And as we’re coming ever closer to the 2019 iteration of Copa América, Argentina are also preparing for their 41st appearance on the coveted tournament, which they have been crowned the champions of on 14 different occasions, the first dating all the way back to 1921. Even though the Gauchos are, in fact, the second most successful nation to ever take part in the competition, only behind Uruguay, they haven’t won it, to the world’s amazement, since 1993.
It was a breathtaking period of 26 years without the taste of victory and all in the time of Lionel Messi gracing the pitch and trying to lead the Albiceleste jersey to glory. This tactical preview will look to dissect the Argentina team, give you insight into how they might play and how successful can they be throughout the tournament.
A breath of fresh air
Lionel Scaloni has officially been the Argentina manager for only a total of three games. Their former coach, Jorge Sampaoli has been relieved of his duty after the Gauchos crashed and burned in the 2018 World Cup in Russia during the summer, and Scaloni took over first as caretaker and then, in November last year, he was presented with the job, all black on white.
Since then, counting all of the games (all were friendlies), Scaloni has lead the team on nine separate occasions, winning six, drawing one and losing two games, leaving him with a pretty good record of approximately 66% win rate so far. But those numbers, while flattering and optimistic, are simply a far cry from a true image of the state of this Argentina team.
But especially because of the low sample of games presented to us, it’s fairly difficult to pull out accurate estimations and predictions since Scaloni, not entirely due to a fault of his own, doesn’t actually have a clear system in mind. Still, with that being said, we’ll look into his personnel and the troops he did call up for the Copa América and will try to predict possible systems that could come into play once the tournament gets underway on 14 June.
Here’s Argentina’s 23-man squad called up and handpicked by Scaloni:
Goalkeepers: Franco Armani, Agustín Marchesín, Esteban Andrada
Defenders: Nicolas Otamendi, Ramiro Funes Mori, Marcos Acuña, Nicolas Tagliafico, German Pezzella, Renzo Saravia, Juan Foyth
Midfielders: Ángel Di María, Roberto Pereyra, Giovani Lo Celso, Leandro Paredes, Rodrigo De Paul, Exequiel Palacios, Guido Rodríguez, Ivan Marcone
Forwards: Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Paulo Dybala, Lautaro Martínez, Matias Suárez
Just by glancing at the squad, we can easily conclude Argentina do have some serious firepower up front and some other talented individuals but this team is far from perfect and their gaps pretty much haven’t been properly addressed in years.
Starting with the goalkeepers, Franco Armani is once again poised to be the team’s number one choice between the sticks but the omission of Gerónimo Rulli, Real Sociedad’s keeper who has had a pretty decent season in La Liga but somehow didn’t manage to find his name on Scaloni’s sheet.
The defence is probably Argentina’s greatest weakness as they generally lack the pace or the overall quality to compete with the best of them. However, the centre-back pairing between the Fiorentina man, German Pezzella and Nicolas Otamendi is pretty much set in stone with Tottenham’s Juan Foyth also slowly making a name for himself.
But another problem might be the right-back position since Argentina only really have Renzo Saravia to choose from and no one else. A similar thing is true for the left-back position where Nicolas Tagliafico and Marcos Acuna operate but Scaloni does have some room to strategise here.
The midfield is a big question mark, especially after Éver Banega has been left out once again and the middle of the park craves for some more creativity. The bright spot is, however, Giovani Lo Celso, who’s already making a big impact on the team and could prove to be vital.
Gauchos’ attack needs no special introduction as Lionel Messi will be leading the charge but very good news for the team is the return of Sergio Agüero after Gonzalo Higuaín has called it a day and won’t feature in the national team again.
Style of play – Analysis
It’s safe to say that in his nine-game run so far, Lionel Scaloni has been experimenting with the team, trying out different systems and different tactics. As a result of that, there is no definite answers to what his preferred formation might be but 4-3-3 was used the most (29%), followed closely by 4-4-2 (22%) and finally 3-4-3 (15%).
Even though the 4-3-3 system might seem like the obvious route to go, it’s important to note that Scaloni only had Lionel Messi in two of his nine games in charge and that changes his approach dramatically. In all of the instances, however, when the team operated in a 4-3-3 system, Leo was absent. Once he returned, against Venezuela in March and Nicaragua just days ago, Scaloni opted for a different approach: 3-4-3 in the former case, and 4-4-2/ 4-2-3-1 in the latter.
Judging by that alone, we can presume that having Messi changes his perspective and we might end up seeing Argentina line up differently than expected. Still, let’s see how Scaloni instructed his team to play overall.
Attacking style of play
Argentina’s latest bout with Nicaragua might have been the dress rehearsal for the Copa América in terms of the personnel deployed and the system used. Scaloni opted for a narrow 3-4-3 hybrid that converted into a 4-2-3-1 in the build-up phase. This is a simple, yet efficient way of a possession-based structure that is centred around building from the back.
Usually, it revolves around the double pivot in the centre of the park and inside forwards out on the flanks and, of course, Lionel Messi at the heart of it just behind the striker. The interesting thing is how Scaloni utilises his double pivot of midfielders to assist the build-up.
Notice in the image above how the duo in the middle of the park descend deeper to assist the defensive line with progressing the ball forward and creating triangles with their teammates. In the scenario above, one of the midfielders approaches the centre-back and the winger drops as well to essentially nullify the opposition’s press and create multiple passing channels for Argentina.
The same thing happens in the next example and on the other side. Again, the combination of a centre-back, one of the pivots and the wide player, in this case, the right-back instead of the winger. The result is usually the same and the advancement of the ball is a lot easier.
But this is not the only way Argentina set up during the build-up phase. Another system used when Messi is present is the 3-4-3 formation which offers a similar thing. Three centre-backs will stretch out and attract the opposition’s press and a single pivot will approach the defensive line for support.
In that system, a single pivot is often deployed behind the line of three midfielders and then a forward trio that sees Messi tuck inside for the overlapping full-backs.
In that scenario, the pivot’s responsibility remains mostly the same – screening the opposition’s pressing squad and giving an extra passing outlet to the backline that builds the attack. The main idea is to attract the attention of the forward(s) and deter it from his teammates. When implemented successfully, this tactic enables easier ball progression but can also be countered by a forward duo if utilised correctly.
Naturally, when looking at the bigger picture, the 3-4-3 should put more bodies in midfield and enable Messi to be freer in the number 10 role, like in the image above where he stays up front and is ready to receive the ball unmarked.
But even though on paper Argentina do maintain their shape as much as possible, the rest of the midfielders often drop to land a helping hand and to counter the possibility of overcrowding.
Generally speaking, Argentina have two main plans of attack: exploitation of the wings and Lionel Messi. The latter one being their big gun but more on that later. It’s difficult to talk about a really set in stone tactic when the sample of games is so small but Scaloni does seem to prefer the inverted wingers in a narrow shape approach.
Since Messi likes to cut inside and stay in that number 10 role just behind the striker, the right flank is mostly empty until either the full-back or one of the midfielder deputises for their superstar. But this is also a big part of the plan.
Messi positions himself centrally, the wide midfielder stays nice and narrow and the full-back charges forward to attack the free space his teammate created by dragging his marker away from the usual wide shape.
Notice in the example above how Argentina decide to play within a narrow imaginary box on the pitch, letting their full-back provide the necessary width once the time and the opening is just right. Messi maintains his central position while the wide player (on paper) stays narrow, allowing for a quick overlap.
Movement manipulation seems to be the name of the game for the Gauchos and Messi plays his part as well. In the next example below, Messi drops just slightly to disrupt the opponent’s shape, dragging the defender from his line and creating space to exploit the wing.
It does seem like the Gauchos will pretty much still prefer the wing play as both of their respective flanks seem to be the focus more so than the central line of approach. 38% of all of their attacks flow through the left and 35% through the right, leaving the rest (27%) for the central approach. But since Messi usually occupies those zones, Argentina do try and build from it.
The goal is, of course, to give Messi as much creative freedom in that area as possible so he can thread those deadly passes or be a threat to the opposition’s goal himself. It goes without saying that stopping Messi is stopping Argentina, and that can be said without much doubt.
Defensive style of play
When defending, Argentina are all about regaining possession as quickly as possible and will, therefore, on most occasions, deploy a sustained high-press with blocking off the passing channels. This press doesn’t necessarily go all the way up to the goalkeeper but if that does happen, one of the forwards is tasked with that while the rest cover the exits.
The reason why they can’t force such a press at all times and as effectively is because Messi is conserving energy and is only participating with short sprints and/or screening of the closest defenders.
The default approach is thus to cover the channels and force the opposition into mistakes. Once they have cornered them and left them with only risky options, Argentina will aim to collapse and retain possession quickly in danger areas.
This is actually where they have thrived recently and on average, under Scaloni, they 71.44 recoveries per game and total 34.56 interceptions.
When and if that press is bypassed, they revert to a narrow 4-3-3 or 5-4-1 with Messi as the lone forward in the opposition’s half in the case of transition play and a stolen ball. This, however, will depend on whether Messi is present or not. They have been known to use a standard 4-4-2 without him but since he is very much expected to feature, it’s safe to presume his defensive tasks will be minimal.
In the example below, you can see their 4-3-3 squad returning to shape once the threat has been neutralised and the opponent is sent retreating to their own half of the pitch.
Predicting Argentina’s lineup would be a tall task even for Scaloni, let alone us but we can try anyway. We can already conclude that most of the pieces are very much set in stone but there are some question marks the coach will have to answer.
For now, it seems unlikely we’ll see any form of a 4-3-3 even though that was Scaloni’s preferred choice throughout his nine games in charge but with Messi in the team once again, a 4-4-2 or a 3-4-3 is more likely to be deployed.
With all of that in mind, here are two possible formations Lionel Scaloni might consider heading into the Copa América:
This Argentina is rejuvenated and feels fresh on the outside but they are still not nearly the favourites in this tournament. The likes of Brazil and Uruguay should, in theory, still walk all over them if they should meet in the competition at some point.
With that being said, there is a renewed sense of optimism with the new coach and some of the newcomers into the team and, of course, they still have Lionel Messi so they also have hope. When all is said and done, are they real contenders? Not likely. But they can still dream, and that, they are allowed to do. Let’s dream together with them.
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