Another week, another game. This time Game of the Week heads to the north-west of the continent to the Colombian city of Medellín. There, nestled in the Aburrá valley, a noisy crowd packed in to the Atanasio Girardot to witness a superb game of football. But first, some back story.
It is easy to forget today that back in the 80’s and early 90’s, Colombian football was one of the biggest forces on the continent. While the Cali and Medellín drug cartels operated almost unopposed, the country’s infamous drug lords pumped their dirty money into the game, and into their favourite teams.
South in Cali, the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers invested heavily in their beloved América de Cali, and in Medellín the notorious Pablo Escobar put his money into Atlético Nacional, our team in the spotlight for today.
In the mid 90’s as the cartels’ grip on Colombia began to weaken, and the US intervened in the situation, Colombia became a country out of control. Famously, we remember the tragic death of national team and Atlético Nacional centre back Andrés Escobar, shot dead in a Medellín nightclub two weeks after the 1994 World Cup. With the demise of the cartels came the demise of Colombian football. All of the vast investment simply disappeared, and clubs were left in financial dire straits.
In the past five years though, there have been positive signs of recovery. Clubs are starting to once again find their feet, and the country is producing the types of players capable of competing with the rest of the world. The current national side is full of exciting talent and there is an indication that South America’s second most populous nation may be returning to prominence.
Almost 18 years on from Andrés Escobar’s grievous murder, his brother Santiago finds himself in control of Atlético Nacional. With a fabulously talented squad and a superb team ethic, it’s not inconceivable that an Escobar could be taking Colombian football back to the top. Here, I’m going to focus on their 2012 Copa Libertadores début, at home to the highly fancied La ‘U’ – Universidad de Chile.
Atlético Nacional were very close to full-strength for this encounter, however hotshot centre forward Carlos Rentería was unavailable due to injury. Diego Álvarez deputised up front, with the electrifying Dorlan Pabón buzzing around behind him.
Universidad de Chile were without right-sided midfielder Matías Rodríguez, which had a surprisingly profound effect on manager Jorge Sampaoli’s team selection. Refusing to simply pick the similarly right-sided but more defensive Paulo Magalhaes, Sampaoli chose to start the match without a recognised right-sided player on the field, instead going with new signing Pedro Morales, a much more creative and central player.
As is represented in the diagram above, Nacional set up in a narrow 4-4-2 shape that is quite reminiscent of a traditional Brazilian 4-2-2-2 with two volantes (Valoy and Córdoba) and two meias (Mosquera and Macnelly Torres) in the midfield. They are very reliant on their full backs to provide width, while Pabón will also pop up on each flank from time to time.
La ‘U’ played their usual direct style with three at the back and plenty of forward running. Interesting however, were the roles of Pedro Morales and Gustavo Lorenzetti in the final third of the field. As I mentioned earlier, Sampaoli selected a typical number ten in Morales as the replacement for Rodríguez on the right wing, and his natural tendencies saw him drifting into the centre of midfield rather than operating on the right flank. Lorenzetti, an attacking midfielder by trade, allowed him to do this as whenever Morales strayed inside, he simply dropped into the gap that was vacated on the right wing.
La U’s imbalance
The first thing to note about this match was the outrageous pace at which it was played. Universidad de Chile adopted a tactic of heavy pressing and incessant closing down, a system which has now become synonymous with this La ‘U’ side, but Nacional gave as good as they got, working the ball around very quickly and attempting to utilise the speed of lightning-fast forward Dorlan Pabón. Both sides were swift and direct in possession and as a result we were treated to a thrilling battle.
As the two teams began to settle into the tempo of the match, it became clear that Universidad de Chile’s lack of a presence on the right-flank was going to cause them problems over the course of the 90 minutes. The wide players in Sampaoli’s La ‘U’ system are integral for several reasons; they help to stretch their opponents, they give license to the forwards to cut in and attack, but they also help to protect the fragile back three.
It would come as little surprise then, when Atlético Nacional were offered the first genuine chance of the match with a counter-attack down that aforementioned Chilean right flank. With the back three of La ‘U’ stationed on the half-way line, Nacional recovered possession in their own territory and released Macnelly Torres who had found a gap between Osvaldo González and Albert Acevedo. Macnelly was left through on goal and if it had not been for an impressive outstretched save from Johnny Herrera, the Colombians would have taken an early lead.
Controlling the game and with left back Juan David Valencia being offered the freedom to attack at will, Atlético Nacional did eventually take the lead before half-time, and it was Valencia himself who scored the all-important goal. After a floated Macnelly Torres corner was flicked to the back post by Cristian Tula, Valencia was left unmarked and spanked a glorious left-footed volley into the near post.
A goal down at the half-way point and chasing the game, Jorge Sampaoli made two interesting substitutions during the break, looking for a reaction from his side in the second half. Centre back Osvaldo González made way for right wing back Paulo Magalhaes, and the ineffective Gustavo Lorenzetti was replaced by exciting young Peruvian forward Raul Ruidíaz. Interestingly enough, the XI with Magalhaes and Ruidíaz was how many people had expected La ‘U’ would start the match, and perhaps this substitution was Sampaoli admitting he had made a mistake.
As the diagram shows, Magalhaes went straight to the right wing, while Mena was nudged back into the defensive trio. Naturally a left wing back, it was not immediately obvious as to why Mena was being asked to play out of position, but over time it became clear that he was being played there to contribute some more pace to the back line, in an attempt to curb the effect of Pabón’s deadly forward advances.
Furthermore, Ruidíaz’s introduction moved the team to a distinct 3-3-1-3 shape, allowing Morales to play as the enganche behind the three forwards. Fielding three out-and-out strikers to try and bring the tie back into their favour appeared to be the logical decision, but all three were almost completely silenced by Nacional’s defensive sector. The Colombian back four and the two volantes marked the attacking triad and Morales expertly, and when they got close, they used their physical advantage to effectively bully them off the ball.
20 year old Jhon Edwar Valoy had the biggest task of all, responsible for stifling Aránguiz, Morales, and the opposing left winger (Castro in the first half, Fernandes in the second), and he managed to neutralise all three with consummate ease. He displayed this quiet efficiency throughout the match, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that with all of La U’s offensive midfield threats, they only managed one solitary shot on goal from open play.
But Atlético Nacional’s true star was young forward Dorlan Pabón. His flair for getting in behind the opposition defence was a consistent outlet for the Colombians (he was not once caught offside in the 90 minutes), and although Mena’s pace made his job slightly more difficult in the second half, he still managed to terrorise La ‘U’. In fact, it would not be unfair to say that if his usual strike partner Carlos Rentería had been fit, Nacional would have scored many more goals than they did. Pabón delivered an array of wonderful crosses across the Chilean goal, and although Diego Álvarez had a decent match, his positioning and reaction speed were not up to scratch.
Sampaoli’s final gambit, Nacional tie up the points
With little over 20 minutes left to play, Sampaoli made his last change of the match, bringing off enganche Morales and throwing on Roberto Cereceda, a left sided midfielder. In a bid to protect the points, Nacional also made a substitution, switching Luis Fernando Mosquera with defensive midfielder Alexander Mejía, and moving to a solid 4-3-1-2 formation as shown below.
Universidad de Chile dominated possession, but they were still unable to penetrate Nacional’s reinforced defence. This was perhaps the first time that La ‘U’ felt the absence of Eduardo Vargas in attack as even though Castro and Fernandes are competent players, they do not quite have the same directness and doggedness that Vargas provided from that wide-right position.
With Universidad de Chile pouring forward, probing for an equaliser, Nacional struck for a second time with a lovely counter attack to put the result beyond doubt. Midfielder Macnelly Torres collected the ball in the centre circle, and after a quick pivot, he lofted a sublime long pass in the direction of Pabón. Tracked by all three of La U’s central defenders, Pabón outstripped two of them for pace, and left shoulder-to-shoulder with Albert Acevedo, he displayed superb balance and persistence, shrugged off his marker and buried the ball past Herrera and into the back of the net.
With all eyes on Jorge Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile side, Atlético Nacional caused a major shock and stole the headlines with a superb performance. La ‘U’ were fairly underwhelming, especially in the final third of the field, but to say that they played poorly would be a discredit to the Colombians’ workmanlike display. Thanks to their steadfast defence and stalwart volantes, Nacional almost completely stopped La ‘U’ from impacting on the game.
Universidad de Chile will earn results in the Libertadores, as they are still a marvellous side, but on Tuesday night they were outplayed and out-thought by another, possibly equally, marvellous side.
Header image credit: EPA