Santos 2-1 Peñarol: greater attacking variety gives Santos the Copa Libertadores

June 25, 2011

The starting line-ups

After a goalless first leg, goals from Neymar and Danilo gave Santos their first Copa Libertadores for nearly 50 years.

Muricy Ramalho made a few changes from the first leg, including a significantly different back four. Danilo dropped back from the midfield to become a right-back, whilst Leo started at left-back, and Edu Dracena returned at centre-back. Ganso had recovered from injury to take Danilo’s place in midfield.

Diego Aguirre had fewer selections issues, and was significantly content with his side’s first leg performance that he named an unchanged side.

The game was dominated by the home side, with Santos better both with and without the ball across the 90 minutes. They wasted chances and were a little unfortunate to concede a late goal – their superiority wasn’t reflected in the eventual narrow win.


Ramalho moved Neymar across to the left having been quiet last week on the right, and he drifted to the flank in a system which was a cross between a diamond and a 4-2-2-2, and therefore not dissimilar to Dunga’s formation when in charge of the national side. Arouca played at the base of the diamond with Adriano slightly advanced to his left, whilst Elano shuttled to the right and joined Ganso, playing as a classic number ten, but coming towards the ball when he was tightly-marked.

Penarol’s formation was a cross between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-2-2 – their shape can also be likened to that of their national side in the last World Cup – see how Uruguay lined up against Ghana in the famous quarter-final last year – two very deep holding midfielders, two wingers, and a strike duo. Luis Aguiar and Nicolas Freitas never ventured forward from their role, screening their own back four, whilst the Matias Corujo played slightly narrow on the right, with Matias Mier more of a classic winger on the left.

Midfield battle

The outcome of the two formations was clear – there was one man who consistently had time on the ball in the midfield, Arouca, the deepest Santos midfielder. He had time to distribute the ball out wide to the full-backs and forward to the more attacking players, but his role changed as the game went on, and he gradually took more advantage of his freedom. For the first half hour he simply passed the ball, but thereafter he exploited his freedom to storm forward on the ball, leaving Adriano to drop in as the holding player. This eventually resulted in the opening goal, scored by Neymar, which came after a wonderful mazy dribble from Arouca (at the start of the video below).

Ganso was similarly impressive, escaping the attention of Peñarol’s midfield duo by coming deep and turning, then running at the ball with speed, also encouraging Elano forward to the right – his comparative width forced Aguiar and Freitas to adjust their positions and move towards their left.

Santos dominance

There were two key tactical reasons why Santos wee the better side. First, they worked much harder without the ball. Peñarol stood off when they lost possession, inviting Santos pressure and allowing their midfielders time on the ball. Their strikers simply walked back towards their own half. Santos were far more proactive without the ball, closing down all over the pitch. Neymar and Ze Eduardo were both energetic and often tracked the full-backs on their respective sides as far as the halfway line, meaning that Peñarol’s centre-backs were often the only free players – and neither were able to step forward and create from deep. As the two Santos forwards drifted wide, the Brazilian side often looked like 4-3-3, with Ganso almost the highest player up the pitch.

Santos’ second area of superiority was their compactness. As the forwards came deep, the gap between back to front was minimal, and a highish defensive line also aided this. In stark contrast, there was a huge gap between the Peñarol midfield and attack, meaning Alejandro Martinuccio and Juan Manuel Olivera were cut off from the rest of the side when Peñarol had the ball – and when they didn’t, Santos were allowed too much time on the ball deep in midfield.


The most interesting individual battles were on the flanks. Neymar played as a left-sided forward but moved towards the touchline to get the ball, meaning he often dribbled at speed up against Alejandro Gonzalez. Gonzalez picked up a booking which looked ominous as Neymar continued to dribble at speed – ironically, before Neymar could truly punish Gonzalez by forcing a second yellow, a foul of his forced Gonzalez off with an injury, to be replaced at right-back by Emiliano Albin.

The opposite flank saw a good contest between Mier and Danilo. Mier is a tricky winger who wanted to perform stepovers before finding a yard of space to cross, but Danilo held firm and didn’t commit to tackles. In the end, the right-back conclusively won the battle – his defensive strength meant that Mier was substituted, and his replacement Jonathan Urretaviscaya allowed Danilo to go untracked for the second goal – Danilo came inside and placed the ball in the far corner with his left foot.


Aguirre had to make changes at 2-0 down, and his side were at their best in the final 20 minute after a couple of substitutions, with both Urretaviscaya and Fabian Estoyanoff (who replaced Albin) on. Peñarol looked more like 4-2-4, although it was fluid in the final third, and the full-backs were much braver.

To their credit, Peñarol never resorted to hitting the ball long – particularly admirable considering they’d suffered for so long with the gap between the midfield and the attack being too large. They continued to work the ball wide before crossing, taking advantage of Santos’ narrowness. It was the two substitutions that created their consolation – a brilliant combination between Urretaviscaya and Estoyanoff deserved better than the finish it got – a crazy Durval slice that ended up in his own goal – but that was 2-1.

From there, the game became incredibly open and frantic – Peñarol pushed more men forward and Santos should have scored at least one goal on the break, with both Neymar and Ze Eduardo missing very easy chances. They held firm at the back, with Eduardo often dropping in to become an extra centre-back when the ball was wide, and on balance, they were the better side.


A very open game created various interesting battles, particularly in the wide zones. The game came down to which side operated better as a unit, however – Santos were more compact and more hard-working.

The role of Arouca was probably the most interesting individual tactical feature of the game – many holding midfielders take advantage of being unmarked by simply distributing the ball, but Arouca was more attack-minded and stormed forward to great effect for the opening goal.

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