Nigeria faced off against Argentina in the final group game of the supposed “group of death” Group D, the game turned out to be a closely fought encounter despite a rather improved showing by the Albiceleste, in the end it took an emergency centre forward in the person of Marcos Rojo to save the day for Messi and co. This is an analysis of the trends during the match.
Nigeria’s coach Gernot Rohr opted to name the same starting eleven that got the job done against Iceland and so made no alterations
Formation (5 – 3 – 2) Francis Uzoho / Victor Moses – Leon Balogun – William Troost-Ekong / – Kenneth Omeruo – Idowu / Wilfred Ndidi – Mikel Obi – Etebo / Ahmed Musa – Kelechi Iheanacho
In contrast to his opposite number, Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli had every reason to alter his starting eleven and he made four changes with Armani, Marcos Rojo, Ever Banega, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain coming in for Acuna, Salvio, Caballero and Aguero.
Formation: (4 – 4 – 2): Armani / Mercado – Otamendi – Rojo – Tagliafico / Mascherano – Banega – Enzo Perez – Di Maria / Messi – Higuain
Made using TacticalPad
ARGENTINA’S CHANGE OF SHAPE:
So far in this tournament, Argentina have had difficulty properly integrating Messi into the play, the 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 used against Iceland had limited success and the 3 – 4 – 3 employed against Croatia failed woefully, in this game, Sampaoli used Messi as a supporting striker to connect the play in the final third and still be in positions where he can use his prodigious finishing ability. Argentina focused their attacks down the right side probably due to the presence of Messi in that area, the positional fluidity evident in this area of the pitch always revolved around Messi and what he was doing: if Messi went wide, then Enzo Perez would invert into the half space and Mercado would provide depth to recycle possession if they could not break through; on the other hand, if Messi stayed in the half space, then Perez would temporarily occupy the wide area and Mascherano would come over to provide depth in the half space and allow Mercado to focus on controlling Musa in the case of a ball loss.
#passmap for Argentina by @11tegen11. The passmap shows Argentina’s right sided focus in build up with Di Maria acting as an outlet on the left
Now, true to the ideals of his mentor Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli always seeks to have one more defender than the opposition has strikers, so with Nigeria playing with two up front, Mercado played as the third centre back, a role he is very comfortable with considering he is actually a centre back by trade. In possession, the shape resembled a 3-4-1-2 with Di Maria and Higuain on the last line and Messi roaming in the free role. Due to the use of Mercado as a third centre back, Argentina rarely attacked the byline on the right side, preferring instead to circulate possession there and invite Nigeria to shift in that direction and then either pass diagonally towards Higuain or quickly re-circulate through the central midfielders and find Di Maria outside the block with Moses fixated on man marking Tagliafico, if done properly, Di Maria could even be slipped through on goal since he usually succeeded in isolating the right half back Leon Balogun. It was such a move that led to Di Maria getting in behind Balogun before being clipped for the Messi free kick that Uzoho pushed onto the post.
One occasion when Di Maria can directly attack Balogun with space to dribble into due to the shifting of Nigeria’s midfield block to deal with the overload on the right and Moses’ fixation with Tagliafico. The shot also clearly shows Nigeria’s 5 – 3 – 2 with only Iheanacho not shown
Enzo Perez was a very important player for this system as he balanced Messi’s movements well and was defensively aware when Nigeria had the ball, tucking in to complete a midfield four with Banega, Mascherano and Di Maria.
Nigeria rarely threatened in the first half, Gernot Rohr had set up his team to be hard to beat knowing that a draw might very well be enough to send them through to the last sixteen, so the super Eagles concentrated on creating from set pieces and fast breaks forward as well as with some direct play towards Iheanacho and Musa; however, they had very limited success with this tactic for two reasons- Argentina exerted a strong counter pressure on the ball usually forcing the ball carrier into a hurried clearance which was usually gathered by Argentina, when they could not do this, they would settle for forcing the ball back and slowing down the momentum to allow them get back into their shape.
An example of Argentine counter pressure after a stray pass from Mascherano forcing the ball forward to Musa and then playing it out for a throw to kill momentum.
When they had any sustained possession, Argentina would drop into a 4 -4 -2 defensive shape to break this, Nigeria would seek to play between the lines to Iheanacho but the Leicester City man was closely followed by Marcos Rojo usually forcing the ball back to its starting point or sometimes even winning it. When they tied to play in the air, the results weren’t very different as Iheanacho has a qualitative inferiority to Rojo in aerial duels. In effect, Nigeria’s most promising moments were self inflicted by Argentine mistakes and they were unable to create anything of substance.
Much changed in the second half, Rohr brought on Ighalo for Iheanacho thereby improving the odds against Rojo in the aerial duels, Nigeria equalized early and Argentina looked like losing their heads. Di Maria who was so effective in the first half running behind the half back completely faded for two reasons: 1) Moses’ increased defensive awareness not to let Balogun so exposed and 2) Argentine impatience to get the ball to him usually through lofted passes that were easily read and controlled by the Nigerian defense. They were no longer careful to create the proper conditions on the right before exploiting the left and Nigeria were more defensively comfortable than in the first half. Also, as the game wore on and the Argentine players tired, their ability to counter press dropped markedly allowing Nigeria to escape on a number of occasions usually with balls towards Ahmed Musa to make use of his pace and direct dribbling against Mercado, Argentina were less able to control these situations and lived dangerously on a number of occasions with Ighalo missing a 1 v 1 with the keeper and then volleying narrowly wide after a strong penalty shout that called for the intervention of VAR.
In the end, Argentina’s subs the desired impact with Meza receiving the ball to feet and dribbling diagonally which was something that Nigeria hadn’t had to deal with, also Pavon came on for Perez and was a genuine threat out wide, this was important as Nigeria retreated more and more into a low block and it was his cross that Rojo converted for the winning goal. The Albiceleste march on but the Super Eagles can take great pride in their performances in the tournament as they gave a very good account of themselves in Russia, they should be proud of themselves, I certainly am proud of them.