A game that a lot of people expected to be an easy encounter for Argentina has ended in a 1-1 draw. The goalscoring started with a scintillating Sergio Aguero strike that took La Albiceleste to 1-0, but Alred Finnbogason then levelled to make it 1-1. The key talking point, however, was when Lionel Messi had his penalty kick that could have won it for Argentina saved in the second half. Messi also had many attempts on goal, but none of them went in.
This game may look like an instance in which Messi let his team down, or another day when Messi was let down by his team, but the answer lies much deeper. Let’s take a closer look.
Messi, like always, proved to be the main man for his team in this game. Barcelona’s and Argentina’s dependence on Messi is so famous that there’s even a Wikipedia section called Messidependencia.
Let’s start of with shots: out of the 27 shots Argentina took, Messi took 11. He also directly assisted 3 shots, so he was responsible for 51.85% of Argentina’s shots. Argentina were dependent on Messi for their passing too – he played 46% of their total passes.
Predictably, it was Messi who used up most of Argentina’s possessions. Using usage rates – a metric that’s used in basketball frequently that the wonderful Martin Hawkes-Teeter has often applied to football – Messi ended 28% of Argentina’s possessions by shooting, assisting a shot, or missing the ball. That’s huge; look at that figure in comparison to Argentina’s other players:
While Messi might be unfairly blamed by many for Argentina’s lack of success on the day, it’s worth noting that Messi was almost single-handedly conducting Argentina’s plays.
Iceland’s early attacks
With Argentina dominating the ball, Iceland’s main source of attacks was on the counter. They ended up counter-attacking quite well, too. In the first half, as Paul Carr notes, Iceland had better chances than Argentina moving forward, with 1.02 expected goals (xG) in comparison to Argentina’s 0.51.
Iceland usually took to passing the ball long. More than 26% (a sky-high number) of their passes were 25 yards or longer. On the other hand, Argentina head coach Jorge Sampaoli likes his teams to press high, but this is hard for a team that starts out with defensive midfielders Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano, and center-backs Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo – all four of them not as dynamic for a high-pressing system to take effect. Their tactics aren’t a great fit when facing a team like Iceland – who sit deep and counter-attacks with long balls (remember this meme?).
Argentina after losing the ball constantly left spaces in between the midfielders and the defenders, and between the defenders and the goal. These spaces were exploited by Iceland with their long balls. They have physically-adept attackers like Jóhann Berg Gudmundsson, Birkir Bjarnason, Alfred Finnbogason, and Gylfi Sigurdsson who could out-muscle Argentine defenders and win the second ball.
Hannes Thor Halldórsson, the filmmaker and goalkeeper who saved Messi’s penalty, took a large share of Iceland’s long passing. With 6 accurate long balls, he moved the ball forward the most for Iceland.
After Finnbogason equalised, what got Iceland the draw was their defending. That takes us to our final section.
Nordic Burnley and Argentina’s shot selection
The key to Iceland’s draw was their excellent work at the back. In the second half, Iceland took exactly zero shots and worked on constricting Argentina’s attack. Argentina made several entries into the Icelandic half, but none of these entries resulted in a goal in the second 45-minute split.
In the entire game, they had just 22% of the ball to Argentina’s 78%. They didn’t just concede the opposition half: Iceland didn’t seem too bothered about Argentina completing passes inside Iceland’s defensive third.
Iceland also ended up conceding a ton of shots in the process, but here’s where it gets interesting: out of the 27 shots Argentina took, 15 were from outside the box. On top of it, 10 of those 27 shots were blocked by the Iceland defenders. To sum it up, Argentina did shoot a lot, but their shots weren’t of the highest quality, with an xG/shot of just 0.047 according to TruMedia Sports. Messi himself was limited to low-quality shots, with an xG/shot of 0.028. For comparison, Messi’s xG/shot at Barcelona is a royal 0.147.
This is where Argentina’s problems in attack were: while Argentina seamlessly got into the final third, their progression into the Iceland box was poor. This is reflected in the movement of the ball in the final 15 minutes – it’s a whirlwind right outside the box, but there’s very little movement within it.
While some of this can be attributed to Argentina not playing possible passes for rather optimistic shots, it’s largely down to Iceland’s defending. They positioned themselves to make sure Argentina couldn’t penetrate the central areas. Setting up in a 4-4-2, Iceland defended with two lines of four, and they were generally quite compact vertically and horizontally.
An issue for Argentina, in my opinion, was that their defensive midfielders Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano aren’t exactly known for their incisive passing. They were often restricted to switched balls to the wings. Sometimes, they rotated the ball in a U-shape, with Di Maria passing to Biglia and Biglia passing to Mascherano, and Mascherano passing to Meza and back again. As a result, Messi kept dropping back to the midfield line, as you can see in the above pic. It got a little better when Ever Banega came on at the 53rd minute, with him taking a share of the passing. Banega played 48 successful passes after coming on, which, after adjusting for minutes is, uh, 120 per 90 minutes.
Throughout this review, I’ve treated this draw as some kind of a win for Iceland – which I think is fair considering that most of us expected Argentina to simply brush Iceland aside. The island country’s underdog story has been pushed very frequently (I’m sure some of you know Iceland’s population better than your own age), but it looks like they’re not just a flash-in-the-pan success story, but a side that is well-organised and poised for future success. Their style can be compared to the good ol’ sides of Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, and Sean Dyche’s Burnley. Iceland’s performance may change over the duration of the tournament – one game is a tiny sample – but they’ve taken a point from their group’s hardest fixture. Oh, and keeping Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo quiet on two different occasions definitely warrants some sort of award.
As for Argentina, they’re only a few tweaks away from winning. What I’d do as Sampaoli would be to play at least one of Giovanni Lo Celso and Ever Banega in midfield. They can take care of most of the middle-third passing, and Messi can be used to take care of playing those final touches closer to the goal. Paulo Dybala can be a decent addition too.
Again, 90 minutes is too small a sample to make rigid conclusions from, and I still think Argentina will make it to the next round. These kinds of games are largely affected by randomness, and if one of their shots had gone a few inches towards the goal, the tone of this review would’ve been very different. And after all, Lionel Messi is still around, so the possibilities are just endless.
Featured image by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images