Is it time? Argentina star Lionel Messi still has not won any major trophy for his country. Some big names such as Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuaín retired from national football, they have got to move on. In the first group match of the Copa América they faced Colombia, a tough opponent.
The clash between two teams ended with two goals from Colombia. In this game, Argentina performed terribly, in terms of attacking and defending, collectively and individually. Colombia won the match, but Argentina was not a big test for them. In this tactical analysis, I will show you some major problems with Argentina.
In the past year, Argentina’s squads usually missed some of their key players such as Sergio Agüero, Nicolás Otamendi and Messi. Therefore, the results in the friendlies were references only. Lionel Scaloni’s lineup and setups should be questioned. Players from Mexico and Argentina leagues (Guído Rodriguez and Renzo Saravia) started; Germán Pezzella started; Funes Mori, Roberto Pereyra, Paulo Dybala all benched. With Agüero and Messi starting together, they played in a 4-4-2 formation.
Colombia possessed some familiar players who were playing in major leagues in Europe. Yerry Mina and Davinson Sánchez formed the central defence. Santiago Arias, Jefferson Lerma, Duván Zapata were all benched. However, Falcao and James Rodríguez still had the position despite the average performance at clubs. Carlos Queiroz’s team played in a 4-3-3 formation.
Argentina played a midblock instead of pressing
Argentina did not press high in this game. Instead, they formed a midblock with a 4-4-2 shape. The approach was conceivable since their attacking players, Agüero, Messi, and Ángel Di María, were all over 30.
Their stamina constrained their running distance, the press would not sustain and intense. Therefore, they had to use a midblock. However, there were some problems in their system. First, is the defensive duty of Messi. Since Messi was expected to focus on attacking moves, he need not defend. As a result, it was more like a 4-4-1 or even 4-4 when defending. This brought another question, from what extent should the other Argentina players step out to defend? If they left their position, how could they cover it? The low defensive duty of Messi and Agüero allowed their opponent build-up easily. It gave their centre backs spaces to drift forward.
Poor marking from Pezzella
Pezzella played beside Otamendi this game. However, the Fiorentina defender seems not focused enough in the match. The biggest problem was his marking. Sometimes he focused on the ball too much and forgot the opposition. Otamendi recovered his position for a few times in this match. At the same time, his teammates Saravia had two international caps before the game only. His quality is still a question. In this game, their right side of defence looked fragile.
Two below images showed the defensive problem of Pezzella and the system mentioned. Sánchez had the ball, no one pressed him, he could play the ball without any pressure. Giovani Lo Celso intended to close off him, but this left William Tesillo totally freed.
G. Rodriguez should position himself better by stepping forward and adjusting his body shape to shut the passing lane towards Falcao. In Colombia’s frontline, Falcao interchanged the position with J. Rodríguez to confuse their marker (Saravia and Pezzella). Pezzella was attracted by Falcao and the gap between him and Otamendi was bigger. Tesillo then received the ball freed again. J. Rodríguez was behind Pezzella, utilizing the spaces between the centre backs. Pezzella forgot to mark the opposition and he let J. Rodríguez received the ball in the box. If not Otamendi’s recovery, they conceded a shooting chance already. Similar scenes happened more in the game, that’s why Argentina’s right side looked fragile.
Argentina’s direct plays in transitions
When regaining the ball to attack, Argentina tried some direct plays. Since Colombia would commit players forward, their defensive line was drawn higher. They did not perform an instant counter-press to win the ball back. It gave Argentina chances to exploit the space behind their defensive line. If they could get the passes and timing right, the frontline players could take on David Ospina one on one.
Taking the below scene as an example, our analysis shows Argentina recovered the ball in their own half. They passed the ball to Messi to start countering. In that instant, two Colombia players stayed in front of Messi since they knew they could not allow Messi to dribble. At the same time, Agüero was running behind the defenders instead of dropping between the lines. Messi knew that and played the pass. Unfortunately, the ball wasn’t right to find Agüero. They missed that killer pass throughout the game. Therefore, they could not create chances through direct plays in transitions.
Argentina’s stable build-up in the early stages
Argentina did not lose the ball in the centre of the pitch in this game. This is thanks to their conservative setup. Scaloni was trying to replicate part of the Manchester City’s system in the build-up phase. They did not take the risks to lose possession in this area. Through support from the double-pivots, they could maintain an absolute numerical superiority in this stage. The distance between the double pivots and defenders should be close. They tried to play in a 3-2-3-2 or 3-3-1-3 when attacking (depending on Nicolás Tagliafico’s and Messi’s position). The Colombia players did not press the centre backs in this stage, so they could move the ball easier.
The analysis demonstrated the setup of Argentina’s first build-up phase. Otamendi, Pezzella and Saravia formed like three at the back. One of the double-pivots G. Rodriguez or Leandro Parades, positioned themselves between the lines with the other one supported his teammates. Therefore, they could have five players against two or three opponents in this phase. At the far side, Tagliafico stayed slightly higher. Also, Di María was isolated at the left flank as well – a problem I will address later.
However, this setup also had its drawbacks. The midfielders were conservative and reluctant to go forward. They seldom positioned themselves in the final-third to support teammates in the first half. The below image was an example.
Di María had the ball, but he was in trouble. Why? First, Agüero did not exploit the space to receive the ball. Instead, he just stood in front of Mina. Second, the positioning of Parades, G. Rodriguez and Saravia. All these players stayed out of the entire Colombia defence. No forward runs to take the opponents away. No passing options to penetrate inside against the oppositions. As a result, Di María passed the ball to Agüero who loses the ball. In this setup, the midfielders were nearer to the defenders, but it would not help to create chances.
The vanished Di María
Di María just played 45 minutes in this game. He was replaced by Rodrigo de Paul after the break. Below was the heatmap of the winger, his stats were terrible in this game. 15 touches only; 10 passes (70% successful rate); No shots; No key passes; No fouls won; No dribbles attempted; No crosses; and no any quantified defensive contributions. He was just like vanished on the pitch.
The reasons for Di María’s poor performance were twofold. First, it was his positioning, maybe due to Scaloni’s instructions. Di María’s biggest strengths are dribbling and crossing. However, he did not attempt either in this game. Another reason could be attributed to the system. In the mentioned Argentina build-up, Tagliafico usually stayed in an advanced position, which means he was more likely marked. On the other side, Saravia stayed deeper and he made himself an easy option to pass. Therefore, the Argentina players tended to pass to that side instead of Di María’s left flank. Sometimes the passes to Di María were poor and he seldom receives the ball. These were the reasons why Di María struggled.
No threat at the right flank
On the right, Argentina did not attack smoothly as they wished. Instead, they could not create chances at the right flank as well. This could be attributed to Saravia’s positioning and the system. The below image addressed the problem. No one hit the space down the right flank. Lo Celso was a talented player, but he was not a winger. He was a left-footed player and he tended to drift inside instead of staying wide. Ideally, this could draw the Tesillo out of his position and generate space behind him.
However, Lo Celso’s moves were usually in vain due to Saravia’s conservative playing style. G. Rodriguez, Lo Celso, Saravia formed a triangle to pass and supported each other. It looked fine if they only intended to keep the ball. If not, they should utilize the space behind Tesillo, who was out of his position. As a right back, Saravia could have stayed in an advanced position to provide width. Merely keeping the ball would not win the game. As a result, Argentina failed to gain advantage from Lo Celso’s movements.
Scaloni’s changes after the break
Argentina played poorly in the first half. Fortunately, the scoreline was still equal. Argentina had to create their chances. Scaloni made some amendments to his systems and it worked in the early periods after the break. Messi moved to the right flank more often, with Saravia moved into advanced position earlier. Then they could create triangles with Lo Celso to attack sides. If not, then Messi or Lo Celso could drift inside to look for more options. Also, a pivot had to stay higher to cover the space after Messi left his position.
The below image showed the changes of Scaloni. Messi, Lo Celso, Saravia formed the triangle. The right flank was filled with Colombia defenders and Messi noticed Parades, who came forward. Messi had the ability to draw the attention of many opponents, which applied to the below case as well. Nearly all Colombia players were focusing on Messi and left Parades and Rodrigo freed. With Parades’ linkage, the ball could deliver to Rodrigo for a cross smoothly.
Agüero also received some instructions in the break. In the first half, he played like a traditional striker who pushed the defensive line deeper instead of exploiting spaces between the lines. In the second half, Agüero dropped more often to drag a defender out. It created spaces for his teammates. As shown below, Agüero’s movement dragged Mina out. Messi quickly recognized that space after Mina left his position and he received Agüero’s backheel. It created a golden chance to score but Messi was unable to put the ball into the net. Argentina played better at this stage of the game. They nearly scored.
What has Pizarro done?
This subheading sounds cynical, but it’s true. Guido Pizarro replaced G. Rodriguez in the 67th minute. This change decided how the game was ended. The question is why he played instead of Pereyra and Dybala, when Argentina needed to score.
The below image reflected how why playing Pizarro was unnecessary. I mentioned the stable build-up before, but Argentina needs more than just a stable build-up. They need players to make forward runs, attacking the box. They need some inspirations in the final third. However, Pizarro was just replacing the position of G. Rodriguez and his job. It was dismay to see how close the below Argentina players stayed together in the final minutes. They had numerical superiority, but useless since they could not progress to an advanced stage. Three players at there would be enough instead of four. Moreover, Saravia’s positioning problem appeared again. The Colombia defenders stayed tight which left spaces at the right flank. However, Saravia did not exploit those spaces. Thus, Argentina failed to create chances from this pattern of attacking.
Other than the attacking contribution, defensive awareness was the real problem of Pizarro. His terrible defensive awareness caused the two goals. Both goals were from counter attacks. As a defensive midfielder, Pizarro should defend better in this phase. As the below image showed, Saravia faced Roger Martínez alone. Since Falcao occupied Otamendi and Pazzella, the gap between Saravia and Pazzella was huge. As a defensive midfielder, Pizarro should cover that area just in case Martínez got pasted Saravia as soon as he could. However, he reacted slowly. When Martínez dribbled past Saravia, he got pocket of space to shoot. Pizarro was slow to stop him.
Pizarro should have done better in Colombia’s second goal as well. This was a counter attack as well. Pizarro covered Otamendi’s position this time. He formed the defensive line with Pezzella and Saravia. Zapata was at Pezzella’s blindside, so Pizarro should take care of him. However, when the cross came in, Pizarro allowed Zapata to get into the pocket of space and scored. If he tracked the Zapata, he could have made his shot difficult to attempt or even blocking it. If he looked at the ball, he could have taken one step forward to clear the ball earlier. However, he just stood and allowed Zapata to score.
Colombia won the battle against Argentina. Both teams got chances to score, the difference between Colombia’s xG (1.14) and Argentina’s xG (0.78) was not huge. However, Argentina has a lot of problems within the team. They only got two shots in the first half, which was a poor figure given the strong squad they’ve got. They have to perform better and bounce back in the next games. Or else Scaloni’s systems and his decision would be challenged.