Racing 0-1 Tigre: So Tactics Do Exist In Argentina

2014-02-18 21.33.47

The standard of Argentine football has undeniably fallen considerably in recent years. Economic factors have made it impossible for clubs to hold onto the numerous good, young players they produce, while the ultra-pressurised culture surrounding the game means that managers rarely have the time and freedom to experiment or implement new ideas.

Consequently, almost every Primera División match is a battle between identical flat 4-4-2s in which the full-backs play cautiously and the wide-midfielders are much more likely to drift infield than hug the touchline. Due to the absolute necessity for those in the centre to hold their territory, the ‘wide’ midfielders almost exclusively carry the attacking threat and spend matches slinging direct balls from deep towards tall, powerful strikers who occasionally put one of them away.

Thus, even though the winger is a dead role in Argentina, crosses account for a majority of all goals scored in the Primera División. There is simply no other mode of attack. It often seems that the outcome of each match is determined less by skill or tactics and more by collective stamina or by one team making a stupid defensive mistake.

This has been the theme in every single match I have seen in person and the only variables that have changed the patterns of play have been the relative standards of players – second division giants Banfield and Independiente played more expansive football because they were at home to significantly inferior sides, for example – or red cards that forced a tactical re-think.

So it was to my great surprise that Racing Club vs Tigre on Tuesday night – match number fourteen for yours truly – turned into a postively epic tactical battle, complete with reshuffles, managerial use of logic and a very clever centre-forward performance.

The home side started in the usual Argentine manner: a flat back four with two holding central midfielders sat in front of them (Bruno Zuculini and Francisco Cerro) one wide-ish crossing midfielder on the right (Diego Villar), and an inside-out option coming in from the left (Rodrigo De Paul). One thing Racing do not have is an out-and-out number nine, so two more all-round types (Gabriel Hauche and Valentín Viola) foraged up front.

Tigre, by contrast, played a deep and ultra-defensive 4-3-2-1, establishing an eight-man barrier that could not be breached by central attacks and which by simple numerical advantage won almost every header and second ball that resulted from a ball crossed into the box by Villar.

They maintained a constant presence of three central players in their own penalty box, either by dropping central holding midfielder Diego Castaño in between the centre-backs or, if a full-back went wide, having auxiliary midfielders Joaquín Arzura and Marcos Gelabert drop in behind them. Such an approach would appear repugnantly reactive if not augmented by a coherent attacking strategy, but in stark contrast to his opponent, Tigre manager Fabián Alegre had one of those as well.

In attack, their 4-3-2-1 became a streamlined 4-1-2-1-2, with number nine Ariel Nahuelpan receiving the ball with his back to goal and secondary strikers Pablo Vitti and Matías Pérez García going beyond him. From this point, Nahuelpan would either hold the ball up before playing a vertical pass forward to one of the two runners, thus making Tigre’s simple attacks more dynamic than Racing’s, or cleverly buy a free-kick from an over-eager defender and relieve pressure on the eight defensive players behind them.

Such an approach would appear repugnantly reactive in most major leagues but, as previously stated, Argentina’s domestic game has been so badly depleted that simply by having a clearly rehearsed and well-organised gameplan, Tigre appeared revolutionary.

The game started fairly evenly, with Tigre having as much of the ball as Racing and funnelling most of it through the diminutive and tricky Pérez García. Neither side had created a chance before a set-piece from Tigre’s right ricocheted around and fell kindly for Ignacio Canuto, who had escaped the attention of his marker, Viola. The centre-back finished with aplomb and Tigre promptly parked the bus.

As any self-respecting tactics bod knows, the best way to beat an ultra-defensive diamond is by using width: with the central areas dominated by the opponent, the only space is on the flanks. Provided the ball is moved from one side of the pitch to the other accurately and with speed, there is almost always the chance for a two-versus-one overload on the opposition full-back.

By accident more than design, Racing worked the ball wide, and here their personnel became an issue. Time and again they had ample amounts of space to use on the overlap and but did not use it. Villar could have supplied the telling cross but found his targets outnumbered and could not manufacture enough space to do so.

He occasionally received the help from one of the strikers, who pulled out of the area to create the two-versus-one but in doing so reduced the threat of the eventual cross, there being one Racing target against six Tigre defenders, goalkeeper included. Simply but, Racing did not identify where their spatial advantage was and move the ball quickly and directly enough to exploit it.

I found myself yelling – and in English, as well, which is never a smart move in Argentine stadiums – for full-backs José Gómez and Matías Cahais to please come forward. That is not either’s natural game, however, as their contribution with the ball even in deep areas showed. As my Racing-fan friend Ilan put it: “There’s no point in giving [Cahais] the ball, he doesn’t know what to do with it.”

Racing created two great chances from set-pieces towards the end of the first half, first by overloading the back post from a corner and secondly by taking advantage of slack marking to play a quick free-kick, but the alert Javier García saved Tigre with extremely smart reaction stops.

Half-time brought a straight-swap from Alegre, removing the lively but defensively suspect and possibly injured Pérez García and replacing him with Sergio Araujo, of failed Barcelona move and Football Manager fame. Otherwise the systems stayed exactly the same until the 48th minute, when Racing manager Mostaza Merlo withdrew right-back Gómez and introduced pacey striker Luciano Vietto.

The players were obviously confused by this switch, which showed how slapdash Merlo’s plan was. One would have thought it would have been discussed at half-time, but evidently not. Several on the pitch did not know who should be positioned where and Merlo had to all-but run on the pitch to yell instructions and explain the reshuffle.

Eventually, Racing moved to a diamond system of their own: Vietto was to play as the number ten, using his pace to try and carry the ball through Tigre’s eight-man low block; Cerro controlled the midfield single-handedly, keeping the ball moving from flank to flank; natural box-to-box midfielder Zuculini moved to right-back.

The latter decision was the most interesting of all: while thinking about possible solutions to Racing’s width problem, I had considered the possibility of moving Zuculini out to the right and getting him to use his natural athleticism and on-ball nous to do the aggressive attacking job that Gómez evidently could not. Arturo Vidal has done the same for Chile on occasion while Kwadwo Asamoah regularly plays on the left at Juventus, so there was a precedent for this plan working.

Unfortunately and suicidally, Zuculini played the right-back role in much the same way as Gómez had done, staying at home for the most part and playing even more narrowly on the rare occasions he did get on the ball. This not only failed to exploit the space on the flank but also took Racing’s most talented player out of the central zone in which he does his best work. It seems very strange that a country that has given us two of the finest right-backs in recent memory – Javier Zanetti and Pablo Zabaleta – seems to have forgotten what they are actually for.

Therefore, the diamond did not improve things for Racing. Tigre made no attempt to escape their own area or add a second goal but they had no need to: their defence and its three-man shield were so well-organised and physically prepared for the task at hand that Racing’s improvised solution rarely looked like producing an equaliser.

Although Vietto’s speed certainly unsettled the Tigre midfielders when he could turn and drive at them, his distribution was uninspired and the switch to a conservative diamond all-but killed Racing’s hopes of overloading on the flanks.

While Tigre did not try to score, they relieved themselves from constant Racing pressure by a masterclass in centre-forward play by Nahuelpan, whose relentless running, indomitable strength and canniness when boxed-in allowed them to hoof the ball vaguely in his direction, watch him kill it stone dead and carry the fight to Racing in much the same way as he had in the first half.

Off the ball, Nahuelpan constantly pressured Racing’s defenders and forced them to play the ball into areas in which Araujo and Vitti could continue the press, meaning Racing’s domination of possession in the middle of the pitch remained relatively sterile and often hesitant. Ilan’s anguished scream of “can that guy please stop running already?” pretty much summed up the disruptive effect Nahuelpan had on his opponents.

The last twenty minutes saw Merlo introduce Mauro Camoranesi in place of Villar and send on young beanpole Juan Ignacio Dinenno, withdrawing Viola in the process. The idea from the 73rd minute onward was clearly and quite logically to work the ball down the right and use the Italian World Cup winner’s gifted right foot to get it into the box for Dinenno to finish, but the build-up play was ponderous and produced little of any note.

The best things got for Racing was a penalty appeal when an attempted cross, played in from in front of the box rather than alongside it, appeared to strike a Tigre hand. The home fans howled but the referee was unmoved, presumably deciding that the defender had been so close to the ball before it was kicked that there was little he could do to get out of the way.

As time ran out, tempers frayed, both in the stands and on the pitch. A 90th minute red card for Racing centre-back Fernando Ortiz, apparently awarded for off-the-ball violent conduct, was the end of their hopes of a comeback.

At the final whistle, the majority of the home fans seemed convinced that Racing had been defeated purely by the weight of their historically accumulated bad luck; that their defeat to an ambitionless team that played for a set-piece goal and got one was a continuation of the hapless failure that seems to define their club.

For me, however, Tigre merited their luck. Unlike Merlo’s side, they arrived with a clear and well-prepared gameplan – not one that will win any awards for ingenuity or flair, but one that clearly surprised and made their opponents uncomfortable, which is just about any club of Tigre’s standing can hope to achieve. It was their fourth clean sheet in a row and if their physical training is up to the level of their tactical preparation, there will be many more to come.

For Racing, it was a harsh reminder that turning to former managerial heroes rarely turns things around in a flash. Merlo’s ideas and skills were found desperately wanting and, furthermore, so was his squad. They undoubtedly have talented players but not enough variety up front and the attacking weakness from full-back was glaring. If they are to score goals and win games, Merlo will have to go back to the drawing board – and quickly.


About robbro7

I mostly write about football but occasionally go off on one about music or film too. I talk about Argentina a lot. If you have any questions or want to get in touch, tweet me @robbro7 or send an email to robbro7 [at] gmail [dot] com.
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7 Responses to Racing 0-1 Tigre: So Tactics Do Exist In Argentina

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