Breaking records

Atlético-MG overcame all variety of records, statistics and tabus to clinch their first ever Copa Libertadores trophy last night in Belo Horizonte. Not since 1996 has the team with the best record in the group stage gone on to win the tournament. Not since 2002 has a team lost in the first leg and went on to win the tournament. Not since 1989 has a team overcame a deficit of two goals in the final. Not since 1975 has one nation provided four consecutive Copa Libertadores champions.

In the end, they deserved their win. Though Galo had a poor first half, constantly launching aimless high balls against Olimpia’s solid defensive unit, everything changed when they opened the scoring early in the second half. The goal gave them the confidence to shift into Galo doido mode – pressing their opponents high up the field, throwing players forward – as opposed to the apathetic, nervous showing in the opening 45.

The goal came from a cross from the right side by Rosinei, who had just been brought on by Cuca. Football commentators and analysts often give far too much importance to coaching decisions made throughout the game, as if the coach is the sole person responsible for winning or losing a match, but in Atlético’s two recent home legs Cuca has made substitutions that have almost instantly resulted in goals. Coincidence? Maybe.

The most crucial impact of the first goal was how it improved the performance of the goalscorer, Jô. With his confidence increased, Jô was back to the player we saw in the group stage and early knockout phase, competing for every ball, winning every knock down and posing a constant threat to the Olimpia defence.

The Paraguayans went down to ten men after Manzur was sent off, and Atlético began to feed more and more high balls into the penalty box. It isn’t the most efficient of tactics, but with great aerial presence they always threatened to score. With minutes left on the clock, an excellent looping header from Leonardo Silva eventually dropped in at the far post.

Again, Atlético’s fate was decided from the penalty spot and some excellent penalties won them the match.

It could have been so different though. Had Rosinei not delivered the cross that (only after being fluffed by Wilson Pittoni) fell for Jô to score, had Juan Ferreyra not slipped and fell when facing an open goal, had Leonardo Silva’s header came back off the post instead of creeping into the net, had the referee allowed Miranda to retake his missed opening penalty after Victor encroached a good three yards off his line, perhaps there would be a different name on the trophy. Or maybe Atlético would have won regardless, but in different circumstances. Football is full of fine lines, which makes proper, coherent analysis a tricky job.

Meanwhile, at the Morumbi, São Paulo are breaking records of their own after a 1-0 loss to Internacional. They have now gone eleven matches without winning, losing their last eight in a row for the first time in their history. New coach Paulo Autuori has lost all of his first four matches in charge, another record for the São Paulo history books.

Earlier this month, I discussed São Paulo’s problems in more detail.

Juvenal Juvêncio is running a dictatorship at São Paulo FC. They are one of the few clubs in Brazil not to hold direct elections for the role of president (something Juvêncio himself got rid of to hold on to power). The club’s largest supporters group, the Torcida Independente, is essentially hired muscle for Juvêncio, and in the past few weeks there members have been going around the stadium removing banners criticising the president, and starting chants against Juvêncio’s political “opponent” Marco Aurélio Cunha.

Do the common supporters of São Paulo need to rise up and stage a “coup du club”?

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Learn from your mistakes

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Cuca failed in his approach to Atlético-MG’s semi-final first leg away to Newell’s Old Boys. He instructed his team to play deeper than usual, abandoning their usual attacking style and shape in an attempt to stymie their opponent’s effectiveness. Their attempt failed and Atlético lost 2-0.

Excellent coaches learn from their mistakes. Cuca is not yet an excellent coach.

In last night’s first leg in Asunción, once again Atlético forsook their usual game-plan to try and hinder their opponents, and once again they lost 2-0.

Their downfall last night against Olimpia was in their insistence on man marking. Cuca’s Atlético always mark their opponents individually, which is often frowned upon at the top level but can be effective when one team has a clear technical advantage.

So far in this year’s Copa Libertadores, Atlético have faced teams that play variants of 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, which suit Atlético’s marking style. The full-backs deal with the wide midfielders or attackers and vice-versa, while the central players each have an opponent to watch over. However, against Olimpia’s staggered 3-4-1-2 shape, Atlético ran into some problems.

olimpia galo

Without a full-back to play against, Cuca moved speedy winger Luan into a central role to cover Olimpia’s Wilson Pittoni, which changed Atlético´s overall shape into a rough 4-4-2 diamond. Left-back Richarlyson was assigned to mark Alejandro Silva, who despite originating in a wide position, constantly cut inside and took Richarlyson with him.

On the other flank, Atlético’s Marcos Rocha was given a huge job, marking Olimpia wing-back Nelson Benítez whilst also being on hand to cover the runs of Matías Giménez and Fredy Bareiro whenever they broke past their markers. As a result, Marcos Rocha rarely crossed the half-way line.

As if being forced to play an entirely different wasn’t enough, Atlético’s man-marking also resulted in Olimpia’s first goal. In the build-up, Alejandro Silva comes deep away from his marker and receives the ball close to Luan, who tries to retrieve possession from him. Instead of covering Luan, Richarlyson moves infield to mark Pittoni, who Luan has abandoned, opening space for Silva to run into. Diego Tardelli tries to close him down, but realising he is leaving his own man in space he hesitates to make a tackle. Réver, the only “spare man” in Atlético’s system, is then slow to get to Silva, allowing the Olimpia midfielder to score.

If that was difficult to follow, this video may help:

Persisting with a man marking system and abandoning their usual style of play was a mistake by Cuca, but the popular media will probably focus more on another one of his decisions last night: substituting Ronaldinho after 65 minutes.

Cuca was completely right to take off Ronaldinho. Thanks to a wonderful marking job by Eduardo Aranda (like Newell’s Diego Mateo in the semi-final), Gaúcho barely saw the ball. After his departure, Atlético started to create more and although they eventually conceded a second goal, they improved significantly.

Once again, Atlético will have to do it the hard way and come back from 2-0 down if they want to win their first Copa Libertadores trophy. They will be without Marcos Rocha after he picked up a third yellow card, and as the match will be played at the Mineirão, they will not be able to count on the “Independência” factor.

Coming back from this result will be a much tougher test than the semi-final. But that’s not to say it is impossible.

É Galo na final

Apologies for not updating the blog yesterday, with the unprecedented amount of stoppages and a penalty shootout to boot, Wednesday evening’s semi-final sapped me of all energy. After the final whistle, when I would usually be writing, I was sleeping off a heavy Copa Libertadores comedown. For those who can read Portuguese, I recommend Idelber Avelar’s wonderful account over at Impedimento.

In the end, Atlético-MG overcame the odds and a two-goal deficit to eliminate Newell’s Old Boys on penalties in one of the most gripping and tense football matches in recent memory.

Whoever said that ‘penalty shootouts are a lottery’ has no idea what they are talking about. Hours of study and practice go into penalty kicks, while the mental strength and emotional state of the takers also plays a huge part. There is nothing random about it. Atlético goalkeeper Víctor made another penalty save at a crucial moment, and if Galo do go on and win the trophy, he will rightly be remembered as the hero.

Image: UOL

Spare a thought for Newell’s however, who were unlucky not to go through. The Argentinians were superior throughout the first leg, and they were the better team in the second half on Wednesday, at least until the power failure. Head coach Gerardo Martino now leaves the club after two good years in charge, saying he will take an “indefinite rest”. He deserves it.

Coming at such a critical moment in the tie (with 15 minutes remaining in the second half of the second leg) the floodlight failure could have helped or hindered either of the two sides. In the end, it helped Atlético.

With his team struggling to create any chances against a very well-organised Newell’s defence, Atlético coach Cuca used the pause to alter their offensive tactics. He ordered right-back Marcos Rocha to push forward more (he barely crossed the half-way line over the two legs, due to the threat of Newell’s left-winger Maxi Rodríguez) and brought on unpopular forwards Guilherme and Alecsandro in place of fan favourites Diego Tardelli and Bernard.

It’s impossible to know exactly how decisive his changes were (even though Guilherme scored the vital second goal), but Cuca has to be commended for taking the risk.

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Conmebol has announced that the second leg of the final will be played at the Mineirão, instead of the Estádio Independência, Atlético’s current stadium of choice. This is due to the competition’s rule that the final must be played at a venue with a capacity of over 40,000 people. The Independência holds just over 23,000.

The rule is clear, but Conmebol also announced that the first leg will be played in the Estadio Defensores del Chaco, which holds only 36,000. With any luck, both teams will be allowed to play their respective home legs at their preferred stadiums, and Conmebol can do away with this pointless regulation. However, this is Conmebol we are talking about…

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With Wednesday’s 2-1 loss against Bahia, São Paulo completed a run of four consecutive defeats at the Estádio Morumbi – for the first time in their 77 year history. But I thought that the problem was meant to be Ney Franco?

With Muricy unavailable due to his high salary demands, club president Juvenal Juvêncio has brought back another former coach in Paulo Autuori. While the old man at the end of the corridor remains in control, it is difficult to see how things can change.

Galo and Newell’s

The dream looked to be in doubt, but Olimpia held on in Bogotá, withstanding wave after wave of Santa Fe attacks, and have qualified for their seventh Copa Libertadores final. Tonight, they will find out their opponents, as Atlético-MG go toe-to-toe with Newell’s Old Boys in the match we’ve all been waiting for.

Considering the gap in quality between the domestic leagues of Brazil and Argentina, Atlético are the stronger team and were made favourites to qualify before the first leg. However they find themselves in real trouble and trail their Argentinian adversaries 2-0 on aggregate.

Clearly, Atlético have a huge task ahead of them. But at least they have a clear objective: they must do what they do best and attack. In the first leg in Rosario, Atlético head coach Cuca decided upon a contained, defensive approach – they played poorly and conceded twice. Tonight, however, they have no choice.

Atlético can take heart in their home advantage. They have now gone an unbelievable 52 matches without losing at home, partly due to the atmosphere created at the Estádio Independência. The cramped, high stands in the 23,000-seater ground in Belo Horizonte can generate quite an intimidating noise.

However, the last time Atlético played in the Copa Libertadores at the Independência – the quarter-final against Tijuana – they were less than convincing. The match has been remembered for goalkeeper Víctor’s heroic last-minute penalty save, so it has been easy to forget that Galo were second best for most of the game against an organised Tijuana side. Newell’s Old Boys are an even tougher prospect.

The main concern for Atlético is conceding an away goal. Because of the 0-2 aggregate score, a Newell’s goal this evening would force Atlético to score four times in order to qualify.

That said, it looks like Newell’s will be content to stand off, play deep and pick their moments on the counterattack. In my opinion, this approach would be a mistake. Newell’s can move the ball from defence to attack quicker than most teams, but they struggle to consistently create good chances. Were they more adept in playing the final pass, perhaps the first leg would have ended 4 or 5-0, instead of just two.

If Newell’s were to look to take advantage of spaces left by Atlético and have sustained spells of pressure, I believe they will score. If they sit back and wait for three or four counterattacks to present themselves, chances are they will draw a blank.

Overcoming a two-goal deficit is not beyond Atlético, especially if their attacking quartet plays to their abilities. The pressure will be enormous though, and they need to remain mentally strong if they are to have any chance of winning.

Going back to Olimpia, it would be easy to say that tonight’s match will decide the trophy, as both Atlético and Newell’s are stronger sides than Olimpia. But the Paraguayans are an intelligent, resolute side with a clever head coach, and they could certainly spring a surprise. Furthermore, Olimpia have done this before. Known as the “Rey de Copas”, they are three-time champions of the Copa Libertadores, with their most recent triumph coming in 2002. For Atletico or Newell’s, there will be the added pressure of a potential first Libertadores.

Stick to what you know

In yesterday’s blog, I pointed out that Atlético-MG could cause Newell’s Old Boys some serious problems if they were “willing to open up in search of an away goal”. They weren’t.

Newell’s looked vulnerable in defence. Full-backs Casco and Cáceres left too much space behind them, centre-backs Heinze and Vergini made mistakes every time they were put under pressure and even Nahuel Guzmán, the goalkeeper, had some unconvincing moments. Fortunately for them, Atlético failed to capitalise on any of these weaknesses. Apart from one spurned opportunity from Bernard in the first half, Newell’s were comfortable throughout and earned a 2-0 lead to take into the second leg.

Atlético’s downfall was their over cautiousness. As expected, they adopted a more withdrawn approach and instead of their usual fluid 4-2-3-1 system, Cuca arranged his side in a rigid 4-4-1-1. The back four stayed excessively deep – even usually ultra-attacking right-back Marcos Rocha – and wingers Bernard and Diego Tardelli played defensive roles, tasked with marking their opposing full-back.

Cuca’s thought process was understandable for the most part: Newell’s break quickly and when they do, they play the ball directly to the excellent Ignácio Scocco in attack. (While the quality of Argentinian domestic football is patchy, Scocco is a Champions League-level centre-forward and Cuca knows it.) By keeping the back line planted and close to the penalty area, Cuca hoped to reduce Scocco’s space whenever possible.

The problem is that Atlético do not have the squad to successfully play a deep, contained tactical system. When Galo don’t have possession, Ronaldinho Gaúcho becomes a passenger. The same can be said for Bernard and Diego Tardelli, while Marcos Rocha is easily found out when he is asked to defend.

Newell’s, constantly invited to attack their Brazilian visitors, eventually found gaps and scored their goals. If it wasn’t for Victor in the Atlético goal, the tie would already be over. As it stands, Galo will need a huge performance at the Independência to have any chance of making the final.

Cuca has built a wonderful team at Atlético, capable of playing captivating and effective football. However he has not grasped how to properly organise a defensive system. He has been struggling with this for years, so perhaps he never will get it. Perhaps he should stick to what he knows best.

Note: I realise that this post could have been enhanced with visual aids of some sort, however I have recently bought a new laptop and as of yet do not have my old diagram templates. I will see to that soon!

Note 2: If you want to read more about Newell’s Old Boys and their playing style, check out this analysis that I did of them a while back. Still relevant.