Game of the Week: Arsenal de Sarandí 1×2 Boca Juniors

Another Copa Libertadores tie for Game of the Week and from last week’s all-Brazilian clash between Santos and Internacional, we go to an all-Argentine affair as Arsenal de Sarandí hosted giants Boca Juniors in El Viaducto.

Boca, the undisputed champions of the 2011 Apertura, came into the match on the back of two consecutive defeats (the last time that happened was in March 2011) and it appeared that cracks were beginning to appear in Julio César Falcioni’s previously watertight Boca team.

The home side, Arsenal, came out in a familiar 4-4-2 formation, often morphing into a 4-2-2-2 when in possession, with the two wide midfielders pushing up on either side. As you can see from the diagram below, right-sided Colombian midfielder Carlos Carbonero was the more attacking of the two, frequently striving to bomb forward and run at the Boca defence.

Predictably, Boca went with their usual 4-3-1-2 system, with Santiago Silva partnered by the more mobile Pablo Mouche in attack. Besides Silva, who arrived in the off-season from Fiorentina, this was the exact same side that stormed to the Apertura title in the second half of 2011.

Despite Juan Román Riquelme being the real brain of the team, it is the midfield trio that really gives Falcioni’s Boca side its distinct look. Leandro Somoza, the central player of the triumvirate, is the holder in front of the defensive line, often dropping back as a makeshift central defender when the team is under pressure. Diego Rivero and Walter Erviti, who play on either side of Somoza, play as carrileros (or midfield ‘shuttlers’), helping to protect the defence but also bursting forward to help out in attacking phases. The all-round qualities of the players in these two roles are crucial to the team, allowing them to shift so effortlessly from defence to attack.

Arsenal capitalise on early pressure

With the three points an absolute necessity, Boca briefly abandoned their usual secure and contained approach in the opening stages of the match and opened up in search of an early goal. The two carrileros Rivero and Erviti started much more advanced than usual, almost forming an attacking midfield line of three with Riquelme when Boca had possession, leaving Somoza to shield the back-line by himself.

In theory, this strategy should have allowed them to control proceedings and dominate play, but in practice it allowed Arsenal’s two main weapons – the wide midfielders Carbonero and Aguirre – a huge amount of space to run at the Boca defence. Although Boca did have most of the possession, they were horribly stretched whenever they lost the ball, eventually leading to them conceding the opening goal.

On nine minutes, Nicolás Aguirre picked up the ball on the left touchline and after shrugging off the half-hearted challenge of Boca right-back Facundo Roncaglia, he charged forward down the vacated flank. Upon reaching the 18-yard line he delivered a probing cross towards the penalty spot, right in-behind the Boca centre-backs and into the infamous ‘corridor of uncertainty’, where the ball was accidentally turned into the net by Boca’s Clemente Rodríguez. Rodríguez has to take the blame for the mis-hit clearance, but with Arsenal striker Leguizamón lurking behind him, he had to take some sort of action.

Boca bounce back

Only after conceding did Boca begin to find their rhythm in the match. After around 25 minutes they managed to gain control of possession and by instructing Rivero and Erviti to man-mark Aguirre and Carbonero respectively, they significantly reduced Arsenal’s danger down both flanks. Own-goal villain Rodríguez provided some much needed width down Boca’s left side, and through him they managed to orchestrate some meaningful attacks.

Boca drew level on 29 minutes through a composed finish from Pablo Mouche from the right side of the area. The move started with a high cross from Rivero on the right, which was headed into the penalty box by Riquelme. Santiago Silva challenged for the ball, but Arsenal’s Lisandro López made a wonderful last-ditch interception, taking the ball away from El Tanque. Unfortunately for Lisandro though, the loose ball fell to Mouche who finished superbly from a tight angle.

Ledesma comes off the bench to win it for Boca

In the second half, Boca were struggling to kick on from their equaliser, their passing was poor and Román Riquelme was near anonymous, often drifting out to the left away from the play. Arsenal looked the better side, almost taking the lead again when striker Luciano Leguizamón got in behind the Boca defence and appeared to have been brought down by Schiavi. From the replays it certainly seemed to have been worthy of a penalty, but referee Pablo Lunati waved play on.

Conscious of his side slipping out of the match, Boca coach Falcioni decided to bring on former Catania midfielder Pablo Ledesma in place of the disappointing Rivero, looking for some fresh legs in the middle of the park and a bit more natural attacking instinct.

It would appear to have been a stroke of tactical genius as only five minutes after coming on, Ledesma fired Boca into the lead, latching on to a Clemente Rodríguez cross. The midfielder was totally unmarked in the area, a result of his ‘marker’ Nicolás Aguirre failing to track back with him. It would appear that Aguirre became accustomed to having Rivero in that area, a player much less likely to make the late surge into the area.

In the lead for the first time in the match, Boca were happy to revert back to their safer and more defensive style. The trio of Ledesma, Somoza and Erviti were all on hand to protect the back four, as the away side successfully shut out Arsenal for the last twenty minutes.

Considering the week they had previous to this match (the 2×1 home defeat against Fluminense, and then the insane 5×4 defeat at the hands of Independiente), this result was absolutely critical to Boca Juniors. If they had failed to win, not only would it have left them in a precarious position in their group, but it would also have cranked up the pressure even further on their harshly-treated manager Julio César Falcioni.

It was not all positives for Boca though, in truth they did not play particularly well over the course of the match. Big summer signing El Tanque Santiago Silva struggled once again, and in conceding the Clemente Rodríguez own goal, vulnerabilities were highlighted in a defence that last year, looked like it would never concede another goal.

Arsenal will certainly be frustrated with the loss, considering that they put in a big effort and gave quite a decent performance. They caused Boca several headaches in the first half, particularly through the neat link-up play between Carbonero and Leguizamón, but once they went 2×1 down, they appeared to have ran out of steam.

They host relegation candidates Banfield at the weekend, before returning to play Boca again on wednesday, only this time in La Bombonera. They will be hoping for a similar performance, but perhaps with a little more luck.

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