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Copa Libertadores 2021 Final Preview: Flamengo vs. Palmeiras

By Nick Dorrington | November 25, 2021 | South America

Flamengo and Palmeiras are the last two winners of the Copa Libertadores, and one of them will again get their hands on the trophy when they meet in the final of the 2021 edition in Montevideo on Saturday. It is the second consecutive all-Brazilian final and one that features representatives from each of its two primary cities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Both teams are on course to finish in the top three domestically this season -- although only Flamengo still have a chance of overhauling champions elect Atlético Mineiro -- and while Flamengo have been the better team in terms of both results and the underlying numbers over the course of the campaign, the difference isn’t so great as to think the result of the final is a foregone conclusion.

Flamengo are a much more possession-orientated team, building up short from the back and into midfield and dominating the ball in their matches. They hold a 60% share of possession on average -- four percentage points clear of the next team. Palmeiras hover much closer to the 50% mark and are more direct in their approach, with one of the longest average pass lengths in the league.

This difference in approach is evident if we look at the zones from which the two teams create most danger. With the help of On-Ball Value (OBV), our new model that values every on-ball action in terms of its positive or negative impact on a team’s likelihood of scoring / not conceding, we can visualise the areas of the pitch from which they generate most value in comparison to the league average.

Flamengo are a lot more active through the centre of the pitch and particularly in the interior channels of the attacking midfield line, from where they create the majority of their chances. From the left, the value is added by Giorgian de Arrascaeta's incisive passing and Michael's aggressive carries; from the right, primarily by the passing of striker Gabriel Barbosa.

Barbosa, scorer of the two late goals that gave Flamengo their dramatic win over River Plate in the 2019 final, plays as the lone striker in Renato Gaucho's habitual 4-2-3-1 formation and is the club's top scorer in the Libertadores, but he is far from their only goal threat. Flamengo have the best top-line and underlying attacking numbers in Brazil, in addition to averaging 2.75 goals per match in the Libertadores, and Bruno Henrique and Michael have also reached double figures in league play.

In terms of advancing the ball into attacking areas, it is the contribution of ex-Atlético Madrid and Chelsea left-back Filipe Luís that stands out. He is much more active in infield areas than the average Serie A full-back -- on the other side of the pitch either Mauricio Isla or the promising Matheuzinho generally play much higher and wider -- and leads both his team and the league in deep progressions (passes or carries into the final third), distance advanced towards goal in the attacking half and once all actions directly related to shots have been stripped out, OBV. At 36, he's still going strong.

Ball progression is more evenly split between the two sides of the pitch at Palmeiras, with a mix of carries and passes from Dudu on the left -- second to Filipe Luis in the league in terms of distance advanced towards goal in the attacking half -- allied to the regular forward movements of right-back Marcos Rocha (or his deputy Gabriel Menino). Further back, Luan is among the Serie A central defenders who add most value with their passing according to OBV.

The right is, though, undoubtedly their most productive side in terms of chance creation, with the dark red colouration inside the area there on the OBV chart above primarily representing the excursions of Rocha, forward Rony and attacking-midfield drifter Gustavo Scarpa.

Scarpa has been Palmeiras' most profile shooter and chance creator in the league this season, with three non-penalty goals and 11 assists to his credit and the league's highest OBV contribution per 90 amongst all players with at least 900 minutes of playing time. But he has seen comparatively few minutes in the Libertadores and is most likely to start the final from the bench.

With Luiz Adriano expected to miss out through injury, coach Abel Ferreira is likely to start Rony as the main striker in a formation that could vary between a 4-3-2-1 and 3-4-2-1 depending on the positioning of Felipe Melo, still going at 38. In the league, Rony has spent more time out wide than he did last season, with a consequent effect on his shot volume and goal output, but he is the team's top scorer in the Libertadores, with six goals to his credit -- 0.78 per 90.

At the other end of the pitch, there is an even starker difference in approach between the two sides. Flamengo not only defend further away from their own goal than any other Serie A side, but they are also one of the league's most aggressive teams in closing down opponents, particularly so directly after losing possession.

Palmeiras, meanwhile, defend marginally deeper than the league average, and are clearly less active defensively in the opposition half.

Interestingly, though, both appear equally proficient in converting opposition turnovers into efforts on goal, figuring amongst the Serie A teams who most often shoot and score within 20 seconds of regaining possession.

Flamengo and Palmeiras have already met twice in the league this season, with Flamengo emerging victorious on both occasions. They won 1-0 with a dominant performance on the opening day of the season and then 3-1 away from home a couple of months back in what was actually a closer match in terms of chance quantity and quality.

Flamengo are again the most probable victors on Saturday, but Palmeiras have already seen off two other Brazilian teams to make it this far, and the reigning champions certainly shouldn't be discounted. The stage is set for an entertaining final.


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Article by Nick Dorrington