…but I’m still into you.
Another confession: I don’t think Argentina will win the World Cup. Do I want them to? Of course, so please do not smite me where I stand, Albiceleste fans, but I don’t think they’ll win it; the reason being it’s unlikely you can win a World Cup with three players.
Okay, that’s harsh.
Three players and Lady Luck
This is particularly unfortunate given the relatively comfortable way Argentina qualified for the World Cup in arguably the most competitive confederation in international football. They’ve degenerated since then, with a string of shaky performances in this World Cup so far, becoming a sort-of Anti-Mexico. [Mexico qualified by the skin of their neighbour's teeth and went on to have a great run. But you all know that already]. If Diego Maradona’s time as Argentina’s coach could be described as a bad acid trip (and it has hilariously by BFB’s Linda in an awesome post here), then Sabella’s tenure during this World Cup must be what a confused gentleman in the middle of a mosh pit must feel like.
A proper manager is in charge this time, the team should be and have been better, but alas they have been lacking on the world stage. They are comparable to both Brazil with a dearth of creative midfielders but without the defensive base of Thiago Silva and David Luiz (they have Gago, though) and Barcelona with their issues with transition defense. But let’s explore this via the CBC stream. First stop is the Iran match.
After the 5-3-2 debacle against Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in fairness wasn’t totally unwarranted considered their defense and Bosnia’s Dzeko and Pjanic, Sabella switched back the 4-3-3 that was used to great effect in qualifying. Feranando Gago, in the squad by virtue of being the only creative midfielder that can find Messi with regularity and hence irreplaceable, was back in his place in a 3-man midfield with Angel Di Maria and Mascherano with the forward line of Aguero, Higuain, Messi ahead of them.
At least, that was what it was in theory. In reality it looked like this:
Messi didn’t play in the hole, rather he was stationed on the right. Aguero and Higuain shared the same area of the pitch, and Di Maria often pulled wide left for width (and I don’t blame him as he is primarily a winger anyway). Gago stayed close to Messi on the right, and Mascherano was left alone in front of the defense.
Iran were well drilled and their discipline in defense was very impressive. They flooded the midfield, forcing Argentina to the wings where they struggled to build plays. For example, you can clearly see Iran’s packing the midfield here:
I’ll hightlight a couple of things about this picture below (apologies for the quality!):
You can see Messi (yellow circle) has dropped deep to see the ball, Gago (red circle) near him. With the two lines of red between them and Higuain/Aguero (underlined), you can just see it’ll be a long night.
Often when Mascherano got the ball, he’d have the scene below to deal with:
Once again, I’ll highlight some things below:
He’s got three options here: there’s a lane to Gago, Messi or Di Maria, but they’re marked. The picture’s too small but the Iran player in front of Masche is organizing the defense and telling his teammates to stay compact and close off the lanes. Masche can also pass to Rojo, or he can pass back. He chooses Rojo and the ball doesn’t cross the halfway line for a while, pinging around the Argentine defense. That eats more time on the clock; no gaps open up because the Argentina players not named Messi or Di Maria are static in their position.
A right wing Messi (underlined in yellow) picking up the ball this far from goal is sadly a familiar sight with Argentina.
There are a couple of ways to advance forward: through a pass or through a dribble. The former needs solid positional play so there are players open to pass to; the latter is pretty self-explanatory, you need someone with the ability to beat the defenders.
With the majority of the Argentina players stationed along the wings, the only way to breach the Iran defense was either through quick pass interplay between the Messi-Gago-Zabaleta triumvirate on the right or Di Maria-Kun-Rojo triumvirate on the left, or Messi/Di Maria would beat a couple Iran players with a dribble. With Di Maria so off form and having a huge workload on top of his offensive duties, the dribbling part was left to a Messi marked by at least three players.
This game seemed destined to end 0-0 and that would have been the fair result, but then the main part of Argentina’s game plan came out – individual brilliance from Messi – and they won 1-0.
(Moments of magic from Messi have been the way they’ve won nearly every match they played so far in the tournament.)
Here come the Super Eagles
In one of the more entertaining games of an entertaining competition, Vincent Enyeama and Nigeria rolled into town, hoping for a repeat of the last time these two team met. Or maybe just to troll Di Maria and win all our hearts, which they will succeed in.
In this game, Messi (circled in yellow) was central pretty much from the get-go:
Which makes me wonder if Sabella moved to right wing against Iran deliberately. In any case it was a far more open game. Nigeria were looser in the midfield than Iran, and Di Maria recovered some form as he put Enyeama to the test with some long range shots.
The big come away from this game that I got other than Enyeama is freaking delight is that Zabaleta got absolutely roasted by Musa time and time again. It got kind of embarrassing after a while. Musa’s job was to attack the channel between Zabaleta and Fernandez, and he did so to great effect for Nigeria. When Zabaleta either drifted too close to his CB or was caught out of position, Nigeria took advantage, as seen in Musa’s first goal.
how many goals could an argie score if an argie was out of form
Speaking of form, the lack of it may be the damaging aspect for Argentina. A lot of talk is rightly about Argentina’s forwards but outside Messi, they have started quite poorly. Di Maria’s loss of form may just been the universe continuing to right itself after La Decima, as he has been improving, and he has an excuse as a player with the most demanding role (outside maybe Mascherano) in Argentina’s formation, but Higuain and Aguero (injury) have also been lacking. This is killer because for Argentina’s “system” to work, they need their forwards in top form and scoring, especially since they don’t track back to help out the defense.
Though it’s known that Argentina’s defense is average it bears repeating that they’re really not that good. Zabaleta often has the most time and space on the ball, but his delivery and overall contribution has been very lacking. Rojo is similar story on the opposite flank (but considering he plays his trade as a LCB at Sporting Lisbon it’s more understandable). They leave a lot space behind when they move forward, which leaves Mascherano more space to defend, as Gago is quite slow and isn’t able to track back effectively.
Lucas Biglia or Enzo Perez?
Argentina need to maximize their strengths and if possible minimize their weaknesses. That’s true for all teams but Argentina are doing neither at the moment. Their defense, no matter how many numbers are in it, is still shaky. If Argentina’s real strength is their attack, they have to give their forwards more support. Gago is overloaded in that department. True, Argentina have stopped producing creative midfielders and I doubt Sabella will make changes against Switzerland but if he were to make some and for some freakish reason he’d take my suggestions…
Well. I’d probably add another midfielder. What can I say? Barca DNA.
I confess not to have watched many Serie A games this season, so how Lucas Biglia performed for Lazio is a question mark. But I did see Benfica in Europa League and the 2013/14 season in general has been a historic one for them. Enzo Perez was considered by Benfica’s coach Jorge Jesus as the brain of the team and the most difficult player to replace. He’s not bad defensively and slotting him beside Gago in the midfield would help with building attacks, and take a load off Di Maria.
Sounds great but there are of course trade offs. This sounds nuts, but it’s not like they haven’t used this formation in qualifiers. A 3-5-2:
Lavezzi – Higuain
Di-Maria – Enzo Perez – Messi – Gago
Rojo – Garay - Fernandez
Rojo is Sabella’s guy, so he wouldn’t take him out for anything. On the plus side he is a LCB for his club Sporting Lisbon, so to play him on the far left of a back 3 wouldn’t be that big of a shock.
Just something I’d like to see but we probably won’t. Too late to experiment and Sabella will go with the tried and true method of hoping Messi creates something from nothing. He’s already done it twice (at least).
those yellow boots
One real convenience that comes with footballers and their multicoloured cleats is that it makes them pretty easy to identify on grainy streams if you know what colour cleats they wear. During the two matches, I kept noticing that whenever Iran or Nigeria won the ball and started their counter, an Argentina player with neon yellow cleats would always be on them in an instant. Not only that, said player would usually be the one to actually win the ball from the Iranian or Nigerian player, despite other Argentinean defenders swarming around.
I dubbed the Argentina player with neon yellow cleats as the ‘Get stuff done’ guy since, uh, he seemed to be the one that really got stuff done. Alternatively, he was like the garbage man, running from touchline to touchline picking up loose balls or winning em. It’s a dirty, tiring, thankless job but someone’s gotta do it. Well, there are 4 other people that got to do it, too, but only one that can consistently win the ball.
In breaking news surprising absolutely no one, that player is Javier Mascherano. But outside the role of resident garbage man, Masche could also be called The Organizer. He’s very, very vocal on the pitch and is always instructing teammates on this or telling them to watch out for that, pointing them here or there. El Jefecito, The Little Boss, indeed. (I’d actually upgrade him to El Jefe, period)
I knew intellectually that he does that on the pitch, but it’s one thing to read about it and another to see it. The speed in going from touchline to touchline to get the ball is incredible. One second he’d be in the opponent’s half, the next he’s collecting the ball near Argentina’s corner flag.
Mascherano is currently doing the job we’re used to see Busquets do for Barcelona and given how well that went for us this season… I’m not sure Mascherano will be able to take on two or three players every game. Maybe he can with Switzerland but if, knock on a lot of wood, Argentina face Netherlands in the semifinals…
But of course, first come the Swiss.
Switzerland in the middle
I think they won’t be as disciplined as Iran but they won’t be as loose as Nigeria, either. There have been reports that Argentina are practicing set pieces and penalties in training (as opposed to taking a rest day or doing practice matches). Not to put too much weight in such things, but it doesn’t surprise me. Those appear to be Argentina’s best chances to score outside a Messi golazo off a Di Maria dribble from a ball-winning Mascherano’s cross-field pass.
Switzerland seem to have trouble scoring themselves but with really only Mascherano to beat during their transition from defense to offense, it’d fancy a couple of good scoring opportunities. Whether they get the goal depends on which Romero shows up – the one from the Iran game or the one that’s backup keeper at Monaco.
This is how they’ll probably line up (in red):
Against France, though, they were done in by pushing their full-backs too high and being caught on the counter. Many of France’s goals came from wide areas, which will be to Argentina’s advantage if Lavezzi, likely to start, can improve his passes in the final third.
Even if this is the World Cup as imagined by internet trolls, I don’t think it’ll be a free scoring affair.
[H/T to @Emenderk for the Messi picture]