Game of the Week: Vasco 1×2 Nacional

It’s back! That’s right, Game of the Week has returned for 2012 to bring you plenty of in-depth analysis of some of South America’s biggest matches each week. An early warning is in order however, as during the first half of the year this section will be very Copa Libertadores-heavy. Focussing on this wonderful tournament gives you all a chance to have a look at a variety of the continent’s best clubs and observe the fascinating tactical battles between them.

Apologies for the delay in this particular Game of the (last) Week, but from now on I will be striving to post these up on the day after the match (usually Wednesday/Thursday/Friday).

Also, I’ve changed the design of the tactical diagrams, I thought that this style looked a bit cleaner considering the colour-scheme of the blog. I would greatly appreciate it if you let me know what you think in the comments section below.

There was no shortage of absorbing ties in the opening week of the 2012 Copa Libertadores group stage, each one would have made for an engaging article. Internacional’s 2×0 victory over Juan Aurich for example, or Libertad’s storming 4×1 comeback win against Alianza Lima, or even Vélez Sársfield’s demolition job on Defensor Sporting. However, I settled on a match that I had been looking forward to since the group stage draw last year, Brazilian vice-champions Vasco da Gama against Nacional of Uruguay.


Vasco boss Cristóvão Borges had a couple of absences to deal with, he was without marauding right back Fágner, and last season’s two unsung heroes, midfielder Rômulo and right winger Éder Luis. Aside from those three, the fulcrum of Vasco’s first choice squad were all present. They were set up in their usual shape (in numerical terms, probably closest to a 4-4-2) with Diego Souza playing off of lone striker Alecsandro.

Nacional manager Marcelo Gallardo (ex-River, PSG and Monaco midfielder) had a full squad to choose from in the lead up to this one, and managing in the Libertadores for the first time, he opted to make some rather daring choices in his selection.

First of all, Gallardo moved the team into a simple 4-4-2 shape, dismissing his usual 4-3-1-2 and in the process, excluding former Inter Milan midfielder Álvaro Recoba. In place of el Chino, Gallardo brought in Matías Cabrera and deployed him alongside the silver-haired Israel Damonte in a midfield doble cinco (‘double five’). Furthermore, Gallardo left out the club’s principal goalscorer Alexander Medina, instead preferring to go with two quicker forwards Tabaré Viudez and Vicente Sánchez.

Gallardo’s decision to alter their formation was clearly based on protecting their defence in a very challenging away tie. All four of Nacional’s midfielders stayed fairly narrow and compact, and they all got behind the ball whenever Vasco attacked.

First half

The opening 20 minutes of the first half were very tight. Vasco’s traditionally neat interplay in the midfield was neutralized by the superb performances of Nacional’s Cabrera and Damonte, who were constantly breaking up play in front of their defence. Nacional attempted to utilise the pace of their two forwards by playing balls over the top of the Vasco back-line, but to no avail as they were often caught offside.

The game’s first genuine opportunity fell to Vasco on 22 minutes, as Diego Souza shot over the bar after a lovely piece of one-touch link-up play between Felipe, Diego Souza, and Alecsandro.

Not long after that, Nacional took control of the match and were rewarded with the opening goal. It came from a wicked in-swinging corner kick from Tabaré Viudez, which was hit at an astonishing pace and curled in towards the front post. Hulking centre back Andrés Scotti attacked the ball, but it was his marker Dedé who unintentionally sliced it into the back of his own net.

Second half

At half time, Cristóvão Borges decided to bring off right back Max, replacing him with Fellipe Bastos (naturally a central midfielder). Max did have an undeniably poor first half, and struggled with the combination between Placente and Calzada on the Nacional left flank, but it was perhaps unfair to hook him after 45 minutes, especially for a central midfielder playing out of position.

The substitution came back to haunt Cristóvão almost instantly as Fellipe Bastos’ unfamiliarity to the right back position was exposed right away, and Nacional doubled their lead. The goal was a very simple move, straight from the training ground and completely underlining why Gallardo wanted to play with the two pacey strikers instead of Medina. As Nacional moved forward in possession, both Viudez and Sánchez peeled wide off of the centre backs and into the space left behind the Vasco full backs. Viudez was picked out by a Cabrera pass, and he delivered a simple cross across goal, which Sánchez duly converted with a diving header. Vasco could only look on in desperation.

At two goals down, Vasco found it near impossible to scrape their way back into the match. Simple passes were being misplaced, first touches were going astray, and Vasco could find no rhythm whatsoever. On the other side of the ball, everything appeared to be going Nacional’s way. They were winning every header, tackle and 50-50 challenge, they were recovering every loose ball and were cruising.

In fact, they should have increased their lead to three goals on 50 minutes, after Vicente Sánchez missed an open goal after a swift counter-attacking move. Sánchez had done all of the hard work, he sold Vasco goalkeeper Fernando Prass a lovely dummy, brought the ball on to his right foot and with the goal at his mercy, he somehow contrived to skew it over the bar.

Vasco’s reaction

Chasing the game, Cristóvão Borges changed things again, bringing on new signing Carlos Tenorio for Felipe. Nacional also made a switch of their own, taking off Vicente Sánchez for Álvaro Recoba.

Tenorio was brought on to play the ‘Éder Luis role’, cutting in from the right of the centre forward Alecsandro, in an attempt to give them a bit more bite going forward. Nacional’s swap was straightforward, Gallardo brought off one of their two strikers and left Viudez alone up front with Recoba playing in behind him, while moving the midfield and defence into two compact banks of four in an attempt to protect their result.

With the extra impetus going forward, Vasco started to play a bit, moving the ball around smoothly as Nacional stood off them. The Brazilians managed to get a goal back on 73 minutes when Alecsandro converted a cross from Juninho Pernambucano. The move leading up to the goal was a sign of what Vasco are capable of, 17 passes, incorporating nine of Vasco’s XI (only Thiago Feltri and Nilton weren’t involved), but we only saw brief flashes of their quality in this match.

Vasco continued to dominate possession, but as you can clearly see from the diagram above, space in the midfield was near impossible to come by, and they really struggled to find ways though Nacional’s deep-lying defensive line. Apart from a few scares – Tenorio had the ball in the net for Vasco only to be ruled out for offside – Nacional stayed resolute and won the three points.

This was clearly the fair result here, Nacional were superior in almost all areas of the match, whilst Vasco’s performance was riddled with silly errors.

Gallardo really has to be commended for his team selection going into this one, choosing to leave out both Recoba and Medina was a very gutsy move, especially for such a young and relatively inexperienced coach, but as explained earlier in this article, both decisions paid off spectacularly.

Header image credit: UOL

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