12 stand-out tactical players in the Copa América
The Copa América ended with Brazil winning the title last Sunday in a packed Maracanã. This title for the team managed by Tite was the first in the project that started in 2016 and should give the coach more security in one of the highest pressure roles in world football. The competition’s technical level was not excellent and was only average compared to the leading tournaments between national teams, but it did reveal some interesting stand-out tactical players in the performance of each of the 12 teams:
Everton – Brazil
One of the biggest revelations in Brazilian football in recent years, the striker Everton improved as the Copa América proceeded. He started as a substitute but his good performances and the adjustments demanded by Tite meant that he racked up more minutes and got convincing results. In the opening match against Bolivia, he scored in the second half, just after coming off the bench. He improved Brazil’s offensive performance in the 2nd round of matches in the draw against Venezuela and, as one of the starting eleven he was one of the stand-out players and deserved another goal in the convincing win over Peru in the 3rd round of the group stage.
Even though his performance dipped in the final phase, he performed better than David Neres in the role Tite asked of him. Brazil has been playing with a more positional attack since the World Cup. The main role of the lateral attackers is to open up the pitch and give the team more width. Neres works better moving around the attack as he does for Ajax. Everton is already managing to deliver more. He is always very open when receiving the ball and looks to take players on one-on-one. Although he is right-footed, he can dribble with both feet and create uncertainty among markers. The Grêmio striker is just 23 years old and is fast, skilful and a good finisher.
Luis Abram – Peru
In Peru’s historical campaign on Brazilian soil, one of the most consistent players was the central defender Luis Abram. The left-footed 23-year-old can also play as left-back thanks to his mobility. He is not very tall by European standards, measuring 1.81 m, but he makes up for this with good positioning and ability to jump, which makes him an effective performer with balls in the air; he won 70% of challenges for high balls in the Copa América. He played every minute for his team.
He showed himself to be a defender who performs playing in two different ways. As light and fast central defender, he can play in teams that use individual marking and running with the player as systems of marking. At the same time, he maintains good positioning when Peru mark with the block further back, which suggests he will perform well in teams that use the zonal marking system. Abram started with Sporting Cristal and has been a first-team player with Velez Sarsfield (Argentina) for a year and a half.
Rodrigo de Paul – Argentina
A major figure in Udinese’s squad for three seasons now, having previously played for Valencia, Rodrigo de Paul, 25, is no stranger in European football. His pace is also recognised by those who follow his work most closely, but this had never been so important in the Argentina team. The ‘’Albiceleste’’ had a fairly inconsistent Copa América but improved as the competition went on, and de Paul is one of the two players responsible for the tactical change in the team managed by Lionel Scaloni.
He started as a substitute, but after coming on in the second half against Colombia, in the opening match, he was constantly in the team. First as a left-winger and then as a central midfielder, forming a group of three with Paredes and Lo Celso/Marcos Acuña. This midfield trio would move towards the ball in defensive phases, compensating for the freedom given to Messi, Lautaro Martinez and Agüero, who played without major marking responsibilities. His work rate without the ball and his intense driving movements to join the attacking third made a big contribution to Argentina’s dynamism.
Erick Pulgar – Chile
Chile, along with Colombia, played the most eye-catching football at various points in the Copa América. One of the foundations of this style was the midfield trio comprising Pulgar, Aranguiz and Vidal. Erick Pulgar, the most defensive of the trio, made some fine performances and showed that he is mature enough to play this role in his country’s team. The tattooed player, aged 25, completed four seasons at Bologna in 2019 and is not a novelty in Europe any more, but he completed his first major competition with ‘’La Roja’’.
The main stand-out feature of Pulgar’s style is the effectiveness of his long passes. Chile works very well with possession of the ball and pushes the full-backs forward into the attacking part of the pitch very intensively, using long balls that switch sides as a tool to get the ball to them. Pulgar is effective with this sort of pass. He could still improve his distribution with short passes but alongside Vidal and Aranguiz, he is developing in this area. He has an excellent perception to anticipate moves in defensive transitions, which is another point where he stood out in this Copa América.
Matías Rojas – Paraguay
Paraguay is starting a new project with Eduardo Berizzo, and it is natural that new players are given chances in the team. One of them is the midfielder Matías Rojas, who started two of Paraguay’s four matches in this Copa América. In practice, he was on the pitch for 147 minutes, but this was enough for him to make an impression and, as well as technical quality, show above-average tactical perception for a 23-year-old South American player. He has just moved from Defensa y Justicia to the higher profile Racing Club, both in Argentina.
Rojas is a left-footed attacking midfielder and is 1.86 m tall. Despite his good passing technique and vision of the game, he does not have the characteristics of a “typical South American number 10”. He is much more someone who complements creative play rather than being a player who is responsible for it. He made a big contribution to defence. In Berizzo’s “hybrid” Paraguay, he closed off the left side of the pitch when defending. And when the Paraguayans recovered possession, he moved towards the centre of the pitch, forming the left-hand side of a midfield diamond. He is good at reading spaces that will be filled.
Rodrigo Bentancur – Uruguay
Uruguay was a disappointment in this Copa América and did not achieve as much as had been expected. Even so, Rodrigo Bentancur performed very well in the pale blue shirt. In his second official competition for the national team, the 22-year-old midfielder was freer and was able to impose his style of intensity when challenging for the ball in midfield, as well as distributing passes well. If the Uruguay team could expand its repertoire of attacking moves, the Juventus payer might offer even more.
The team led by Oscar Tabarez has a style of play based on direct passes to Suarez and Cavani, as well as fast counter attacks driven by the players at the sides of the pitch. In both scenarios, Betancur provides important support joining from the back. Whether winning the “second ball” after a challenge high up the pitch or receiving quick passes coming from attacking transitions. He is a containing player who also has the freedom to attack, working alongside Vecino, Torreira or Valverde.
Jhon Chancellor – Venezuela
It is well known that Venezuela is no longer the punch bag it used to be, but what model did Rafael Dudamel’s team use to overcome this reputation? The “Vinotinto” team has one of the best defensive systems in South American football. Venezuela has developed the training of its defenders and this is starting to bear fruit. One of the outstanding defenders in this Copa América was the centre back Jhon Chancellor. He started three of his team’s four games. The 27-year-old is 1.97 m tall and plays for Al Ahli in Qatar.
Chancellor played for Anzhi in Russia for a year but was not able to make a great impression. Perhaps because of his very specific style of play. He is excellent in defending the penalty area. He cannot play in teams that use the system of marking individuals by sector and following the man. He is a slow player, but with very strong positioning and with high balls and individual duals in the defensive area. He performed impressively against forwards like Paolo Guerrero, Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero.
Mateus Uribe – Colombia
Even though the team was just starting to work with their coach Carlos Quieroz, Colombia made an excellent impression in the Copa América. Mateus Uribe led the team’s victory against Argentina but struggled after an early onslaught from a strong Chilean team in the quarter-final, and was knocked out on penalties. The Portuguese coach started to implement his ideas and, in the attacking section, his team played around its best technical player: James Rodriguez. The number 10 starts from one of the wings and moves towards where the ball is. For the team to maintain good positioning in the attack, some players have to make balancing moves. And this is just where Mateus Uribe stood out.
The 28-year-old midfielder who plays for América in Mexico stood out for his intensity and mobility. He combines this with a good level of technical quality and has currently made himself indispensable in Colombia’s model of play. He does a lot of diagonal balls from the middle to the wing and comes into the area to finish. When defending, he presses the ball hard and fits in with what Queiroz always asks of his teams. He already had an important role under José Pekerman and has now managed to adapt quickly and be vital under the new coach of the “Cafeteros”.
Leonel Justiniano – Bolivia
Bolivia, once again, was unable to stand out in the Copa América. The team again presented a group of players who were largely out of step technically and physically with the general level of the competition. Football in this country is struggling to develop and the national team reflects this, choosing to play in a style based on defence with occasional counter attacks or direct passes to Marcelo Moreno. Even so, we can identify the midfielder Leonel Justiniano as a stand-out player.
Aged 27, Justiniano showed plenty of energy to mark intensively and defend his space well in the zonal marking system used by Bolivia. With the ball, when he had the chance, he showed an ability to penetrate and reasonable technique. He scored a fine goal in his team’s defeat against Venezuela in the last round of group-stage matches. Against Brazil, in the opening match, he won the ball back ten times and made five interceptions. He plays for Bolivar, his country’s leading club, and was appearing in his first Copa América.
Tarek Salman – Qatar
Qatar, who won the Asian Cup in February, was one of the teams invited by Conmebol to play in the Copa América. Although the team was knocked out in the first stage with just one point, it left a good impression. It is a young team with little experience at this level of competition. The aim is to improve its ranking before the 2022 World Cup. Promising players include the defender Tarek Salman. He plays for Al Sadd and was ever-present in his team’s Asian Cup victory. He can also play as a defensive midfielder thanks to his good technique.
Tarek Salman does not look much like a defender going by his physique. He is 1.81 m tall and slim. But this makes him a mobile fullback. He can change direction easily at speed, which helps with covering and anticipation. His main quality, therefore, is his ability to come out with the ball at his feet. Whether with passes that break through the first defensive line or running with the ball, he is fast. In Qatar’s model of play, which favours possession, mobility to create numerical superiority in play and exchanging short passes, Tarek is vital. He needs to improve in one-to-one encounters with physically stronger attackers.
Shoji Nakajima – Japan
Another team invited by Conmebol was Japan, who chose to take a group of players almost entirely from their under-23s. The idea was to give the younger players the chance to develop and put them in a more demanding competitive rhythm. And they achieved this! Despite going out in the first stage and being on the receiving end of a 4-0 defeat by Chile in the opening match, Japan played well. They could have beaten the previous winners Uruguay and were the better team against Ecuador. One of the stand-out figures in their good football was the attacking midfielder, Shoji Nakajima.
Aged 24, he has had a good spell with Portimonense and signed for Porto last week. He is a very creative player. Right-footed, he prefers playing on the left of the pitch. He floats through the centre, with or without the ball, trying to take advantage of the space between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines. He reads play perfectly for this. Ball control, quality passing and finishing, short dribbling and movement. He scored once in the Copa América. He created lots of moves in Japan’s 4-2-3-1 by executing precisely the movement described above.
Jhegson Mendez – Ecuador
Ecuador’s team was a major disappointment in this Copa América. In recent years it has always shown a good competitive level in South America and has reached two consecutive World Cups. But it is going through a change in generation and the team’s organisation is not providing good conditions for the young players to perform. One of the few to shine was the midfielder, Jhegson Mendez. He is just 22 and plays for Orlando City.
Mendez had started in the friendlies before the Copa América but was inexplicably left on the substitutes’ bench in the opening match against Uruguay. Ecuador lost 4-0, and in the following match, he had another chance in the starting line-up. The team was more competitive with his dynamism. He can act as a containing player, as he has the physical strength and aggression for this, and as a danger man when joining in with the attack. He has the DNA of an Ecuadorian player: fast and physically imposing. But as well as this, he has a good sense of organization and is precise in long passes.