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Defensa y Justicia 2022: Tactical tweaks to help terminate the team’s winless league run – tactical analysis

Located in the Greater Buenos Aires region with 14 other Argentina Primera División teams, Defensa y Justicia are overshadowed by the massive clubs in the capital. With a reported stadium capacity of around 12,000 and being one of few teams to have played in every division of the Argentine league system, it’s safe to say that Halcón are overachieving since gaining promotion to the top division in 2014. They have not looked back since promotion, winning the 2020 Copa Sudamericana and the 2021 Recopa Sudamericana to achieve the club’s first-ever international titles. These impressive performances have continued with Defensa y Justicia entering the final stages of the Copa de la Liga Profesional before being knocked out by eventual winners Boca Juniors, something that meant many punters went to the pools sign up offer to take full advantage of the impressive odds.

However, the Primera División season has started poorly for Halcón. They remain the only side without a win in the opening six matches, currently sitting 27th ahead of Aldosivi on goal difference. This form has resorted to Sebastián Beccacece, in his third managerial spell at the club, changing his team in a bid to start winning games again. In this tactical analysis in the form of a team scout report, we will discuss Beccacece’s tactics that have tweaked player positions to recover from a bad start.

Build-up variance

With a PPDA against of 9.25 and average possession of 52.4%, Defensa y Justicia are above average at retaining possession in the Argentine top division. However, this is in part because of the opposition’s allowance to Halcón having possession in the build-up phase. Beccacece’s side struggle to progress possession in the build-up phase, constantly changing their set-up to offer different solutions. The image below shows the split centre-backs of Juan Rodríguez and Tomás Cardona between the goalkeeper Ezequiel Unsain. The two full-backs in Nazareno Colombo and Alexis Soto are on the same horizontal line as pivot player Kevin Gutiérrez, creating a 6vs3 overload in the build-up phase.

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Despite the overload, Defensa y Justicia were unable to break through Vélez Sarsfield and played the ball wide forcing Soto to punt the ball long. The struggles can be quantified by the centre-backs passing numbers. Out of the 109 centre-backs to have played 400 minutes in the Argentine top division in 2022, Defensa y Justicia have three players in the top ten for lateral passes per 90. Adonis Frías, who has missed recent fixtures due to injury and transfer rumours to La Liga side Elche, Colombo and Rodríguez average nearly 50% of their total passes per game being lateral.

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The number of lateral passes made by Beccacece’s centre-backs are a result of the poor and inconsistent build-up shapes. The image above against Argentinos Juniors shows a flat back four. Full-backs positioning offers no opportunity to play forwards and by occupying spaces so deep alongside the centre-backs, they have caused no perturbation to the opposition’s shape. With the flat-four, the only shorter passing option to leave the build-up phase is Gutiérrez. The other routes for progression are long, direct balls, generally aimed towards the half-spaces, but that increases the opposition’s turnover probability.

The figure below shows Defensa y Justicia’s continued issues in the build-up phase against Vélez Sarsfield in a 4-2 shape. The double-pivot of Gutiérrez and Nicolás Tripichio occupy the central areas with the centre-backs splitting allowing the full-backs to be wide. Left-sided centre-back Cardona receives from the goalkeeper and carries the ball forwards to engage the opposition press. With no forward pass option accessible, Cardona plays a backwards pass to left-back Soto. This effectively pins Soto against the touchline with pressure from the winger and the striker forcing play backwards. With the double pivot unable to receive possession from the centre-backs and distanced away from potential second-balls if the defenders play long, they have minimal influence on the play.

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Pivot player Kevin Gutiérrez, on loan from Racing Club, is the key progressor in Defensa y Justicia’s play. Out of the 138 central midfielders to play over 400 minutes in the Primera División, Gutiérrez ranks 35th for forward passes per 90 with 14.52. His 6.72 progressive passes p90 ranks 49th and his 6.28 passes into the final third p90 ranks 58th. His ability to feint and drop the shoulder can evade immediate opposition pressure and create separation to display his passing range. Gutiérrez ranks 12th for long passes p90 with 6.59 and 14th for average pass length.

The image below shows the build-up shape used by Beccacece against Gimnasia La Plata to help the familiarity of his players that have been deployed out of position. The diamond shape in the defence allows Gutiérrez to receive off the centre-backs at the tip and decreases Colombo’s influence as a width holder on the right. Colombo has primarily been deployed as a left-sided centre-back in 2022, but in the last three matches, Beccacece has selected him at right-back. Becoming the third centre-back in possession is more natural for Colombo, who ranks 8th out of the 109 centre-backs for forward passes per 90 with 24.14. Colombo’s role thus gave left-back Gabriel Alanís the license to advance.

This suits Alanís, on loan from Godoy Cruz, who has a willingness to enter the final third with his experience as a winger. Here, we can see he is occupying the left half-space. Tripichio is occupying the right half-space, a player who has been selected out of position in the last three games like Colombo. Typically a right-back, Tripichio has been deployed on the right side of the double pivot alongside Gutiérrez in Defensa y Justicia’s 4-2-3-1.

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The image below is an example of Cardona playing a short goal kick to the goalkeeper Unsain. This is a strategy that has previously been used by Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta with Aaron Ramsdale and Antonio Conte with Samir Handanović during the Italian’s time at Inter Milan. The North London managers used this so the goalkeeper could receive centrally, with no option unavailable. However, Beccacece’s use of this is more like Roberto Mancini’s usage of goal kicks with Gianluigi Donnarumma during their Euros-winning campaign. With the centre-back playing the pass, the goalkeeper dribbles out the six-yard-box to attract opposition pressure before playing a pass. Donnarumma would pass to either of the split centre-backs, but in the example below Unsain executed a longer punt towards the attackers in the right half-space. The pass to Unsain is off-centred, forcing play to the right with the positioning of the left-back providing very little too.

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Out of the 39 goalkeepers to play over 400 minutes in the top division in 2022, Unsain ranks 4th for passes per 90. However, the majority of these passes are short from goal kicks. Unsain’s 12.89 lateral passes p90 is the most in the division, and he ranks 37th for average pass length, with only River Plate’s Franco Armani and Argentinos Juniors’ Federico Lanzillotta averaging shorter pass length from two of the division most possession-dominant sides. The Halcón captain ranks 24th for forward passes and 25th for long passes too.

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However, playing direct in the build-up phase does have value for Defensa y Justicia. Since joining from Arsenal de Sarandi, attacker Lucas Albertengo is experiencing his most consistent spell in the team. Starting the last four fixtures, Albertengo offers something different to diminutive strike partner Nicolás Fernández. At 5’6”, Fernández’s aerial duel success rate of 8.57% ranks 87th out of 90 strikers with 400 minutes played. Meanwhile, 6’1” Albertengo averages 10.05 aerial duels per 90 in 2022, winning 40%. Although it must be stated that height does not correlate to aerial duel success, with former Defensa y Justicia defender Lisandro Martínez being linked to the Premier League sparking debates on this topic recently.

With Beccacece’s build-up set-up recently drawing in opposition, the Defensa y Justicia attackers tend to be left man-to-man with the opponent’s defence. Playing longer from build-up gives the attackers the opportunity to utilise any physical or technical qualitative superiority. In the example below, Albertengo is able to bring down a lofted direct pass using his strength over the opposition. This has effectively transitioned the attack from a 4vs4 into a 4vs3 in Halcón’s favour, with Alanís, Fernández and Independiente loanee Gastón Togni.

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Progression struggles

Defensa y Justicia encounter struggles when they attempt to accurately progress possession and penetrate the opposition defence. Generally, the amount of passes they attempt to progress play is about league average, but the accuracy is poor. Beccacece’s team’s accuracy of passes into the final third is the third-lowest in the league. Their progressive passes accuracy of 67.3% is the 4th lowest. Defensa y Justicia’s 49.95 long passes per 90 ranks 5th in the Primera División, but their accuracy of 52.2% is the 4th lowest.

In the final third, Halcón have scored 30 goals from 27.42 xG. Their xG per shot of 0.124 is the 2nd best in the league. However, the frequency of these high-quality chances is hindered by their 11.93 touches in the opposition box per 90 ranking 6th lowest in the league. Defensa y Justicia’s attacking impetus and strength are further diminished with the departure of Uruguayan striker Miguel Merentiel, who has secured a move to Copa Libertadores holders Palmeiras of Brazil. Merentiel scored seven goals from 6.3 xG in 2022 before his move, with his xG being the 9th highest in the league. Merentiel also ranks 33rd out of the 90 strikers to play over 400 minutes for touches in the opposition penalty box per 90 with 3.05. In comparison, Halcón’s number nine Fernández ranks 64th with 2.22 touches in the box.

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Beccacece has looked to increase the striker’s overall attacking influence, despite the varied frequency of touches in the box. Merentiel and Fernández both rank in the top 25% of strikers for xA and key passes per 90. In the example above, Fernández receives a line-breaking pass from Kevin Gutiérrez after dropping away from his marker. With his back to goal, he has inverted left-winger Gastón Togni available to receive and Albertengo and Brahian Cuello ahead of the ball.

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These movements dropping off to receive the ball to feet are not exclusive to Fernández, with Lucas Albertengo another attacker capable of this. Alongside his frame and physical strength to resist opposition contact when receiving back to goal, Albertengo can display the required technical ability to retain possession to help Defensa y Justicia progress and penetrate. Out of 95 strikers to play over 375 minutes in the top division in 2022, Albertengo ranks 15th for pass accuracy with 77.78%. His 79th ranking for average pass length indicates his tendency to play short passes, laying the ball off for teammates and combining quickly.

The figure above shows Albertengo receiving with his back to goal but using his body well to shield the ball and play a nicely weighted pass for Gutiérrez to execute a lofted pass in behind for Cuello, completing the up-back-through combination. The figure below is similar to the example from Fernández, with Albertengo dropping away from his marker to create separation. Albertengo plays the ball wide to Tripichio, who has drifted wide from his central midfield position.

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As mentioned earlier in the analysis, Nicolás Tripichio is primarily a right-back that Beccacece has deployed in the double pivot in the last three matches. As a result, Tripichio tends to move into the wider areas, where he is more familiar with the angles compared to his positions in this new central role. In the example above, he receives in a typical right-back position. In this wider position, he allows the right width-holder Cuello to advance and invert into the forward line.

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Despite his right-back experience, Tripichio is comfortable moving into the wide left channel. The example above displays Tripichio making a sprint across his midfield marker to collect a channel ball clearance from his teammate. The figure below shows Tripichio controlling the lofted pass and facing up the defender. As the defender shifts their weight to challenge Tripichio, he slips a pass in behind. Gastón Togni is able to use his dynamic superiority to receive with an underlapping run.

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Underlaps can be used to create numerical advantage and disturb the opposition’s defensive line to penetrate in behind. In the example below, Gabriel Alanís, who was deployed as left-back in this match against Gimnasia La Plata, regained possession before driving forwards into the opposition half. After playing a pass into the left-winger Togni, Alanís continued his powerful run into the final third with an underlap. This created an overload for Defensa y Justicia in the final third.

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Underlapping runs are complex, with the strategy being completed inside the team’s typical shapes rather than overlapping runs around the outside. The threatening position the underlap occupies in the half-space is urgent for the opposition and can draw an opponent out of possession, especially from a central area.

Against Gimnasia La Plata, Defensa y Justicia facilitated these underlapping runs by positioning a full-back in the half-space ahead of the diamond shape mentioned in the build-up phase earlier in the analysis. With right-back Colombo becoming a third centre-back, Alanís was able to occupy the left-half space with Togni the width holder on the left. This positioning allows Alanís to make penetrative runs beyond the defence.

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With the example above from the left-back in the left half-space, the example below shows Colombo in the right half-space. Gutiérrez has split the centre-backs as the pivot player and executed an accurate lofted pass to the right width-holder Cuello. As Gutiérrez has dropped into the defence, Tripichio has moved to occupy the pivot space. Compared to Alanís, Colombo occupying this space is not as effective. Alongside his regular left-sided centre-back position being far away from the right half-space, he has technical and physical limitations that hinder his influence and effectiveness in the final third and the half-spaces.

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Out of possession

In the Argentine top division in 2022, Defensa y Justicia have conceded 30 goals from 27.42 xG. With Ezequiel Unsain between the sticks, he ranks 50th out of 53 goalkeepers for prevented goals with -5.1. Only Aldosivi goalkeeper José Devecchi has faced more shots than Unsain’s 89, with his save rate of 69.66% below league average. However, Defensa y Justicia’s xG per opposition shot of 0.094 is the 4th best in the league, indicating that they tend to concede lower-quality shots from distance away from goal. Although their average of 11 shots against per game is below average for the Primera División.

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With Halcón’s 9.27 PPDA the 7th lowest and challenge intensity of 6.6 the 3rd lowest in the División, they are not one of the league’s high-pressing sides. The figure above displays the set-up by Beccacece from Veléz Sarsfield goal kicks. Striker Agustín Fofana is positioned centrally, evenly between the centre-backs so he can go and press after the short goal kick pass has been made. Behind Fofana, Lucas Albertengo is responsible for preventing the opponent in the pivot space from receiving possession. Left-winger Francisco Pizzini stays between the Veléz Sarsfield right-back and central midfielder, with Kevin Gutiérrez detaching from the left side of the double pivot to support Pizzini from behind.

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The image shows Albertengo joining Fofana to create a front two. The front two involving Albertengo is Defensa y Justicia’s regular out-of-possession shape, although they tend to line up in a 4-4-2. This is unlike the image above which shows Gutiérrez again stepping out of the double pivot, positioned alongside wingers Pizzini and Cuello. The front two have the Veléz Sarsfield double pivot in their cover shadow, preventing progression, with Pizzini capable of closing down the full-back. The midfield three behind the front two can shift across as the ball is played square.

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Despite his attacking positioning, Albertengo has good defensive awareness to prioritise covering the spaces that can cause Halcón the most damage. The image above displays this perfectly. As Gutiérrez decides to aimlessly press out of shape and allow the pass inside to the Argentinos Juniors pivot player, Albertengo drops in. By filling in the midfield line, Albertengo has retained the Defensa y Justicia defensive structure of two banks of four. The images above and below can show the space Beccacece’s side can allow between the lines.

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Here, Halcón are set up in a 4-1-4-1 with Albertengo alongside Tripichio and Gutiérrez just behind. However, as we can see from the following image below, Gutiérrez has allowed too large a space for the Argentinos Juniors player to chest down the clipped pass between the lines and begin to drive at the defence.

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Alongside the progression he can provide in possession, Gutiérrez can also perform valuable defensive roles as the pivot player despite some issues we have highlighted. Contesting in just 0.97 aerial duels per 90, Gutiérrez ranks the lowest at Defensa y Justicia in this department. However, to overcome this and continue to influence play, Gutiérrez drops into the defensive line to allow the centre-backs to duel. The image below is an example of Gutiérrez providing cover and balance behind Rodríguez who has stepped out of the defence to win the aerial duel. Rodríguez’s aerial duel success rate is an impressive 70.42% from 6.23 aerial duels per 90, so this strategy is especially effective with him. The other centre-back options of Cardona, Colombo and Frías all have an aerial duel success rate of over 57%.

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Conclusion

Winless after the opening six fixtures in the Primera División, Defensa y Justicia will look to turn their league form around. After good performances at the start of the year in the Copa de la Liga Profesional, Halcón have continued with progressing in the Copa Argentina but their league performances have not matched their cup performances. There is no better time for Defensa y Justicia to get their first win than Monday’s home fixture against Aldosivi.

With some more winnable fixtures in July and August, Sebastián Beccacece could change and build on his work in his third spell at the club. His adaptation of the role required from Nicolás Tripichio and Nazareno Colombo in particular can continue to offer different options in the future, alongside the recent additions of Nicolas Zalazar and another Racing Club loanee in Fabricio Domínguez. In this analysis, we have discussed Beccacece’s tactics that have tweaked player positions in an attempt to recover a winless league start.