At the end of February of this year, the Brazilian giants Santos appointed one of the most fascinating coaches in not only South American but world football, Ariel Holan. To date, the 60-year-old Argentine coach has only coached in South America and given his age you may be surprised that you have never heard of him but there is a good reason for this. Holan, came to football late having initially forged a successful coaching career in hockey. It was not until 2002 that Holan moved into football having been approached by Jorge Burruchaga, the World Cup-winning striker, to join his coaching staff at the newly promoted Arsenal de Sarandi. From that point on Holan has never looked back.
He has a reputation as a coach who favours the use of technology and data in his coaching and he was an early adopter of the use of drones and GPS equipment in training. This open-minded and adaptive approach should come as no surprise given his unconventional route to the professional game.
After several years as an assistant coach, Holan was given the opportunity to take charge of Defensa y Justicia in his own right in 2015 and he immediately impressed as he led the unfashionable club to continental qualification. His stay at the club, however, was short-lived as he left after 18 months to take charge of a much bigger club in Independiente. Here, he went one better and actually won the Copa Sudamericana (South America’s version of the Champions League). Next, we saw Holan move to Chilean football where he took charge of Universidad Catolica where he led them to a domestic title. In February 2021, however, Holan surprised the club by triggering a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave at the end of the Chilean season. This meant that he was free to sign a contract with Santos.
The arrival in Brazil of Holan coincided with new dawn or coaching talent with the likes of Hernan Crespo at Sao Paulo and Miguel Angel Ramirez at Internacional. The Brazilian championship is developing into an interesting and varied competition from a tactical point of view.
The purpose of this article is to provide an early look at the tactical system and concepts that Ariel Holan is using with Santos.
So far we have seen Holan be flexible from a structural point of view, at least to a point, with the main point of difference being the structure of the midfield. The first line is constant with Holan preferring a back four but then in some matches that is followed by two players in a double pivot and in some by one player in a single pivot. When the double pivot is used a single player sits in the ‘10’ role behind the main striker. With the single-pivot, there are two more advanced players in the midfield who act as the ‘8’s in the system.
Beyond the basic structure, however, there are some key principles in play that dictate the way that Santos play in possession of the ball. These are linked to support and the utilisation of space. The wide forwards are encouraged to attack inside and occupy the half-space or even the central areas and this, in turn, creates space for the fullbacks to move to a high line in the attacking phase.
In deeper areas, while creating and building the play Santos will look to play switches of play in order to access underloaded areas of the pitch and to enable them to outplay the opposition defensive block.
In the first line, Santos builds from the back with clear principles that see them shift the ball until they find an open vertical passing lane that allows them to play through the opposition press and into the next third of the pitch.
Under Holan, in the build-up phase, Santos are brave and proactive. The goalkeeper is willing to act as another ball player in possession and this allows Santos to create numerical superiority over the opposition press and to outplay their opponents in this key area of the pitch.
We see an example of this here with the goalkeeper in possession of the ball in the Copa Libertadores (South America’s Champions League) match against San Lorenzo. There is a single player looking to engage and put pressure on the ball and the goalkeeper has two players offering angles to receive to the side. He eventually, however, uses the vertical option to play to the furthest line in the structure shown. In a traditional ‘rondo’ on the training pitch, this would be termed a third-line pass as the ball is played through the playing area to the furthest line.
Here, we see an example of the structure in the build-up phase as Santos are patient in possession before accessing a vertical pass that progresses the ball and outplays the first line of pressure from the opposition.
The ball is circulated back, first to the right-sided central defender and then across to the left-sided central defender before a midfielder drops back to offer an option. The key for Santos comes with the pace of the passing as the tempo has to be quick enough to not allow the opposition line of pressure to just shift across. Here, the tempo is perfect and the left-sided central defender has the ability to receive and then outplay the pressing player.
Santos are brave in possession and stick to their principles regardless of the level of pressure being applied by the opposition. Here we see an example of the principle of vertical passes to create advanced platforms from which they can play.
It is interesting to note that we again see the traditional rondo shape with the goalkeeper at the base and the two central defenders to the side. This time, however, the ball is played out to the right-sided central defender and he then finds a vertical pass that reaches one of the two ‘8’s who is dropping back in towards the ball.
Santos are comfortable and confident in possession of the ball and will play in tight areas on one side of the pitch. This is a specific principle that is designed to pull the opposition in towards the ball to create space on the opposite side of the pitch.
This concept is known as overload and isolate. The key is to know when to play the pass out of the pressure to best take advantage of space.
Here, we see an example as Santos are in possession of the ball as the opposition move across to cover and engage the ball. The cross-field pass finds the free man on the opposite side of the pitch and allows Santos to progress their attack cleanly down the near side.
The final principle that we will look at in-depth is that of support in the wide areas through overlaps from the fullback. Under Holan, the fullbacks have to be athletic and capable of covering ground in both the attacking phase and the defensive phase.
Here, we see a situation where the wide forward has received possession of the ball. As he attacks inside and occupies the half-space the fullback on that side of the pitch makes a quick movement on the outside. The pass can then be played quickly in order to access this space.
In the defensive phase, Holan likes his side to be organised and difficult to break down. While they will press in transition this tends to be to delay the ball progression from the opposition and to allow his team to become organised behind the ball. There are pressing triggers in place around the start of the opposition half but largely Santos will look to get organised and then win the ball proactively as the opposition looks to play through them.
Out of possession, Santos will adopt a defensive shape with two banks of four and then two forward players who look to split with one behind and one high. This shape is designed to create maximum coverage in terms of width and depth.
As the opposition move to attack the outsides Santos will slide their defensive shape across and drop one of the more advanced players back as needed.
In moments of transition, before the defence can get properly set and recover their shape, as above, the priority is for the back four to be organised and set in order to protect against quick attackers. One of the midfielders will tend to drop and recover quickly to protect the centre of the defensive structure.
When the defensive structure is set and as the opposition looks to play through in central areas we start to see how aggressive the central defenders are allowed to be for Santos.
They will move quickly to engage the player looking to receive the ball in order to prevent the player from taking possession of the ball.
In this example the opposition looks for a vertical pass and the right-sided central defender steps out to win the ball back aggressively. The two central midfielders are then able to take possession and start to build for their team.
When defending in transition Santos will defend and press aggressively but typically only when a pressing trap is triggered. We see an example of this here as the opposition are attacking down the near side of the field. As the man in possession takes a heavy touch and tries to force a pass back towards his own goal we see four Santos players converge on the ball to engage the ball carrier or cut off passing options.
It is still very early in the reign of Ariel Holan at Santos but the signs are positive. The coach has implemented his principles and game model quickly and despite results not being completely positive at this stage there are signs that the squad are starting to understand what is being asked of them.