How Vélez Sársfield bucked trends to be Argentine champions again

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Ed Malyon tells us why new champs Vélez Sársfield are different to other Argentinian clubs.

It’s no secret that many clubs in Argentina are exceedingly badly run. Vested interests, debts and a whole host of other reasons can see teams sell a player for a vast sum, only for the money to seemingly disappear.

Now Vélez’s principle advantage here was that they are well-run to start off with, and this has enabled them to reinvest monies received exceptionally wisely.

In January they sold key midfielder Leandro Somoza to Boca Juniors. They also sold starlet Jonathan Cristaldo, a young striker beginning to find the net with regularity, to Metalist Kharkiv in Ukraine. While he had potential, Cristaldo wasn’t a regular starter: it was an offer too big – and the Vélez hierarchy too wise – to refuse.

The income from these funded the move for midfielder David Ramirez, a player that had impressed with provincial outfit Godoy Cruz in the Apertura championship. While it may have seemed a questionable replacement for a striker (they did later bring in forward Guille Franco on a free), Ramirez was an example of thinking outside the box. Literally.

With marvellous forwards like Santiago Silva and Juan Manuel Martínez, even playing a lone forward would result in goals if they could provide chances. The issue was that head coach Ricardo Gareca and Christian Bassedas (the club’s sporting director) feared an over-reliance on Maxi Moralez (of whom more later). Ramirez provided extra depth in this department but was still obviously a goal threat.

He ended up as the champions’ top scorer.

The rotation sensation
It’s a common theme in football that the successful are emulated. Look at the spate of sides to copy the 4-5-1/4-3-3 after Jose Mourinho’s initial successes with Chelsea or current Argentina boss Sergio Batista’s unashamed Barcelona tribute act, complete with ‘false nine’. 

This would be pretty hard to do with Vélez. They are blessed with an exceptional array of talent (although as discussed, it’s more judgement than luck) but the way that Gareca has changed system and personnel has been a remarkable success.

After coming up short in the Apertura – finishing two points off champions Estudiantes – and the aforementioned transfer dealings, they were left with plenty of options in midfield. This meant that Gareca, with one fewer top class striker, decided to be flexible in his systems to keep players fresh and to unsettle the opposition.

Diminutive playmaker Maximiliano Moralez was arguably their most important player, a sublimely talented midfielder whose jinking runs and precise passing were the heartbeat of this Vélez outfit. With midweek continental action though, Gareca enforced a rotation policy from which not even Maxi was safe.

The manager switched between his crative forces, namely Augusto Fernandez, Ricky Alvarez and new signing David Ramirez, the Apertura's highest scoring midfielder (with Godoy Cruz). This rotation gave them a freshness but it also bred a desire that led to this season's glut of goals. In both the Apertura and Clausura, they were the top-scoring side, and two of the three goleadores in the Apertura were Vélez forwards.

Formation-wise, they were flexible between a 4-5-1, 4-1-3-2 and all sorts of variations thereof. This was partially personnel-dependent but also an example of Gareca being a wise tactician. In Argentina, where there’s a plethora of systems being used, being able to attack the weaknesses of the opposition's line-up proved to be a vital weapon in the armoury.

Clean sheets and calamities
In a league where goalkeeping errors have been arguably the most memorable moments of the Clausura season, with Juan Pablo Carizzo’s mistake in the Superclásico being the most high-profile of blunders...

...and another being a ludicrous air-kick from Leandro Chichizola (which actually gave Vélez a win in a top-of-the-table clash)...

...Vélez goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero has been low-key. He’s been consistent and made no mistakes; this sets him apart from the rest. Make no mistake, Barovero is playing in a very good side, but he is the most reliable keeper in the country, despite not receiving a call-up for even the domestically-based ‘Argentina C’ team.

In his first season of being a top-flight ‘keeper – with Huracán in 2007/08 – he won the Ubaldo Fillol award for best goalkeeper. Upon moving to Vélez, Barovero was initially second choice but broke into the team as the start of the current season. At the end of the Apertura in December, he won the award again. Playing 16 of the 19 games in the tournament, he conceded just six goals as the Fortín (fortress) came second.

His low profile may be detrimental as far as international recognition goes, but for Vélez, keeping his name under the radar is undeniably linked to their success.

Vélez can certainly look forward to next season with great hope. Copa Libertadores semi-finalists and far and away the best side in the country over the 2010/11 season, on the pitch and off it, they seem to be a club in safe hands.