By Joel Parker (@Joelissimmo)
As Argentina’s national anthem was being belted out by supports in the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, the camera panned to a very disgruntled, stressed and worried-looking Lionel Messi, rubbing his forehead, completely abnormal in comparison to his usual relaxed-self. A sign of things to come? Every time the camera was on him, Lionel was looking down onto the floor, as if he was dragging his shoulders from it, and in a brutal conclusion from this match, you can’t really blame him. In the many World Cups I’ve watched, I can’t recall an Argentine performance just as bad, not just from players individually, but tactically they had literally no idea what to do. Messi wasn’t fed, the midfielders were all over the shop, and as the game went on, they couldn’t string two passes together.
Let’s start off with the team selection. Jorge Sampaoli changed the formation from a 4-2-3-1 vs Iceland into a 3-4-3, which Messi had told Sampaoli not to use (prior to the tournament) as he had struggled to perform in the system previously under Enrique at Barcelona. It turns out he was proved right. Croatia meanwhile set up in a 4-1-4-1, which enabled Brozovic a lot of influence in spreading the ball out to both flanks; exposing a lot of space left behind by Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuna.
What is so alarming about Argentina’s downfall is that at the start of the game, there was some sort of passing structure intact. Nicolas Otamendi dropped a little deeper than Gabriel Mercado and Nicolas Tagliafico to become an option in space. However, the Man City defender’s only forward option was Javier Mascherano, who would drop into the backline at times. There was a huge disconnect between the defence and midfield; Croatia weren’t even pressing high-up in the first half, but even Mario Mandzukic moving forward was enough for the Argentina defence to make panic passes all over.
A confusing selection in midfield made matters worse. As mentioned, Mascherano dropping deeper and deeper didn’t help, but Perez moving far too much forward up the pitch left an enormous gap in the center of play. This left very few passing options open and the numbers prove it. Overall, Mercado, Otamendi and Tagliafico made a combined 23 passes back towards Caballero throughout the 90 minutes; the goalkeeper’s uncomfortable chips over the Croatia attack must’ve been warning signs prior to his mistake.
The selection of Salvio and Acuna as wing-backs was also a bizarre choice, both naturally wingers that often play there instead of a defensive role. As a result, this left gigantic amounts of space for Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic to expose with Šime Vrsalijko and Ivan Strinic overlapping. A majority of chances created from Croatia were cut-backs or crosses into the area.
Both teams played a very high defensive line, which benefited Croatia much more. This enabled them to overload an empty midfield and recover the ball quickly. In the first half, they didn’t create enough chances from the space left behind from the wing-backs, however in the second forty-five they capitalised on Sampaoli’s poor organisation of his team, thanks to their elite midfield influence in possession.
When the ball eventually found an Argentine attacker, nothing was produced from it. There was zero link-up play between Messi and Aguero, with just four passes exchanged between the two attackers during the 54 minutes Aguero was on the pitch. Not only that, Aguero didn’t touch the ball once in the final 21 minutes of the first half and, along with Messi, had the least amount of touches from any Argentine player. What makes the 3-4-3 formation so popular is the fact that you’re guaranteed to have some sort of link between your three attackers, but in Argentina’s case, this was the exact opposite.
You can see how long Messi is ignored throughout this pass-map, strolling around on the right side of the pitch whilst Aguero struggles to make any impact; even when he moves over to the right. Was this due to Messi’s work rate or Argentina simply not feeding the ball to him? The captain was forced to drop deeper and deeper if he was to get any of possession, but wherever he went, he had a Croatian midfielder following him.
Just watch the organisation between Croatia’s trio around the Argentina captain, when one man is forced to press, another one drops in on him. With so many players around him in this phase of play, the ball doesn’t go to Messi and instead a risky pass out wide is made, Croatia press highly and Rebic wins the ball back.
In the second half, Croatia upped their press even more when a defender got on the ball, which led to multiple mistakes and overturning the ball plenty of times (22 in the second half) and intercepting the ball 8 times in midfield in the last half of the game. This also led to a lot of backwards passing from Argentina: 53 successful passes were made going backwards, while Croatia in comparison made only 30.
Los Gauchos eventually caved in on themselves, with Caballero gifting Rebic the opener. After the goal went in, any form of structure Argentina had went completely out the window. Banega would’ve probably been the best option to get Argentina back in the game, but he was left on the bench. Dybala was brought on far too late to make a good enough impact. Sampaoli’s reaction said it all, taking his jacket off, moving up and down the touchline barking orders and begging his team to try and create something.
To conclude, this was probably the worst Argentina team I’ve ever watched. There was zero creativity or connection between defence, midfield and attack. Sampaoli has failed to capitalize on having by far the best frontline of any nation in this tournament. They’ve written their own death sentence, even though they still have a decent chance getting out of the group. With rumours of no Argentine players turning up to training the following morning, and the fact that they have to win the next game to even have a chance of getting through, it looks as if Argentina will be the World Cup’s biggest victim so far. Can Messi and Sampaoli restore order into Los Gauchos?
Featured image by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images