After six months without kicking a football, Argentinian powerhouse River Plate face huge upcoming expec­ta­tions playing in the Copa Libertadores. Here’s our analysis of Marcelo Gallardo’s team produced using Wyscout tools.

With not as much as a friendly in preparation before the resumption of this year’s Copa Libertadores, the expectation of River Plate and the remainder of Argentina’s representatives was that it might take a few weeks to get up to speed. However, Gallardo’s River have particularly shown few signs of rust and have already booked its place in the Round of 16 by qualifying first in Group D.

While fatigue was understandably evident in the closing stages of matches, the emergence of the next phase in the evolution of this River team was what really stood out.

For all the plaudits of winning eleven titles in a shade over six years, arguably Gallardo’s greatest achievement has been rebuilding after key losses of personnel. From the 2015 Copa Libertadores triumph to repeating the trick in 2018 with a vastly different eleven, the River coach is now in the process of reshaping things in the wake of 2019’s final heartbreak.

The 4-2-2-2 or 4-1-3-2 of 2019, in which Exequiel Palacios played such an important part, gave way to a 3-5-2 after the midfielder’s departure to Bayer Leverkusen.

Many of the core principles – the high press, quick short passes to create overloads and the midfield breaking forward at pace to join the attack – are all still evident in 2020 but with an additional defender added to allow full-backs Gonzalo Montiel and Milton Casco greater license to get forward and provide the attacking width.

With the same squad available post-Covid and such little time on the training ground, there appeared little scope for change.

Yet in the three games that have followed, River have switched once more. This time to a 4-3-3 with Julián Álvarez, no longer the bit-part academy youngster looking for minutes from the bench, now an instrumental part of a rejigged attack.

Aside from Álvarez’s technical ability and willingness to follow instructions, it is the 20-year-old’s positional flexibility that allows him to flourish in Gallardo’s new system. Neither an out-and-out striker, nor a ten, nor a conventional winger, Álvarez is able to play off the right but link play in the final third centrally and find space in the penalty box – The result? Five goals in the last four games for the youngster.

The teamwork ethic is also evident in this River side, as the front three press high up the pitch aiming to win possession as soon as possible or force an error. This pressure and players quickly recovering shape has been a consistent feature of Gallardo’s River and Álvarez allows the side to drop into a 4-4-2 if required or alternatively, as they did in the 2-1 win over São Paulo, switching to a 3-5-2 with the introduction of Paulo Díaz.

Regardless of the actual formation, it’s always the fullbacks that stretch the game horizontally. Gonzalo Montiel (29) pushed high up on the right and Fabrizio Angeleri (3) or Milton Casco (20) doing the same on the opposite flank. The middle image shows the average positions from the 6-0 win over Binacional as both join the attack to create almost a 2-3-5.

Quick, short passes into any one of the three forwards, who are all capable of dropping in to link play with the two more offensive midfield runners, create the overloads that River utilize in those wide areas.

And yet for all these dynamic, interchangeable pieces of the attacking unit, the cornerstone remains 34-year-old midfielder, Enzo Pérez. Sitting as the deepest of the midfield three it is the former Argentina international’s discipline and tactical nous that allows the others such freedom.

Only one player has averaged more passes per 90 minutes in this year’s Copa Libertadores and these are by no means entirely sideways or backward passes as Pérez averages 14.44 into the final third (as seen in the graphic below – game against LDU Quito not included).

Dropping in between the center-backs, Pérez and new Fiorentina signing Lucas Martínez Quarta provide the depth to River’s possession. The range of passing over mid-to-long range allow River to launch swift attacks when they have dropped deeper to defend as they have done late in games since the Libertadores restart.

As soon as possession is won back, River have at least five willing runners: Rafael Santos Borré, last season’s Superliga leading scorer; the Colombian’s ideal foil Matías Suárez, who has three assists in this year’s Copa Libertadores and leads the way in expected assists with 2.84; Nacho Fernández, the more cerebral passer and creator who ranks number one for assists per 90 minutes (0.74); Nacho’s accomplice Nicolás De La Cruz, a buzzing presence that looks to link up and run beyond the forwards; finally Julián Álvarez, who not only provides River with an extra goal-scoring threat but also an additional point off which to pivot with passes to feet.

It is with these passes that River either create the wide overloads for the full-backs or allows De La Cruz to come inside and find opportunities in and around the penalty box.

The overlapping runs and lack of fixed positions make it difficult for opposition defenses to organize and result in River’s frequent numerical superiority.

Many of these principles are consistent with Gallardo’s style since day one yet this revamped version could see River as a more potent attacking threat. The question mark going forward might be over the defense following the sale of Lucas Martínez Quarta – Robert Rojas has proved a more than able understudy but there is little squad depth.

The club’s most successful ever manager has displayed admirable flexibility during his coaching career and while River remain among the favorites for this year’s Copa Libertadores, Gallardo may at times need to choose pragmatism over idealism.

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