In my opinion, what makes the Copa Libertadores such an intriguing tournament is the constant clash of styles from around this fascinating continent. In Europe, the playing style is, on the whole, rather homogenised. For example in this season’s Champions League group stages, Group F comprised of Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Olympiakos and Olympique Marseille, four teams that play very similar styles in the popular 4-2-3-1 formation.
In the Libertadores though, tactical variation is alive and well. In fact, it is very rare for a Copa Libertadores match to include two teams from different countries playing the same formation.
Wednesday’s Last 16 tie was no different, with brave Chileans Unión Española facing Boca Juniors in La Bombonera. Still as one of the favourites to win the tournament, Boca went into the match in their usual 4-3-1-2 formation, hoping to open up a nice advantage at home in the first leg.
Unión Española have been one of the most interesting sides to watch in this year’s Libertadores so far. They stormed to top spot in Group 3, with an effective mix of fitness, speed and creativity.
Unión play a 4-3-3 formation, something not seen terribly often in South America, with Gonzalo Villagra as the holding defensive midfielder and the classy duo of Braulio Leal and Mauro Diaz on either side of him, sharing the creative workload.
Unión’s inverse wingers
What was interesting about Unión Española’s formation was their decision to play with two ‘inverse wingers’ – that is, wingers playing on the opposite flank to that of their strongest foot. The left-footed Fernando Cordero played on the right, while right-footed Sebastián Jaime started on the left.
The main aim of such a tactic was to occupy Boca Juniors’ full-backs Clemente Rodríguez and Franco Sosa, two players whose forward runs are key to Boca’s attacking proficiency. Moreover, it also helped narrow the play, which was favourable to Unión as even though Boca’s 4-3-1-2 encourages possession to be focused in the middle of the field, it is their ability to stretch the play at any given moment that makes them so threatening going forward.
In an attempt to remedy this, Boca coach Julio César Falcioni encouraged his carrileros (particularly Walter Erviti on the left) to push slightly wider when attacking. This did help them slightly, but they appeared to be lacking the threat of someone like Pablo Mouche who, despite his inconsistent final ball, is crucial to creating gaps in opposition defences with his incisive runs into the channels.
Boca take the lead
Despite Unión Española’s minor tactical ‘victories’ in the first half, it was Boca Juniors that scored the game’s opening goal after 25 minutes through their evergreen enganche Juan Román Riquelme.
In a move that perhaps justified Unión’s decision to play with inverted wingers, Boca’s left-back Clemente Rodríguez was found unmarked high on the flank by a glorious square pass from Pablo Ledesma, before delivering a cross which fell to the unmarked Riquelme to score.
Although the goal may have appeared to have come as the result of some sort of frailty in the Unión defence, it was in fact due a very risky gamble from Boca Juniors. Clemente Rodríguez on the left appeared to throw all caution to the wind, marching forward into attack, and if Boca hadn’t come away with a goal, he would have been left terribly exposed on the counter-attack.
Unión draw level
Going into the second half, Unión improved their possession play by working some tight passing triangles in the middle of the field and gradually bringing their full-backs forward to attack. It may have taken them slightly longer than they had hoped, but after a 15-minute period of sustained pressure and possession they managed to score an equaliser on the 72nd minute.
The goal itself came as a result of Unión’s inverted winger tactic, with Argentine winger Sebastián Jaime darting infield from the left touchline to latch on to a slack clearance from Boca’s Sosa, before finishing well with his dominant right foot.
Falcioni introduces Mouche
Not long before Unión Española’s equaliser, perhaps noticing what I mentioned earlier, Falcioni resolved to bring Pablo Mouche off the bench and into the fray, replacing the visibly frustrated Dário Cvitanich in attack.
Mouche was deployed high up the field, playing on the shoulder of the Unión centre-backs, while Santiago Silva tucked in behind him looking to provide flick-ons and generally hold up play.
Mouche also tended to drift out to the right, trying to go one-on-one with Unión’s left-back Leonel Mena, who was carrying a yellow card and having an altogether poor match. The 24-year old’s movement improved Boca almost instantly, throwing Unión’s back line into disarray and opening up gaps for Silva and Boca’s midfielders to exploit.
Boca control and steal the winner
In the ten minutes that followed Unión’s equalising goal, Boca were completely dominant and mustered several good attempts on goal, including an Erviti shot that came back off the upright and Silva heading wide from a Mouche cross (a sign of things to come…).
The home side attempted to stretch their opponents further, bringing on energetic midfielder Juan Sánchez Miño in place of the tiring Cristián Erbes. Sánchez Miño took Erviti’s role on the left of midfield, adding fresh legs and another useful left foot to further open up the play.
Unión meanwhile – content with their away goal – started to retreat into defence, bringing their wingers back into midfield and defending in a 4-1-4-1 shape. This allowed the Boca Juniors full-backs to wander forward across the half-way line, and for the remainder of the match the home side were in complete control.
Boca grabbed the winning goal right on 90 minutes through a Santiago Silva header. The move started with Riquelme picking out an intelligent cross-field run from Mouche, who delivered a lovely left-footed cross into the area, which was met by a crashing header from ‘el Tanque’. With the goal coming just before full-time, Unión Española didn’t have time to rally a reply, but there was still time for Uruguayan Diego Scotti to be sent off for a vicious kick on Riquelme.
Although Boca Juniors were certainly relieved to come away with the win against a tricky Unión Española side, it is a very fragile lead to try to protect in the second leg away in Santiago.
Unión have been an interesting side to watch in this year’s Copa Libertadores, as even though the attacking 4-3-3 is so popular in the European game, it is still rarely seen in South America. The biggest clubs (especially Brazilian sides) often have real problems when facing three attackers and Boca, whose attack relies heavily on support from their full-backs, in fact did very well to improvise and pick holes in their Chilean opponents.
Header image: Damián Schiavone