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Argentina’s hopes of Copa América progression are dangling by a thread after a 1-1 draw with Paraguay in Mineirão on Wednesday night. Lionel Messi scored a controversial 57th minute equaliser from the penalty spot to cancel out a strike from Richard Sánchez in the 37th minute. The result demands Argentina beat Qatar and Colombia take points off Paraguay for Messi and co to qualify for the knockout rounds. In this tactical analysis, we will look at Argentina’s lack of structure and how Messi provides a difficult puzzle to solve.
Match Analysis – Statistics
In truth, by way of goalmouth action, this was a poor game. Paraguay outshot Argentina 10-7 but could only muster three of those on target, Sánchez’s goal and the penalty saved from Derlis González in the 62nd minute being two of them. Argentina were worse. Of their seven shots, the only two on target were a long-range free-kick and the goal from the penalty spot by Messi. The award for the penalty came only after heavy scrutiny by VAR. Unknowingly to most of the players, an on-field VAR review had adjudged the ball to strike Iván Piris’ arm en route to the crossbar after a shot by Lautaro Martínez and a penalty was given.
Argentina huffed and puffed throughout and despite facing a Paraguay team that defended deep, could only amass 55% of the possession with no through balls and just five key passes, two fewer than their opponents. In the first half, they were only able to take one shot and have seven touches in Paraguay’s box.
Argentina’s Structure – The Messi Conundrum
When facing a team that defends deep and compact, looking to counter into open spaces, there seems to be increasing importance on an overall structure than normal. Despite reports to the contrary, Argentina were supposed to be 4-3-3. This setup was obvious upon kick off and the way Argentina pressed initially. Messi to the right, Martínez through the middle and Rodrigo De Paul to the left of the front three. Behind them, Leandro Paredes would hold, allowing Giovani Lo Celso and Roberto Pereyra to act as shuttlers.
The issue is that Messi, unquestionably one of the greatest to ever play the game, plays with such freedom in both the attacking and defensive phases that it scuppers the overall structure of the team behind him. Especially when not accounted for. As he’s aged, he’s focused more of his time on ensuring he has energy for moments of brilliance, relinquishing a specific role within a team. Whether tasked with one or not, this seems to be the case. In this game defensively, he had no interest in tracking back with the Paraguay left-back Santiago Arzamendia. Clearly, he was expected to defend the right wing, the positioning of his teammates shows us that.
In the attacking phase, he regularly vacates the whole right side in order to get involved. At times this means he plays very central or even pinches over to the left side to combine. Again this is not a problem if accounted for. However, Argentina had no obvious threat down the right when Messi vacated that space. They often overcompensated pushing both Pereyra and right-back Milton Casco forward.
Messi is a genius. Even when misfiring, he had more shots (3) and completed more successful dribbles (7) than anyone else in the game. His 25 final third passes could only be bettered by teammate Casco. Clearly the problem isn’t with Messi, more that the team’s structure expects him to fulfil a specific role, that of a wide forward in a 4-3-3. At Barcelona, Messi has been given positional freedom in all phases. Often lining up to defend in a 4-4-2 allows both wings to be covered and a defensively strong Luis Suárez to do most of Messi’s running up front. Teams are about balance and Argentina had none.
Wide Triangles in a 4-3-3
4-3-3 is probably the most common formation used throughout football today. The positioning of the central players within the formation is well understood. The centre-backs sit back and distribute, the holding midfielder sweeps behind the midfield line and sets the tempo on the ball whilst the striker must be able to link well and stretch the game in behind where appropriate. What’s less universal is the specific roles of the full-backs, central midfielders and wide forwards. This is where balance must come in. There is no correct way to organise how these three players are set up but they must occupy wide positions as well as the channels offensively and defensively in order to be most balanced.
The above images show how a team can occupy different positions on the ball with the three players that make up the wide triangles. It’s within these details that some of the top teams that share this base 4-3-3 formation differ. Liverpool use narrow forwards, slightly deeper central midfielders and full-backs that occupy the wide positions. Rather like the image to the left. Manchester City on the other hand use wingers, attacking midfielders and full backs that occupy defensive positions inside when the team has the ball. The image to the right shows this. The central image shows the possibilities for a team with an attacking full back who can play inside with a winger and a deeper central midfielder.
The obvious lack in balance for Argentina came down their right side and their wide triangle. Messi plays with freedom and often plays inside. Pereyra plays an attacking role with his club side Watford and looked to get forward often. Costco likewise wanted to occupy advanced wide positions from full-back. It was imbalanced. Argentina found it hard to stagger their team shape to offer better angles for passing and to recover the ball when it was lost. This prevented them from sustaining attacks against a set defence. Also, it came as no surprise that Paraguay’s goal and penalty award came through quick attacks down their left and Argentina’s right.
An alternative Paraguay system?
As mentioned, Paraguay were pretty regimented. The creativity came in sparks from Newcastle’s Miguel Almirón through direct running in transition. Their more sustained attacks occurred down their left where Argentina were weakest. The two Paraguay players with the most final third passes were left-back Arzamendia (16) and left midfielder Matías Rojas (13). Despite having the whole left side to run into, Arzamendia was reluctant to join the attack for fear of leaving Messi unmarked if the ball was lost. Often this resulted in a stalemate where Argentina were able to defend narrow against direct passes through the middle from Paraguay’s centre backs. However, if Paraguay were a little smarter, right-back Piris could have moved alongside centre backs Gustavo Gómez and Júnior Alonso when building up. This would have allowed Arzamendia full license to attack the open space down the left without fear of being overloaded if the ball was lost. This would have given Paraguay more impetus in a game that was there for the taking.
Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni has some thinking to do. He controls a team packed with attacking and midfield talent desperately asking to be balanced correctly. The world’s greatest footballer needs the shackles released to allow him to do what he does best. For the first time in a while, Argentina have youthful energy and quality in midfield. The tools are there, it’s just about picking the right ones for the task. Nevertheless, Argentina have failed to do so for many years and time is running out.
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