brought into the action frequently.

Vasco attempted to shake things up a little with around 30 minutes to play, bringing on Leandro and Bernardo for Elton and Éder Luis. The idea was to play Bernardo and Leandro on either side of Diego Souza up front, with the first two taking turns dropping back into the channels (illustrated in the diagram below). It was an interesting idea, but with two distinct flaws. First of all, they still had major problems recieving the ball from the midfield, and furthermore, Diego Souza is completely wasted as an out-and-out centre forward and failed to make any telling impact whatsoever.

The game was put beyond all doubt on 28 minutes as Santos grabbed their second goal, a wonderful strike from the league’s artilheiro Borges after a smooth counter-attacking move. A comfortable win for the home side, and a crucial three points lost for Vasco.

Vasco disappointing

For a side realistically challenging for the Brasileirão title this season, Vasco certainly did not live up to expectations on Sunday whatsoever. Their usual pressing in the midfield was almost non-existent, and they really invited Santos on to them, with volante Nílton playing so deep at times that he was almost a part of the back line.

The above diagram shows how Vasco should be playing, and it is the system they have used so successfully throughout the season. The key is keeping the midfield diamond together, and on Sunday it collapsed completely. Diego Souza, usually the tip of the diamond, played far too high and wide, while Nílton played far too deep. This left only two in the midfield, Fellipe Bastos and Juninho Pernambucano (who is not getting any younger), who really couldn’t compete, and it left a huge gap between their midfield and attack.

Vasco got rather lucky considering that their title rivals Corinthians also lost their match on Sunday, but if they want to finish in first, they will have to play a lot better than this.

Eyes on Barca

From now until December, Santos’ focus is completely on Pep Guardiola’s Catalan giants. Whether they would have any realistic chance of winning against Barcelona, should they make the final, seems unlikely, but you can be certain that they will give it everything they’ve got.

Recent South American successes in the Club World Cup (Internacional in 2006, São Paulo in 2005) have been achieved by the South American side employing very negative tactics, keeping everyone behind the ball at all times and hoping for a lucky break. Santos have suggested that they will have absolutely none of that, and they will be trying to take the game to Barcelona and make life difficult for them.

Of course, that attitude is to be commended, but the simple truth is that if this Santos side kept everyone behind the ball, it would not make much difference. Santos’ defence has been rather poor this season, and when faced with the prospect of Lionel Messi taking on Edu Dracena, Bruno Rodrigo and Durval all at the same time, my money would still be firmly on the little Argentine.

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