Venezuela came into this year's Copa America as one of the biggest underdogs in the tournament, with political unrest and other domestic troubles taking over the nation's headlines. We didn't have much of a reason to believe they would surprise anybody, considering their low position in World Cup qualifying and group-stage elimination at the 2015 Copa America. But they've found a winning formula this year, with seven points in Group C and a spot in the quarterfinal.
Two victories over Jamaica and Uruguay clinched them a spot in the next round, while they came within inches of a third win over Mexico, which would have pushed them to the top of the group and a much more favorable matchup in the next round. It's been a Cinderella performance for Venezuela, and even if they fall to Argentina in the quarterfinal, they will walk away extremely pleased with how they played.
So how have they gotten to this point? Let's examine their winning strategy:
Before we see how they play, we have to figure out what their shape is and the personnel they put out there.
Venezuela play a tight, compact flat 4-4-2 without much adjustment. They keep their original shape for most of the game and make it clear exactly what formation they play. Here's what it looks like:
Saloman Rondon and Josef Martinez play up top, with Rondon often dropping deeper to hold the ball up. Martinez acts as more of a channel runner, taking up places on the backline—usually out to the left, but not always—and attempting to break apart their lines and find space for a ball through. Adalberto Peñaranda and Alejandro Guerra will run down the wings at selected times and send in crosses, sometimes with the rare overlapping runs of Rolf Feltscher and Roberto Rosales supporting them.
Tomas Rincon, of Genoa in Italy's Serie A, is the midfield stalwart who can create chances and stop them. His work rate and box-to-box ability keep the midfield from getting overrun. Arquimedes Figuera partners with Rincon.
Venezuela are not a goal-scoring team. They have just three goals in three games, with Martinez, Rondon and backup center back Jose Manuel Velazquez scoring them. But they can and do create chances.
Most often, those chances come from speedy counter-attacks originating from the wing or set pieces, but at times, they come up with good combination play outside the box or some creative dribbling in the corner. Their goal against Jamaica was a good example of the skill they possess:
Rondon's play as a big number-nine helps as well. The West Brom top goal-scorer drags defenders out of position and often plays with his back to goal, firing off shots and playing quick passes around the box. With players like Martinez running around him, Venezuela are able to get opportunities on goal more often than their numbers suggest.
The main reason that they aren't a scoring team? Their focus on defense.
For the most part, they sit deep and play compact, organized defense, especially later in the game. They don't allow opposing forwards to find room and are very good at preventing passes from getting through, often frustrating star players like Javier Hernandez and Edinson Cavani. Their marking is very good, they block a ton of shots, and they prevent teams from scoring scrappy goals, off set pieces or otherwise.
Their emergency defense gets them through a lot. But they have one major weakness that has haunted them throughout the tournament: 1v1 defense.
When Venezuelan players get isolated against a skill player—particularly on the wings—they too often are beaten with ease and don't have a second defender behind them, allowing wingers to cut into the box and send in a cross or even put a shot on target. Their superb organization can get broken down in an instant by creative dribblers like Mexico's Jesus Manuel Corona, who scored this beauty on Monday night to give El Tri a 1-1 draw:
It's a weakness that will likely be exploited by Lionel Messi and Argentina in the quarterfinal round. But it wasn't enough to prevent Venezuela from allowing just one goal in the entire group stage.
Venezuela's unique strategies propelled them to this point.
La Vinotinto start out the game playing a style categorized by organized chaos. Looking for an early goal while the opponent is still settling into the game and finding their tempo, Venezuela press high up the field and throw numbers into the box. They cross the ball often—up to four or even five players get into the box—and prevent the other team from maneuvering up the field.
This strategy is not like the New York Red Bulls. It is gegenpressing, but it's a different type. They don't move as a unit as much as they do individuals at select times. Take a look at this diagram as an example:
The opposing team—Uruguay, in this case—have possession deep in their own half with Venezuela pressing. Notice how the right winger is just as high as the strikers, but the left winger is considerably deeper, almost in line with the defensive midfielder. One goes forward, the others stay back. This kind of team understanding doesn't require the amount of practice that more traditional pressing does—which is why it is better for the international level—but you could make the argument it works just as well.
Although it looks like they are just sprinting around the field wrecking havoc, there really is a system employed by manager Rafael Dudamel at play here.
Eventually, they are able to scrape out a goal from somewhere after doing this for a certain amount of time. It may come in the 10th-minute, like it did against Mexico, or in the 36th-minute, like it did against Uruguay, but it always comes at some point, and when it does, phase two of their two-part plan is put into play.
That organized chaos becomes much more reserved. They sit deeper, condense the passing lanes and lay off the press a bit, conceding slightly more possession and allowing the opponent to push forward a little more. Their defensive talent—as well as goalkeeper Dani Hernandez's talent—comes into focus, while the attack takes a backseat. They don't become Bolivia or anything, or even Leicester City, but they do take their foot off the gas pedal.
Their incredible work rate makes up for whatever skill deficiency comes into play, and they outlast their opponent. Corona beat it singlehandedly for Mexico, but against star-studded Uruguay and Gold Cup runner-ups Jamaica, it resulted in 1-0 victories. Now we see how it works against Argentina.