Athletico Paranaense vs Palmeiras: The battle of the low blocks – tactical preview
The first semi-final of the Copa Libertadores 2022 will be a Brazilian clash between the current champions, Palmeiras, and Athletico Paranaense. Led by Portuguese manager Abel Ferreira, Palmeiras are in pursuit of a historic third consecutive title. This year, the side from São Paulo had the best group stage campaign in the competition’s history, winning all of their matches and scoring a total of 25 goals while only conceding three.
On the other hand, Athletico Paranaense are after their first-ever Libertadores title. The Curitiba side are led by former Chelsea manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, or Felipão, and have the former Man City midfielder and Premier League champion Fernandinho. With a mix of experience and youthful talent, the Furacão will look to gain the edge over the current champions in what will certainly be a fascinating tactical battle between two brilliant managers.
In this tactical analysis preview, we will examine the tactics of both Athletico Paranaense and Palmeiras in order to understand how the two teams match up. With that in mind, we will also identify key tactical points that will prove decisive over the two legs.
Last month in São Paulo, Athletico surprisingly beat Palmeiras 2-0 in a Série A fixture. Not only were Palmeiras favourites coming into the match, but they also fielded a full-strength eleven while Athletico played their reserves. Felipão’s astute strategy proved highly effective and served to highlight how significant of a role both managers will play in this semi-final. While both sides have very talented individuals, collective strategies will be the defining factor. However, before understanding how the two systems clash, this analysis will briefly examine each team’s identity.
Abel Ferreira took over Palmeiras in late 2020, and while their tactics have constantly evolved since, they are still centred around the idea of adaptability. Abel’s football perspective is a rather democratic one, viewing each phase of the game with equal importance. Additionally, he is constantly studying and adapting to the opponent and their structure, especially defensively.
As a result, Palmeiras have become a well-rounded and incredibly dynamic side. Verdão are constantly reacting and adapting to the natural flow of football matches. They are able to control possession and press high but also sit in low blocks and play in transition when required. Whatever they do, they do it well.
Likewise, the experienced Felipão has adopted a similar strategy at Athletico. Most impressively, though, is their ability to defend in low blocks. Especially against stronger opponents, Furacão will deploy an incredibly tight defensive system with lethal attacking transitions. Described as “Copeiro” in Brazil, the 73-year-old manager is able to achieve difficult results with effective strategies, especially in knockout tournaments.
Despite Athletico’s 2-0 victory, Palmeiras had an xG of 3.79 compared to Furacão’s 1.91. Verdão had 71.37% of possession with an incredible 35 shots. On the other hand, Felipão’s side only created 12 shots from 28.63% possession. Athletico were certainly the more effective side, with 0.16 xG per shot. Palmeiras were not as successful at 0.11 xG per shot, highlighting their struggle to create high-quality opportunities.
While Felipão’s low block will be examined in-depth in the next section, it is important to understand how they were structured in this match. The Curitiba side deployed a 4-2-3-1 which could be turned into a 4-4-1-1 depending on the wingers.
However, Felipão has been quite flexible with his formations. In 2022, he used a total of nine different formations. While some are variations of others, it serves to show how adaptable and dynamic the 73-year-old is. Athletico may start off with a similar structure against Palmeiras, as it proved successful, but they may certainly change it depending on how the match goes.
Contrastingly, Palmeiras are very consistent in their structure. Initially, they will line up in a 4-2-3-1 which turns into variations of a 3-4-3 in possession. The most common variation is either fullback tucking in as the third centre-back while the other becomes a wing-back. Out of possession, Abel is very flexible, both in their principles and structure.
In their defeat to Athletico, Abel deployed Dudu on the left wing and Gustavo Scarpa on the right. This caught many by surprise as they normally play the opposite.
As Dudu is a natural winger, Joaquín Piquerez, the left-back, was in charge of tucking in to become the third centre-back. Consequently, Mayke, the right-back, pushed up to become the wide player on the right.
With Mayke pushing high on the right, Scarpa was instructed to drift inside as a second attacking midfielder. As Scarpa is very versatile, Abel is allowed to play around with the structure according to the opposition’s weak areas. This movement consequently created a box shape in the middle.
This box shape allowed Palmeiras to create numerical superiority out wide and attack through either wing. The instance below illustrates this further. As the wide centre-back drives the ball forward, the centre-forward and both right-sided midfielders provide support. This, in addition to the wing-back, creates a favourable 5v3 in that area.
While Palmeiras dominated possession, Athletico were the more effective team. Felipão’s side was happy to sit deep, limit the spaces, soak up the pressure, and launch forward in lethal counterattacks. They were successful in their strategy as Abel’s side failed to create high-quality chances.
It is difficult to believe the two legs will be an exact replica of this scenario. Both teams are quite reactive to the situation at hand, and factors like the result, home advantage, and more will dictate their behaviour. Nonetheless, there will be a few tactical points that will prove decisive for both sides.
Both sides are very comfortable sitting deep for long periods of time, and consequently, the effectiveness of low blocks will prove decisive in this semi-final. Their general defensive systems are quite different though, so it is important to understand how each one functions.
As mentioned, Palmeiras will adapt to the opponents and their attacking structure. At times, the Portuguese manager will maintain their 4-2-3-1 shape without the ball. Rony, the centre-forward, will usually be in charge of the two centre-backs, allowing them to maintain a plus-one superiority in the backline.
It is key for them to maintain superiority in the backline. Consequently, depending on the opposition, they will slightly tweak their shape to maintain this plus-one superiority.
Overall, Verdão’s defensive structure is constantly changing, even within the same match. Considering the opposition’s strengths and general structure, they will adapt in order to maintain a balanced and compact defensive block. When sitting in a low block, they are able to keep the opposition from entering the box and creating high-quality chances. In the second leg of the quarter-final, for instance, Atlético Mineiro’s average shot distance was 25.08 metres, creating only 0.43 xG. Not to mention, Palmeiras were down to 10 men for most of the match.
Similarly, Athletico’s low block is also very difficult to break down. Initially, they will sit in two compact lines of four. This may change into a line of five instead in the midfield, but again, it will depend on the opposition.
Palmeiras, however, are most effective when attacking through the wings. Interestingly, the focus will be on nullifying these areas while maintaining one or two counterattacking outlets. In order to do so, the wingers are tasked with tracking deep and providing defensive support.
With the nearest midfielder providing support, they will always look to maintain superiority in these areas. In the instance below, they are able to have a 3v2 with the extra player providing cover.
They may also send an additional midfielder to maintain this superiority. In the instance below, two midfielders provide support to create a 4v3 superiority and keep the opposition from progressing.
Around the box, they tend to stay extremely compact. In their recent encounter, it was notable how many players they were able to get in front of shots. Rarely did Abel’s side create a clear shooting opportunity.
Essentially, both teams have extremely effective and dynamic low blocks. The first key to a spot in the final will lie in ensuring the success of these blocks and being able to break them down on the other end.
The other key is a consequence of these low blocks. As each team advances and seeks to break down these organisations, they will naturally leave significant space behind. Exploiting these spaces with fast and lethal transitions will then be very important. Luckily, both teams are extremely successful in this department.
Coordination and numbers are important in a counterattack, and this is something Athletico do very well. In these chaotic transitions, there is hardly a predetermined organisation. On the other hand, with practice and familiarity, players will advance and interact with each other to create space and passing lanes within this chaos.
In the instance below, one of the attacking players performs an overlap in a 2v1 situation. This forces the opposition to make a choice, and Athletico is able to exploit it accordingly. On the other side, two players are making runs into the box to receive the ball.
In the final third, Palmeiras perform very similar movements, as seen below. Arriving with options and speed, as both teams do, is essential in creating high-quality opportunities in transition. Taking advantage of these situations, which will certainly present themselves, may be decisive in securing a spot in the final.
Another principle used by Palmeiras in transition is switching the focus of attack. By doing this, they make it extremely difficult for the opposition to recompose effectively. Additionally, when performed quickly, these switches provide them with a lot of space to attack.
Generally, quick combinations are frequently used to launch these counterattack scenarios. As most opponents will immediately counterpress, these combinations allow them to quickly get out and initiate dangerous transitions.
The first Libertadores semi-final will be a tight tactical battle between two extremely well-rounded sides. As both teams are flexible in their behaviour, the tactical scenario will constantly change depending on the result, home advantage, and more.
Nonetheless, there are two tactical points which will prove decisive in securing a spot in the final. First, the effectiveness of each team’s low block, or the ability to break them down, may provide the keys to victory. Additionally, capitalising on the attacking transition from these low blocks will also be critical. There is a lot at stake, and the victory will be found in the details.