Analyzing Argentina’s topsy-turvy World Cup ride so far

Rahul Madhavan
By Rahul Madhavan
10 Min Read

Lionel Messi and Argentina have always been the focus of attention, as the greatest player of our generation charts onto the global stage in search of the coveted treasure that would invoke his name among the international football elites. After four attempts, this is unquestionably his final FIFA World Cup, and the stakes and expectations are extremely high.

There are two reasons for this. The first is, of course, Messi himself, whose form has been exemplary for Paris Saint Germain. The second – Lionel Scaloni’s arrival has changed the dynamics of the team and Argentina look like a side capable of capturing the glory with a team full of talented players, aside from a balanced outfit.

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But the waves quickly shifted gears once they arrived in Qatar, as the Albicelestes suffered a defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia in their opening encounter. Nevertheless, they have bounced back with three victories on the trot and are set to face their first big test against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. Despite the positive outcome, the ride has certainly not been smooth, so let’s take a look at how Argentina and Scaloni recovered after the blip.

Structural issues

Arriving into the tie against Saudi Arabia, Argentina were clearly the favorite to win, but Herve Renard’s side threw a curveball. They started in a 4-3-2-1 formation which changed depending on Argentina’s structure, but interestingly they decided to press high up the pitch and maintain a high line. Of course, this tactic was risky and if Lautaro Martinez could have stayed a couple of inches behind, Argentina would have gone into the break with over a two-goal lead.

Scaloni started Leandro Paredes alongside Papu Gomez and Rodri De Paul in midfield, with the former dropping to the backline to form a back three, therefore allowing the full-backs to advance. The problem, however, was their midfield often looked empty, and the attack was heavily disjointed from the rest. When Messi looked to receive the ball in central areas, he was tracked by the Saudi player, while De Paul, Gomez, and Martinez remained in the last line. This forced a U-shaped buildup as Scaloni’s men passed the ball from side to side with no real threat.

Argentinas U shape buildup No player occupied the central area in front of the center backs

A shocking ten-minute spell followed at the start of the second half as Saudi Arabia overturned the one-goal deficit. The Asian team then defended deep and secured a stunning 2-1 victory, leaving Argentina in tatters. Moving on, the game against Mexico was a make-or-break as a result, but once again, the Albicelestes started poorly and struggled to break Mexico’s stubborn 5-3-2 block.

Well, but Lionel Messi had other ideas. The world’s eyes were on Messi, but he deftly moved into an area near the edge of the box, where no Mexican players noticed his presence. Di Maria cuts inside and laid it off to the magician before he takes a touch and delivers the ball into the bottom corner of the net effortlessly. The savior, Lionel Messi 1 – Mexico 0. Argentina eventually won the game by two goals to nil, the second goal coming from another game-changer in Enzo Fernandez. The Benfica man brought much-needed positivity in possession and a sense of control, which stretched Mexico.

A much-needed improvement

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After an admirable performance against Mexico, Enzo Fernandez, Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez were rewarded with a start in another do-or-die tie against Poland. Czesław Michniewicz’s side were extremely passive in possession, but both Mexico and Saudi Arabia found it hard to get past their defense. The 4-4-2 morphed into more of a 5-3-1-1 with the ball-sided winger tracking back to defend the wide areas. Moreover, Wojciech Szczesny was in superb form, as Poland did not concede in their opening two games.

But Argentina waltzed past their opponents and controlled the proceedings from minute one, courtesy of a structural change. Enzo Fernandez was tasked to stay in front of the center-backs, which meant that the number 6 area was occupied, and Argentina had an option to build up through him. The U-shaped buildup was banished, and it reduced the burden on Messi to drop near the center-backs to receive the ball. He was also allowed to stay in the attacking areas, often drifting away from the defenders and moving into the right-half space to dictate play.

Meanwhile, Molina was instructed to maintain his position to form a back three, which meant that Di Maria held the width on the right and was isolated against Poland’s full-backs. Argentina’s structure was sound, and they dominated the game as a result. A typical move involved Messi and De Paul rotating positions before the PSG man switched the play to the overlapping Acuna. The tweet below explains Argentina’s pattern against Poland.

The round of 16 tie presented an interesting matchup as Scaloni’s men faced Australia. Di Maria’s injury woes opened up another issue for them. He was the South American’s side only winger who attracted players and had the ability to dribble past challenges from the wide areas. Gomez, his replacement started on the left side, but he was a player who wanted the ball to his feet and struggled to take on his opposing number. As a result, Argentina failed to create chances.

However, things marginally improved when Gomez shifted to the right side and Argentina returned to the shape they used against Poland. Nevertheless, they still had trouble bypassing Australia’s strong defensive block. And like clockwork, when they needed inspiration, a moment of magic, Lionel Messi stepped up and handed Argentina the lead.

As the Aussies upped up their tempo in the second half, Scaloni made another tactical adjustment that turned out perfectly. He introduced Lisandro Martinez and shifted to a 3-5-2 shape, which allowed the team to once again take control of the proceedings. This gave the license for De Paul to push forward and rotate with Messi, while there were runners in behind with the wing-backs. Additionally, a shift to a back five meant that the Albicelestes were solid defensively and restricted Australia despite conceding a goal.

Argentina have had a roller coaster ride in the World Cup so far. Problems have arisen in terms of their shape in possession, but Scaloni has found a way past it, and with a hint of Messi magic, they seem to be back to their best that saw them lift the Copa America last year. However, the Netherlands present a different type of game to the one they have played until the pre-quarter stage. Louis Van Gaal has pretty much adapted his team to the way their opponents play and exploited their weakness brilliantly. It will certainly be interesting to see how Scaloni responds to this if the Netherlands nullifies Argentina’s creative threat.

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