After decades of dominating domestic competition, why have River floundered in league play under Marcelo Gallardo?

River Plate are already left with only Copa Libertadores qualification to play for in the league so Jack Tilghman returns to take a look at why despite all his success, Marcelo Gallardo has been unable to challenge domestically…

Since the outset of the professional era in 1931, River Plate has been the most dominant team in domestic league competition in Argentina. To date, the club has amassed 35 league titles and sits atop the All-Time League Table by 71 points over arch rival Boca Juniors, scoring nearly 400 more goals than the the Xeneizes. Yet despite the club’s tradition of dominating the local top flight, since manager Marcelo Gallardo took over in July 2014, River has struggled immensely in the league.

Lauded by fans, pundits, and directors alike for giving River the attitude adjustment necessary to win knock-out tournaments, Gallardo has been unable to find the formula to have a consistent campaign needed to win a league title.

In that same period, making things doubly painful for River supporters, Boca has lifted the title twice and are closing in on a third as they sit seven points clear with 12 rounds to go. River is sitting a shockingly 19 points back from the leaders and a further eight points out of the qualification places for the 2019 Copa Libertadores. To say this campaign has been abysmal is an understatement.

So why is it that Gallardo has been able to win so many knock out competitions, the Copa Sudamericana in 2014, the Copa Libertadores in 2015, the Copa Argentina in 2016 and 2017, to go along with the two legged Recopa Sudamericana in 2015 and ’16, yet has seen no league success?

The first and most obvious reason is priority. When Gallardo took over as River coach from Ramón Díaz after the 2014 World Cup, River was the reigning domestic champion. The fans yearned for international glory for the first time since club director Enzo Francescoli and Gallardo were players and lifted the 1997 Super Copa.

Although the team made waves in the transitional tournament early on playing some of the finest football in years, the team hit its peak in round eight with a 4-1 victory over Independiente. However, the same match saw young midfielder Matías Kranevitter pick up an injury and the team never hit the same heights.

Although the domestic title was still attainable, Gallardo found himself in a difficult situation with a match against second placed Racing falling in between the two legs of the Sudamericana semifinal against Boca. Gallardo put out nine second choice players and River never made a game of it, with Ramiro Funes Mori, the only regular outfield starter to play, turning the ball into his own net. Racing went on to hold out for the title.

Obviously, eliminating Boca made the loss of the local title worth it in the eyes of many River supporters, yet the question must be asked, was making nine changes really necessary when no travel was involved?

A superclásico will always be more important than a lesser clásico against Racing, but in European football we see teams facing massive European tests field full strength teams even when travel is involved, yet for Gallardo, whose team only had to travel by bus from Nuñez to Avellaneda and then to La Boca four days later, there was no way his team could play three demanding matches in a week.

The following year, the Argentine calendar was a full year 30-match season, and between the Libertadores, Suruga Bank, and Club World Cup, River completely sacrificed the local tournament, finishing in ninth-place 15 points behind Boca. In this year’s current tournament, we have seen Gallardo even make the bizarre decision to rest players in the local league for matches against weaker opposition in the Copa Argentina.

Yet is it really just that Gallardo has not prioritized the local league? There are many other factors at work. It is easy to motivate players and set out a game plan for a one off match or a two legged series, it is more difficult to do so during a long league campaign, particularly against weaker opposition or smaller clubs.

Tactically River often struggles to beat teams who sit back in the local league. While weaker international competition from countries like Peru or Venezuela may not have studied River as closely as they should have, smaller teams from Argentina know River’s tactics and players like the back of their hand.

Gallardo’s River has dropped an enormity of points to such sides in recent years, calling into question the manager’s ability to keep his team focused and motivated at all times.

In the 2016-17 season, River finished second to Boca, seven points behind their hated rivals, yet a closer analysis tells us that it was River’s title to win. River threw away two-goal leads in away matches against both Arsenal and Defensa y Justicia, who finished 27th and 10th respectively. At home, River also left many easy points on the field managing to only draw against Sarmiento (26th), San Martín de San Juan (22nd), and Unión de Santa Fe (23rd). Had River turned all those draws into victories, they would have won the title over their cross town enemy.

So what now for Gallardo and River? With no chance of winning the title and a host of teams vying for the Libertadores spots, is anything but a triumph in this year’s Copa Libertadores going to cost Gallardo his job?

Many things indicate that Gallardo is safe. He recently signed a four-year contract extension and club President Rodolfo D’Onofrio has offered nothing but support for his manager. Yet how long can River continue to fail in the league?

Boca is whittling away at River’s lead in the historic table and all-time titles tables. Should the yellow and blue side surpass River in either or both categories, it would be an unthinkable blow to the club and fan base. Until then, Gallardo must at least try and salvage the season with a qualification place for the Libertadores, but if recent history and current form are anything to go by, it won’t be easy.

You can follow Jack Tilghman on Twitter here.

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