The superclasico is the quintessential Argentinian football experience. It stands alone, outside the league, almost more important than the competition itself, a celebration of the two biggest sides in the country. 

In October, River Plate met Boca Juniors for the first time in 17 months, and as ticker tape fluttered from the terraces of El Monumental, a stadium that has barely changed since the hosts won the World Cup there in 1978, there was a sense that this moment offered
a snapshot of the soul of Argentinian football. Then you looked at the pitch and realised both teams were playing 4-4-2 and something was amiss…

Argentinian football has lionised the playmaker – or, as it is known locally, the enganche (the hook) – like nowhere else. The no10 shirt is something almost sacred, with such stars as Riccardo Bochini, Diego Maradona, Ariel Ortega and Juan Roman Riquelme reinforcing that sense of greatness. Yet here in the Buenos Aires derby, in the most Argentinian match of all, there was nobody playing in the most Argentinian position of all.

The historical progression is clear. Back in the late 1970s the classic Argentinian formation was 4-3-3. This consisted of a back four, with a holder (no5) just in front. To his right would be the no8, a player who was part creator, part engine –- Osvaldo Ardiles, for example –- and to his left the sanctified no10, the playmaker. The three would effectively form a triangle, with the no8 playing a role that was a cross between the no5 and the no10. On the right wing was the no7, on the left the noå11, with the no9 at centre-forward.

Over time, one of those wide players dropped deeper, becoming a third midfielder as the no10 and the other wide player moved into central areas, creating the 4-3-1-2 that dominated Argentinian football until relatively recently. When formations matched up, games often became battles between the no10 of one team and the no5 of the other – which might explain why the vast majority of Argentinian exports are either holding central midfielders or attacking central midfielders.

Defensive responsibilities
As more zonal systems of marking took hold, and as teams began to play with two “no5s” – either in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 –- it became apparent that 4-3-1-2 made teams very predictable. Everything was funnelled through one creator, whereas in the original 4-3-3 there was an additional creator in no8 as well as width from no7 and no11.

The closest to an enganche in the starting line-ups in this year’s superclasico was probably Boca’s Walter Erviti, who scored the late equaliser in a 2-2 draw. He was much more of an enganche in his days at San Lorenzo, but dropped deeper after moving to Monterrey in 2002 and is now at his best either as the more attacking central midfielder in a 4-4-2 or on one side of a midfield diamond. When Riquelme was in the Boca line-up, Erviti was excellent on the left, making late runs like the one that brought his goal in the superclasico.

Against River he was used as the more attacking of a central midfield pairing with Leandro Somoza but, such was the home side’s control in the early stages, he rarely got forward. On the left, Juan Sanchez Mino is really an attacking full-back, while Cristian Chavez, who could arguably play as an enganche, had a disappointing game.

River, meanwhile, lined up with two hard-working grafters in the middle in Leonardo Ponzio and Ezequiel Cirigliano. Their creativity, such as it was, came down the right via Carlos Sanchez.

To an extent, the dearth of enganches in modern Argentinian football is an economic issue as attacking midfielders are the country’s biggest footballing export. But there is also a sense that Argentinian football lags behind Europe tactically.

The nostalgic attachment to enganches stymied development a decade or so ago and Argentina is now in the slightly ugly, attritional phase that English football went through before the adoption of 4-2-3-1. However, whether the central creator in a 4-2-3-1 is an enganche is open to debate.

In a modern system, everybody has defensive responsibilities, which is one reason why Oscar settled so quickly at Chelsea. After the Brazilian scored twice against Juventus in the Champions League, his manager, Roberto Di Matteo, praised him not for the quality of his second goal but because he was “tactically excellent”. Not only was he a threat to Juve, he had helped to prevent Andrea Pirlo from dictating the game.

Oscar played deeper for Brazil in the Under-20 World Cup last year and, similarly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is having a superb season for Shakhtar Donetskas the central creator in a 4-2-3-1, has experience of playing as a more orthodox midfielder.

That, perhaps, has moulded their interpretation of the playmaking role so they do fulfil their defensive responsibilities -– unlike, say, Wesley Sneijder, who since the 2010 World Cup seems to have become an increasingly pure no10 –- and it seems to make them a better fit for today’s game.

By Jonathan Wilson