In the managerial merry go round of the modern-day world, Marcelo Gallardo is a rare example of a manager who has achieved success whilst staying at one club long-term. The Argentinean has been with River Plate since 2014, winning 12 trophies during that time. But keeping with the modern times, he's constantly evolved his tactics throughout his time in charge, with the side looking very different today from when he first took on the task in 2014. Ahead of the 2021 season, we analyze Marcelo Gallardo's River Plate in 2019-20.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2 DIAMOND (4-1-2-1-2)
Marcelo Gallardo frequently operates in a 4-4-2 Diamond (on paper - 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-1-3-2). The defensive midfielder sits clearly detached from the other midfield men, often drifting towards the back-line to pick up the ball, while the attacking midfielder also drifts toward the ball to give it that 4-1-3-2 shape rather than 4-3-1-2. While Gallardo has experimented with the 3-5-2 and 4-3-3, his other formation of choice is the 4-2-2-2, which follows similar principles of play to the 4-4-2 diamond. Coincidentally, the 4-4-2 diamond and 4-2-2-2 are Jesse Marsch's favourite formations with Red Bull Salzburg, and the two teams operate in many of the same ways.
Importantly, both formations are particularly useful for pressing, because of the natural diamonds that can be created, and the inclination towards protecting central areas in defence, even if the shape stretches in attacking phases. Both formations also allow for verticality in attack, aiding in River Plate's quick transitions and fluid tiki-taka. Finally, in both formations, width is free to come from the fullbacks, who often push high up the pitch and overlap central midfielders.
When looking at the players in Gallardo's current side, there are a few recognizable names. Most notably, the former Argentina national team player Enzo Perez, who had a fantastic career with the likes of Valencia and Benfica. The 35-year-old is integral to the team and makes up a quarter of the impressive midfield unit that led River Plate to second place in 2019-20.
The midfield quartet stays relatively consistent regardless of formation, and together they form the key driving force behind everything River Plate do. In the previous campaign, Perez operated at the base of the diamond, dictating possession and acting as a key force in defensive transitions.
Before his move to Leverkusen, 22-year-old Exequiel Palacios often played at the top of the diamond, but also frequently played alongside Perez in the 4-2-2-2. Meanwhile, Uruguayan midfielder Nicolas de la Cruz played to their left, with Ignacio Fernandez to their right. Fernandez was the key chance creator and dribbler in the team before his move to Brazil, while de la Cruz is probably the best goal-scorer of the four. The functionality of the system and Gallardo's trust in his midfielders means that they operate in very similar roles regardless of the formation they play. And ahead of the midfield four, River Plate have two capable goal-scorers, in Matias Suarez and Rafael Borré. But before examining why Los Millonarios are so effective in attack, we first examine their tiki-taka possession.
River Plate are one of the most efficient possession-based sides in South America. While keeping over 57% of the ball in 2019-20, the second-highest in the league, they remained very purposeful, in completing a whopping 17 shots per game. As a comparison, third place Velez Sarsfield were the only team to keep more of the ball than River Plate (0.1% higher), yet only completed 12 shots per game. While Gallardo's team scored the highest number of goals in the league, 41, Velez scored just 27.
Further, with only a 78% pass completion rate, River Plate were evidently willing to take risks in their passes and ensure their tiki-taka game never became redundant. They often looked to switch play left to right, and their one-touch mentality meant that not every pass was going to come off. But it also meant that teams had a very difficult time stopping them when they were in full flow. The one-touch combinations, often done at speed, always remained one of River's top strengths in their attack, simply moving the ball too quickly for their opposition.
With this one-touch mentality, it's easy to see why Barcelona were so interested at one point in making Gallardo their next manager. He would have been the ideal candidate to return Barca to their tiki-taka roots. The former national team player ultimately decided Argentina was his home and that he would stay at River Plate, but a big European team (or the national team) could still come in for the 45-year-old in the near future. Now let's move on to their defence.
River Plate press from the very front of their attack, looking to force their opposition into wide areas. Each formation that River Plate deploy has a clear emphasis on shutting down central channels through the narrowness of their players. In specific moments, you might even find the fullbacks inverted during defensive phases, condensing the pitch even more.
From the very front of the field, the two strikers will often link up with the attacking midfielder and the near-sided wide player to create a diamond shape. This diamond shape is very difficult to play through, as it means River Plate have a player covering every nearby passing lane.
Gallardo's men are also never afraid to be aggressive and make tackles. Matias Suarez was the only regular starter in 2019-20 to make less than 1 tackle per game. Importantly to the team's high press, both Perez and Palacios proved to be incredibly astute tacklers. This meant that even if the opposition unlocked space through the middle, River Plate were often able to snap the lock back in place.
Their principles of shuffling into wide areas, a diamond shape and overall aggression, remain consistent across all their formations. However, how high and aggressive Gallardo's team press does not necessarily. Against weaker teams, they may sit deeper in a mid-block, setting up in more of a 4-4-2 shape and increasing the intensity of their press when their opposition progress into wide areas toward or past the halfway line. Regardless of the approach, the space in between the lines remains minimal, as River Plate push forward or sit back as a unit.
The notion of defence being the first form of attack is certainly true for Gallardo's team. They had the second-best defence in the league in 2019-20, conceding just 18 goals in 23 matches. Meanwhile, they scored 41 goals, the highest in the division. So with that, let's talk about their attack.
River Plate use a high-paced possession approach in attack. While they look to control the match through quick, short passes, it is always purposeful. A large number of their passes are vertical, and while they commonly work the wide areas they often do so through one-touch give and go's before delivering crosses or cut-backs into the penalty area.
But the quickness of their attacks can have some disadvantages. While it looks pretty and intricate when it comes off, sometimes a player will make a pass without properly reading the situation, and end up losing the ball. River Plate were caught offside more times per game than any other team last season (a staggering 3.3 times per game). One reason for that is the quickness of their attacks and their one-touch mentality that sometimes sees players make decisions too hastily for their teammates.
Similar to Xavi's Al Sadd, as soon as a player makes a pass, they are immediately on the move to receive another. This increases the high-paced energy to their attacks, and also the ability for the team to play quickly. After all, bounce passes become slightly pointless when the players are static. In River Plate, Marcelo Gallardo has a team of energizer bunnies, always on the move whether they are in possession, or out of possession.
Another predecessor to their quick, efficient attacking play is the creation of triangles. Whenever a player has the ball, those around him will rarely position themselves in the same direct vertical channel. They will instead provide angles, on both sides of the player with the ball. Once in this triangular shape, it is also far from static. The players will often interchange within the triangle as they pass and move, creating chaos for the opposition.
Meanwhile, although River Plate prefer shorter, quicker passes, they also sometimes go longer for diagonal switches of play. These are often done from one fullback to the opposite side wide player, opening up the game and catching the opposition off-guard. This variety helps to make River Plate particularly deadly in possession. Condensing the field to try and stop Los Millonarios from their quick interchanges could leave the opposition exposed in the wide areas, while neglecting to condense the field could leave Gallardo's team with all the more room to roam.
Marcelo Gallardo has been linked with some of Europe's biggest clubs and the Argentinean national team, but he remains at River Plate, with the dream of winning the league title for the first time in his career in 2021. His tactics resemble a vintage Barcelona team, but one that has adapted to the times to incorporate more pressing and a greater emphasis on quick transitions. For how much longer Gallardo remains at River Plate remains to be seen, but for now, he is establishing a reputation as one of the greatest managers Argentina's top flight has ever seen.