5 South American Football Coaches to Keep an Eye On

By Matías Navarro García

05-April-2021 on Analysis

19 minute read

This fantastic article by Mati Navarro, analyst and owner of La Pizarra de Bielsa, is a must read for any football fan. 


Having previously talked us through the tactics of Marcelo Bielsa, here Mati takes a look at five coaches from South America who are making waves and attracting attention from around the world with their varied and daring offensive games.


Read on for Mati’s analysis of each coach’s play style and tactical prowess, some of which we expect to see in Elite clubs around the world very soon.


*Note: This article was originally written in Spanish and has been translated into English. As such, some of the pictures are captioned in Spanish. Please check below each pic for a translation of each.

Alexander Medina | Talleres de Córdoba (Argentina)


After retiring from a career as a pro-footballer in 2015, during which time he played for Uruguayan club Centro Atlético Fénix, Alexander Medina jumped straight into a career in football management. Starting his journey as the coach for the U19 Uruguayan national team, Medina subsequently went on to coach the national first team before making the leap to club coaching and joining Tallers de Córdoba as a manager in July 2019.

Córdoba are one of the most interesting clubs in Argentina, especially in terms of development and the uncovering of new, young talent. Due to his previous work with youth teams, Medina was the perfect choice to enter this fertile land and bring the club to fruition.

Medina’s Tactics


With an offensive style in which 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 are his preferred formations, Medina has caused a stir in Argentine football, especially after bringing his team to victory in 2 out of the 4 matches played against Argentinian giants, Boca Juniors. Add to this a one for one victory against the second Argentinian pillar, River Plate, and you’ve got a coach who is already revered.


At the time of writing, Córdoba have just beaten Boca Juniors in the sixth round of the Argentine Super League Cup. Playing away from home, they won the game 2-1 but, even more remarkably, only allowed Juniors one shot on goal during the entire 90 minutes (which they converted), a feat unrivalled since 2015.


Despite countless squad changes for each tournament, Medina manages to preserve ambition and dynamics in Córdoba’s game, which is based on  high pressure to gain the upper hand whilst taking big risks in the build up, all with a constant eye on the opponent’s goal.


Let’s take a look at some of the action from the Boca Juniors game:


alexander medina talleres


Middle block with defense pushing into the centre of the field.

High 1v1 with central defender marking in the middle of the field.


Córdoba opened the scoring thanks to that high pressure, pushing players forward to meet the defensive line 1-on-1 and positioning designed to provoke errors.


pressure build up talleres


1v1 in build up / Positioning in the middle of the winger and inside man.


The play that led to Auzqui’s goal came from positioning designed to split and put pressure on the defense from various angles.


occupying space alexander medina talleres


1v1 in attack to concentrate on the inside and free up space on the wing.


With 2 minutes left to play and the score at 1-1, despite having dominated the entire match, Córdoba found themselves pushed back in the low block. Defense was the last thing on their minds, however, and they ended up with four players in the opposition area, provoking a double save from Juniors’ keeper, Andrada and a corner to Córdoba.


attack talleres alexander medinas


Starting positions in the low block.

A forward breaks free in the low block and Talleres attack with a 5v3 advantage.


Without a second thought, Medina pushed his players up for the corner, flooding the area with 8 men, overwhelming the defence and scoring to claim a historic victory, a typical reflection of the courage that Medina has brought to the team since arriving in Argentina.


offensive players alexander medinas talleres


Hernán Crespo | Sao Paulo (Brazil)


Another former player turned manager, Crespo’s name will be familiar to anyone au fait with the European game, having played for Lazio, Chelsea and both flavours of Milan.


His coaching career has mainly been confined to South America, starting in his native Argentina and moving onto Brazil and his current club, Sao Paulo.


In 2020, Crespo caught the eye of the entire continent after leading his then club, Defensa y Justicia, to victory in the South American Cup. Despite having an abysmal record at previous club, Banfield, Crespo has been lauded for his no-holds-barred football, Crespo is now considered to be one of South America’s great coaches.


To demonstrate his playstyle and tactics, we’ll take a closer look at some of the games which brought Defensa y Justicia the trophy in the 2020 South American Cup.


Hernán Crespo's style of play

His favoured 3-2-4-1 creates a game based around possession and one obsession...the opponent’s goal. And yes, we mean obsession. Crespo found his team eliminated from the Copa Libertadores due to pushing for victory against Santos. They only needed a tie.


On the road to winning the South American Cup, Defensa y Justicia converted three goals against Brazil’s Bahia, 4 goals against Chile’s Coquimbo Unido and, in the final, another three versus fellow Argentines, Lanús.


Hernan Crespo defensa y justicia


3-4-1-2 in the build up.

High pressure and anticipating the central defender winning the ball.

Recovery and quick instantaneous attack by the forwards.


One of the key aspects of Crespo’s tactics are the central defenders who are able to drive the game forward during the build up, skipping over the midfield with deep passes to the front line who uncheck from their markers.


hernan crespo defensa y justicia


Defenders move forward to mark their opponents and free up their team mates.

Defender attacks the space.


Crespo’s possession game favours width with the team positioning themselves to play the wings, pulling their opponents towards them before switching sides or playing to the centre forwards. This often fools the opposition into thinking that they are trying to attack the spaces out wide, making them believe that the forwards are not participating in the attack.


possession in attack hernan crespo


Winger open to divide the defense and attack from wide.


The main idea here is to play the short passing game but with the ability to identify gaps in an opponent’s defense and lay the long ball through to the forward lines at a moment's notice. This ability to switch things up is very effective.


direct style hernan crespo


Relationship between defender, winger and midfielder.

Long ball into space after attracting opponent's pressure.


Crespo faced his first big test as a manager in Brazil and passed with resounding success when his team beat Santos (runners-up in the previous year’s competition) 4-0.


Brazil now serves up another challenge for Crespo as he seeks to lift up a team who should have been Brazilian champions in the 2020 season but let it slip through their fingers at the last moment.


Renato Paiva | Independiente del Valle (Ecuador)


Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle have had great results of late (winning the 2019 South American Cup) thanks to the project started by Miguel Ángel Ramírez and their success has been a boon to South American football.

As the Spaniard departs the club for Brazil’s Porto Alegre, Portugal’s Renato Paiva enters to try and continue the good work of Ramírez. This is Paiva’s first taste of top-flight football having previously been in charge of Benfica’s B team.

Continuing Ramírez’s work in the style of Paiva


Paiva garnered a lot of attention for his tactical prowess before departing for Ecuador. So much so, that Klopp organised a preparatory friendly against his team before the 2019 Champions League Final against Tottenham. This was due to the similarities between Paiva and Pochettino’s tactics.

His arrival in Ecuador has already proved that he has a degree of tactical variation, deploying a positional game that adapts well to an opponent’s formations and continues to develop as the games go by. So far, he has had some great results, thrashing Unión Española in the Copa Libertadores, for example.


formation paiva independiente valle


3-2-5 with 5v5 in attack.


Two key positions in Praiva’s game are the central midfielders and the wingers, the first pulling markers back before pushing the ball forward to the front line, the second pulling the defenders out wide, stretching the defense before attacking the space that they themselves have created.


role of midfielders paiva


Midfielder breaks free of marker to be free man up front.

Wingers go wide to open up the defense and attack on the diagonal.


playstyle paiva


Player awareness is the most important concept here and it’s up to the coach to train players to be intelligent and know how to read the game, identifying the spaces to attack in each situation.


playstyle renato paiva


Midfielders push and start to occupy distinct areas in attack.

Check opposition midfielder. If he jumps he leaves a free man.


offensive style independiente de valle


Ariel Holan | Santos (Brazil)


Originally coming from a hockey background, Holan worked his way around some of Argentina’s big clubs such as River Plate, Independiente, Banfield and Argentinos Juniors as a coaching assistant before taking up the main jobs at Defensa y Justicia, Independiente (champions of the South American Cup in 2017) and Universidad Católica (Chilean league champions in 2020).


Holan’s game is mainly based on fast transitions, seeking to attack wide and take advantage of the speed of the game to find space easily.


ariel holan santos


Quick build up with numbers.


holan santos attack


holan santos philosophy


During positional attacks, they prioritise triangulations with the wingers to generate 3v2 or 4v3 advantages and enter the area with forwards who have, as a minimum, offensive equality.


ariel holan santos play style


3v2 on the wings.

Winger moves forward to even up numbers leaving 2v2 in area.


Finally, the commitment of the midfielders to attack is noteworthy. They don’t disengage after playing the ball through but push on and end up in a centre forward position, creating these numerical superiorities in the box.


ariel holan analysis


holan santos attack


Although his first few games at Santos have been less than Stellar (0-4 loss to Sao Paulo and just scraping past Venezuela’s Deportiva Lara in the Copa Libertadores), it’s important to realise that Holan is making huge changes at Santos which may take time to bear fruit.

Fernando Gago | Aldosivi (Argentina)


Without a doubt, Gago is one of the most interesting prospects in Argentinian football. He took over a team which had only won three games out of their last 14 and turned them into a team with a clear and defined identity.


In terms of league statistics, Aldosivi had the 2nd fewest shots on goal per match, the 4th lowest goals, 4th highest goals against and an average of less than 50% possession per game.


With Gago at the helm, they have completely reversed these numbers. They now have the highest possession rate with 62.1%, they have vastly reduced the number of goals against and are the 5th highest scorer.


Although they remain in second place in the fewest shots per game department, this turnaround was achieved by a team which has one of the lowest budgets in the First Division. 


The former Real Madrid footballer prioritises the positional game that, in his own words, he learned from Luis Enrique in Rome.


The most beautiful thing is to have the ball. The more you have it, the less scoring opportunities your opponent will have. He taught me and inspired me in this regard. Each player should always have at least one or two clear passing options so as not to trap themselves and have good circulation. The more you have the ball, the more your opponent has to move and the more space you create to take advantage of.


Although they start in a nominal 4-3-3, the players do not have fixed positions and the constant rotation leaves an opponent with no fixed references when defending.


fernando gago aldosivi


Centre midfielder drops back to create 3rd man with defender.

San Lorenzo midfielder is out of position meaning that Aldosivi have a free man.

Winger falls back to even up the numbers.


Gago’s game is based on building the game from his own area, so it’s important that his players have the confidence to continue pushing forward in spite of errors. This is a painstaking task that the players themselves find rewarding as they need the knowledge to interpret the space and free up lanes in order to make progress.


gago aldosivi construction


Aldosivi draw in the pressure to free up space on the wing.

Free man.


gago adesivi game play


Free man.


gago aldosivi match play


Consistency is not only needed on the ball but also off it. For this reason, Gago works with his squad to get them used to defending high and with plenty of space behind in order to recover the ball as quickly as possible and as close to the opponents goal as possible.


fernando gago


High defence after losing the ball.


Aldosivi’s gamble on Gago seems to be one of the most important in Argentinian football in recent years. Luis Enrique’s apprentice has created good football from nothing and continues to earn a name for himself as a top coach.


And that's your lot! Many thanks to Mati Navarro for this latest contribution to the Nacsport blog...fantastic work as always. If you have any questions or comments about this article, don't hesitate to get in contact with us through any of our social media channels. To check out more from Mati Navarro, why not check out La Pizarra de Bielsa on Twitter or click the link below.

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