Meet Oscar Ruíz. He’s a 21-year-old Colombian player that we got for less than 2 M from Atlético Nacional. Truth be told, he was one of those bargains that I just couldn’t let slip past me. As it is, we have too many Colombian players in the reserve squad of River Plate or loaned away, due to the foreigner player restrictions of the game.
Oscar was a prospect, a hot one. But I had other great and experienced players in his same positions in the first team, waiting for a chance in the bench, fellow promises in the reserve squad and the magnificent Tovar, out on his 3rd loan at Flamengo. Yet Oscar found a crack, took it and left something bigger than his own name.
Yes, he’s got a first touch rating of 17, a 19 in determination, 16 in vision, work rate and technique and his passing skills are just below 15, but if you look closely, this Midfielder can also dabble as a central defender. So I thought about playing him for his midfielder stats in a Ball Playing Defender role and gaining an extra ballplayer in my 5-2-3. That didn’t cut it.
Before I get into the tactic itself, and how Oscar became pivotal to it, let me give you some context. The year is 2023, it’s my 5th season at River Plate, having arrived from Stoke City in the 2018/19 season. We’ve won it all. Five Argentinean leagues and 5 Copa Libertadores in a row, a couple of Supercups each year and reigning in the Club World Cup (against City, United, Chelsea and Bayern). But I don’t like the way we play. I’m Argentinean and a River Plate fan. That means that the 4-3-1-2 is part of my DNA. Thanks to Oscar, and my eagerness to give him a go, I found the missing link.
Yup, that’s two at the back. The wingbacks are midfielders but rather than exploiting the flanks they play the inner channels. This tactic isn’t about crossing. It’s about forming a wall in the middle of the opposition’s pitch, getting the ball there, passing and moving.
And Oscar is the glue. His role as a Half Back is what I call a Midfield Libero. His mission is to be the first passing option, get the ball to the BBM’s or the WB and monitoring the line. If we get caught on the counter, he’ll press on the ball, giving time for the wingbacks to get back. When we find and attacking dead end the ball goes back to him, so he can take some time, assess the play and move it forward. When we win possession up high, the ball is recycled through him. His instruction is to play it safe. He forms a back three, getting in the middle of the central defenders and stretching them, as the goalkeeper is instructed to give the ball to him. This is something I’ve taken from real life River Plate. Through a brief period, Gallardo made Ponzio do this, to ensure the first pass is never lost.
That’s why I dubbed this “The Kobe”. I’m a big Lakers fan. Kobe’s style was always linked to Michael Jordan, but his defensive understanding of the game was completely different. Oscar, the Midfield Libero, is my Kobe. He moves the ball around to the players in the key, checks our defensive flaws and keeps a clear head.
This is the first time in the game where the standard mentality is to attack. The team is, of course, very fluid. We play at a normal pace, through the middle and in a very narrow shape. If the opposition plays wide, it has proven ineffective against us. The wider they are, the more space we find in the middle. Of course, our players are ideal for this style as we thrive on ball control, technique and passing. We play it short, retain possession and work it inside the box.
Defensive wise, it’s all about the wall. We form a barrier up high, and our positional covering makes us very effective at picking up long passes. Once we get it back, we go straight for the box. Sure, you might think that just lobbing balls over our midfield to the wings would get us into trouble, but it rarely does. There are seven players blocking the way and the remaining three giving coverage.
The tactic in motion
I’ve got to see a lot of Valverde’s Barcelona this season, from the press box, which is the best way to see the tactical shape of a team. The Spanish press has judged the Basque coach heavily for his 4-4-2, yet that formation is a lie. When you see it in motion, Busquets forms a back three alongside Piqué and Umititi. This gives way for Alba and Sergi Roberto to go forward, as Rakitic and Iniesta hold the middle. In all fairness, FCB plays a fluid structure that goes from 4-4-2 to 3-4-2 and 4-1-4-1, all in the space of the same match.
That’s how the KOBE works. Here we have a great example of the shape and the Midfield Libero’s work from our match against Lanús.
With his goal kick, Guruceaga opts to pass it towards our central defender on the right but you can see Mattis, who has excelled at the Kobe role, closest to him and forming the back 3. When we get the ball closer to the final third, Mattis breaks from the defensive line and moves up as a pivot in the midfield. We lose possession and we’re left open for the counter but Mattis sprints towards the ball. This makes the carrier rush his decision while at the same moment giving our wingbacks the time to make the defensive run. Remedi ends up winning the ball, we lose it again but this time we get it back in an excellent attacking position. A few quick passes and Lautaro Martínez does what he does best.
This next play starts from the goalkeeper. We move the ball up and you can see that it’s all about passing and moving, passing and moving. Ocampos hits a dead end in which we already have seven players commited to the attack and just outside the box. So he finds Mattis free at the back who holds up the ball for a second, picks his pass and from there on it’s a one touch attacking motion that involves both of our shadow strikers, the enganche, and one of our BBM’s. Ocampos gets denied but the remaining BBM moved up to tap in the rebound. If you take a snapshot of it we have 6 players inside the box and the 7th is getting there as the ball goes in.
This game against Gimnasia was a masterclass. We won 8-1 away to clinch a fifth Argentinean league in a row. This goal is the tactic at it’s best. Our left wingback gets the ball from the attacker and Mattis, our Kobe of the match, is right next to him to offer a passing option and a follow up on it. As Mattis is so far back, the BBM’s are in charge of getting the ball forward. From there on it’s an 11 pass movement and the 12th touch finds the back of the net.
It has gone very well, in this 18 game run we’ve won 15, drawn 2 and lost 1, sadly against Boca’s 4-2-4. We’ve scored 65 goals (3.61 avg) and conceded 13 times (8 clean sheets). It’s evident that the premise is to score more goals than the rival, that’s how you win matches. It’s secured the league title for us, in a fantastic 8-1 display at Gimnasia de La Plata, and the first spot in the group stage of a new Copa Libertadores.
Now, I had my doubts about this tactic. Again, it’s my 5th season with River. We’ve been bossing South America, have a new stadium, the bank is full, and we have players like Lautaro Martínez (85 goals in 3 seasons), Lucas Ocampos and Manu Lanzini. Can this work elsewhere?
Eat your heart out, Pep
I strongly believe that a tactic isn’t that good if it only works in a certain set of conditions. That’s why I want it to try it out in one of the worst scenarios possibles: the Spanish lower leagues. I’ve been living in Barcelona for almost a year now, and my local team is the lovely UE Sant Andreu. A nice little stadium, nice Catalan shirt, great crowd. No money, whatsoever, no players in the under 19’s, no wage budget to even renew the ones I already have. No coaching staff. Not a thing.
The only thing I tinkered with is the back line. Without changing the roles or even the instructions, I moved the wingbacks to form a back 4. Still, with the role of my Midfield Libero and the instructions for the wingbacks the shape remains the same.
My Kobe at Sant Andreu is Ton Alcover. He’s not even close to Oscar, but he’s got a very good first touch and decent decision making and passing attributes. He’ll have to do.
Poor man’s Busquets
I focused the overall training for the team on ball control and the match preparation on attacking movements. The results speak for themselves. Ten matches in, we’re second in the league (media prediction was 7th), one point shy from the leader. We’ve won 6, draw 4 and are the only team left to meet with defeat. 15 goals scored and seven against, with five clean sheets.
But the biggest win is how we play. You do not expect a possession football game in Spain’s 4th division. We’re averaging over 500 completed passes a game, with an 80% passing ratio. And we are playing this kind of football.
I’m very confident in both variations of the KOBE. As a final note, I want to thank Guido. This wouldn’t have been possible without him, and I’m not talking about this article. His Strikerless philosophy is one I’ve been following since I’ve first given a read to his 4 horsemen piece. I’ve learned a lot, and that’s what tactical football is all about.