Atlético Nacional 3×0 Peñarol: Verdolagas continue to impress

After a brief pause in operations, Game of the Week returns to run the rule over Tuesday’s Copa Libertadores Group 8 clash between Atlético Nacional and Peñarol in Medellín. After an impressive start to their group campaign, the home side just needed to avoid defeat in order to seal qualification to the knock-out stages, while the underachieving Peñarol were already eliminated going into this match, looking to exorcise the demons of the 0x4 home defeat in the reverse fixture.

This turned out to be yet another admirable performance from Santiago Escobar’s Verdolagas as they secured a comprehensive three-goal victory in front of their home fans, securing their qualification and putting them atop Group 8 with eleven points in five matches.

Atlético Nacional made a couple of changes from the side that drew 2×2 with Godoy Cruz three weeks previously, bringing in Oscar Murillo and international cap Juan David Valencia to the back four, and selecting Diego Álvarez to partner live-wire striker Dorlan Pabón up front. Furthermore, creative midfielder Luis Mosquera was left on the bench, with Escobar preferring to go with the more reserved youngster Sebastián Pérez.

Peñarol, already eliminated, opted to rest some of their more important squad members like Dário Rodríguez and Luis Aguiar, and handed rare starting berths to the likes of 21 year old midfielder Facundo Guichón.

As the image shows, the home side lined up in a 4-3-1-2 formation, with the superb Macnelly Torres as the enganche drifting around behind Pabón and Álvarez. As usual, they counted on strong support from both wing-backs, often attacking with eight players, leaving only the centre-backs in their own territory.

Peñarol went with their now familiar 4-4-2 shape, a much more simple system to try and accommodate a team suffering cohesion issues since losing the fulcrum of last season’s side. Without the ball, they stay deep with two banks of four players attempting to protect the defence, but in possession they open up a bit more, almost into a 4-3-3 with right-sided Sebastián Cristóforo joining the attack.

The home side appeared comfortable throughout the 90 minutes, moving the ball around nicely and preventing Peñarol from causing any real trouble. However with their enthusiasm and pressing in their own territory, they did concede a lot of fouls in the first half, but fortunately for them the Uruguayans failed to make the most of these set-piece opportunities.

Curiously, it was through two rare free-kicks in favour of Atlético Nacional at the top and tail of the first half that shot them to a 2×0 lead by the interval. The first, on seven minutes, was a lovely cross to the back post from captain Macnelly Torres, which was headed down by Tula to allow fellow defender Murillo to poke the ball home. It was a clearly well-rehearsed move, and the joy on the faces of both coach Escobar and the players was one of seeing hard work having paid off.

Their second goal was less of a team effort and more of an individual piece of brilliance, courtesy of the tournament’s top scorer Dorlan ‘Memín’ Pabón. Faced with a free-kick from approximately 40 yards, to say that a shot on goal was speculative would be an understatement. Evidently though, Memín doesn’t see things the same way as the rest of us. Instead of a floated cross into the Peñarol penalty area, the 24 year old striker let off a magnificent strike from his traction-engine right foot, which took a wicked curve in mid-flight before bursting the back of the net.

The second half saw much of the same football, with the Verdolagas happy in possession and comfortable at the back. They even managed to score a third goal through a swift counter attack from right-back Bernal, galloping the length of the field before crossing for Diego Álvarez to score.

Atlético Nacional’s 4-3-1-2

The first thing to notice is that instead of the Brazilian-style 4-2-2-2 we saw in the opening group match against Universidad de Chile, in this match Santiago Escobar opted to line his side up in a 4-3-1-2 shape, similar to that used in the away match against Peñarol in February. As opposed to the rapid, ultra-direct approach of the 4-2-2-2, this system is geared towards giving extra protection to the centre-backs while promoting a patient, possession-based style of build-up play.

Throughout the match, Atlético Nacional were wonderful in possession. While they have gained a reputation for being a ruthless counter-attacking side, on Tuesday night the Verdolagas instead passed the ball amongst themselves calmly and instinctively, waiting for gaps to present themselves in the opposition ranks.

They did not abandon their counter-attacking threat completely however, and on a few occasions (most notably in their third goal) they displayed their spectacular talent of moving the ball from defence to attack with alarming speed.

Peñarol’s disastrous campaign

In the group stages of a continental tournament, one point from five matches is a woeful record for any club. However for the previous year’s beaten finalists, it is almost unbelievable. Despite forcing their way through to last year’s big history-soaked Libertadores final against Santos, with the help of a united squad and a bit of garra charrúa, Peñarol were the first team to be eliminated from the 2012 group phase, without recording a single victory.

The explanations for such a spectacular failure are actually quite clear. The state of the economy in Uruguay means that football clubs have no option but to sell players to stay afloat. Despite the strength of the national side, the Uruguayan domestic game is still lagging behind its neighbours, with some of last year’s Peñarol side ending up all over the continent and the rest of the world.

To best illustrate this huge player turnover, a quick look at the Peñarol team sheet shows that only three of Tuesday evening’s match day squad (González, Freitas and Albín) were involved in last year’s final, the rest were either injured or have moved on.

More holes than a block of Emmental

Even though the break-up of last year’s talented squad goes a long way to explaining Peñarol’s dismal performances in 2012, the blame doesn’t end there.

As I mentioned at the top of the post, Peñarol came out in a 4-4-2 formation, retreating into two defined banks of four whenever Atlético Nacional were in possession. The objective of this strategy is simple, to stay narrow and compact in order to restrict spaces for the opposition attackers, thus forcing them to give the ball away.

In theory, it was the ideal way to play against the Colombians, but Peñarol were let down by their execution. Instead of staying narrow and organised, the carbonero defenders were pulled inside and out by the roaming runs of Macnelly Torres and Dorlan Pabón, leaving gaping holes for Atlético Nacional to exploit.

I put together this diagram from an Atlético Nacional attack midway through the first half. The small red circle around Córdoba indicates that he is in possession, the blue arrows represent possible passing options, while the red arrows represent off-the-ball runs. I used the larger red circles to denote the space offered to the Verdolaga attackers.

As the diagram shows, Peñarol are attempting to keep two lines of four behind the ball, with even second striker Pérez coming back to defend. However Macnelly Torres, Peñarol’s captain and playmaker, is in oceans of space and from his position he is able to pick out any of his other attacking team-mates.

What follows is my view of how Peñarol should have set up their two banks of four:

Right away, you can see that the two lines are much narrower and very little space is offered to Atlético Nacional’s attackers.

What next for Atlético Nacional?

With their qualification to the knock-out rounds secured, the Verdolagas will now be looking further than their Group 8 adversaries, and towards potential last 16 opponents.

It is my opinion that Santiago Escobar will be looking at the more expressive, attacking sides like Lanús, Libertad and Unión Española as ideal opponents, considering his own team’s proficiency on the counter attack, while more organised, secure clubs like Boca Juniors, Vélez Sarsfield and Corinthians could cause them great difficulty.

For those interested in watching the complete match:

Note: Seeing as it has become the main body of material on this blog, I am considering ditching the ‘Game of the Week’ feature title, and instead just posting match analyses as and when I see fit, instead of being restricted to the one-per-week system. What do you fine folks think? Let me know in comments/email/twitter.

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