In this series, we take a look at some of the most interesting matches in world football, providing you with an in-depth tactical analysis powered by Wyscout tools and stats. This time, we focused on the Copa Libertadores final, Palmeiras v Santos.

Unless you happen to be a supporter of Palmeiras this year’s Copa Libertadores final is unlikely to live long in the memory. The Verdão ended their 22-year wait to lift a second continental title and will now have another crack at the Club World Cup. Yet, for the neutral, the continental showcase was largely a brutal war of attrition played out in the scorching summer heat of Rio de Janeiro.

Those temperatures and the grand occasion of the now single-game final rather than the two-legged affair of old perhaps factors. Though the bruising encounter of an all-Brazilian clash had a familiar feel to those who have witnessed a high-stakes domestic showdown, in which for all the individual talent available the teams invariably neutralize one another.

Santos came in after sweeping aside Boca Juniors in the semi-finals, while Palmeiras had their confidence shaken by River Plate’s rousing if ultimately futile fightback. Despite this and the fact that an exhausting 55th game since the restart in the heat could make Abel Ferreira’s side more vulnerable, Santos were wary of the threat.

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The threat being Palmeiras’ ability to break at breakneck speed and punish sides on the counter. With that in mind, Santos manager Cuca opted for caution – out came the more attacking Lucas Braga, and in went industrious 18-year-old midfielder Sandry.

As a defensive tactic it was successful and limited Palmeiras to only brief forays into dangerous areas on the rare occasion the pacy Rony had space to run into.

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This saw Santos enjoy the majority of possession (59%) as was expected but they too were unable to do much with it.

Much had been made of Santos’ front three in the build-up. Marinho was the top goal scorer in the Brasileiro and had added another four in the Copa Libertadores. 19-year-old Kaio Jorge had been something of a revelation with his positional maturity and willingness to work hard without the ball. And Yeferson Soteldo’s dribbling ability and invention setting him apart from much of the continent’s talent.

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Average player positions in the final (Palmeiras left; Santos right).

The issue against Palmeiras was none were able to make any real impact. The heavily left-footed Marinho forced in off the right-wing more often than not and Soteldo failing to provide width on the opposite flank (the average position above for 10 Soteldo showing how central he was).

On the occasions, the tricky Venezuelan was found he was either unable or seemingly unwilling to try and go at the opposing full-back.

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Soteldo’s pass map (left) and Marinho’s pass map (right).

What Santos’ front men with the assistance from midfield did do well was ensure Palmeiras couldn’t play out from the back with ease. Diego Pituca often pushing up to help Kaio Jorge press the center-backs and force the long ball and give up possession.

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With hindsight, Santos may wish they had been a little bolder. The pragmatic Palmeiras were never likely to be a side that took too many risks. Rony provided an outlet on the counter but was equally useful in his defensive duties with the 25-year-old and Gabriel Menino, who has played at right-back during the campaign, both dropping back to bolster the wide areas when Ferreira’s team didn’t have the ball.

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But while the Palmeiras counter-threat remained the direct nature of their passing left them often outnumbered by the back four of Santos and the defensively-minded midfielders covering the ground.

Both sides setting up in such a way and not taking many risks along with the physical, stop-start nature of the game saw them neutralize each other in a way that didn’t create the greatest spectacle for the neutral.

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As the game went on, there was arguably a little more space for the counters from both sides and yet it was the final 20 or so minutes when the substitutions made the real impact.

Cuca acted first with the positive change of Lucas Braga for Sandry after 72 minutes and this effectively introduced a fourth attacker in place of one of the central midfielders (as seen in the average positions above). Santos took the ascendancy but other than a flashing Felipe Jonatan half volley couldn’t convert possession to clear chances.

Ferreira spied a chance of his own with the game opening up and introduced forward Breno Lopes. Deep into stoppage time and Santos forced into further changes and Cuca sent off for a tussle on the touchline, Palmeiras took advantage of the momentary lapse in defensive concentration.

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Breno’s towering header was enough and with ten minutes still remaining Palmeiras went back to relying on defensive solidity. Defender Alan Empereur and grizzled veteran Felipe Melo came on for Raphael Veiga and Rony as Ferreira switched to a 5-4-1.

Once again Santos saw plenty of the ball but once more the green wall held firm. Unable to create just one clear opportunity to find an equalizer, Santos fell short and Palmeiras were champions.

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