One of the biggest matchups in International football took place in Saudia Arabia as Lionel Messi returned for Argentina as they took on Brazil in a friendly at the King Saud University Stadium. Messi returned after a three-month ban to help guide the Albiceleste over the Neymar-less Selecao 1-0. This tactical analysis looks to better understand how that victory came about.
Brazil lined up in a 4-3-3 with Alisson Becker in goal. Danilo, Thiago Silva, Éder Militão, and Alex Sandro worked in front of the Liverpool goalkeeper, while Arthur, Casemiro and Lucas Paquetá looked to control the midfield. Up top, they had Gabriel Jesus as a winger (a position he admittedly doesn’t prefer), Roberto Firmino as a striker, and Willian as the other winger.
Argentina, who recently drew with Germany, started with Esteban Andrada in goal, with Juan Foyth, Germán Pezzella, Nicolás Otamendi, and Nicolás Tagliafico as their defenders. Their midfield consisted of Giovani Lo Celso, Leandro Parades, and Rodrigo De Paul, with Lucas Ocampos, Lautaro Martínez, and Lionel Messi playing up top.
Argentinian Defensive Solidity
Argentina spent much of the match in a midblock, set up as a 4-4-2. The two forwards looked to block the ball from switching the field of play, while the wingers would press fullbacks who were in possession.
Despite a backline with three central defenders, which can often cause problems, Argentina was able to make sure they maintained their defensive structure. Because Argentina outnumbered Brazil in the middle of the park, Brazil found themselves forced to go out wide. Willian was a considerable target in this game, seeing a lot of long passes being played either into space in front of him or into his body.
As evident in the image, Brazil actually has numerical superiority on the right flank. They outnumber Argentina 5 v 4, or 3 v 2, depending on how far they could hypothetically play the ball out. Instead, as they often did, Brazil opted to play Willian into space without much support. While Alex Sandro was able to provide support on this play, the consistent attempts to play Willian were futile.
The argument would be that Brazil were looking to take advantage of a qualitative superiority with Willian bearing down on the 21-year-old Juan Foyth, who is a centre-back by trade for Tottenham Hotspur. A relatively inexperienced player with only 13 appearances for Tottenham in the last two years seems like an ideal matchup for Willian, the pacy veteran. However, Foyth stood his ground and was often supported by his Premier League counterpart Otamendi, effectively shutting down most of Willian’s production.
With their defence locked in, Argentina looked to counter quickly to take advantage of any Brazilian disorganization, which was rare. However, Leo Messi was able to create a moment of disorganization, which led to the only goal of the match.
First, Messi acts as if he’s going to throw the ball in, and, seeing no options, places it down, which causes the defence to mentally turn off. Messi and his teammates clear out space so that Lautauro, the furthest attacker away from the throw-in, can come in and receive the ball.
As Lautauro gets the ball at his feet, both Brazilian defenders mistakenly collapse on him, leaving Messi entirely too much room to run into as the ball gets played into that same space.
As Messi attacks down the right-hand side, he is caught by Alex Sandro and brought down inside the box. While not earning a yellow card, the penalty was still given. Despite it being saved, Alisson was not able to hold onto the ball, and Messi finished off the rebound.
Brazilian Pressing Success
Part of the reason that Argentina only enjoyed 34% of the possession was because of Brazil’s excellent pressing. Brazil was able to find the proper positions on the field, especially when Argentina was trying to build from a goal kick, which forced Argentina to play the ball long into more 50-50 scenarios.
Despite having a numerical advantage, Argentina were unable to play out of the back comfortably because of Brazil’s positioning. Clearly, Brazil had done their tactical analysis of how Argentina wanted to play out of the back. The cover shadows, as seen in the image below, make it nearly impossible for Argentina to play out of the back. If Paredes, the midfielder being cover-shadowed by the striker, could step left or right, it would have opened up passing lanes for the Albiceleste. Instead, they opted for the long ball and often lost it, as Brazil had a numerical advantage toward the middle of the pitch.
Brazil were also able to enjoy so much of the possession because of their ability to defend in groups that produced a numerical advantage. In one single sequence, we see Brazil outnumbering their opponent and consistently putting them under pressure. These tactics allowed for significant success when looking to win the ball back quickly. First, we have a throw-in where the Argentinians are outnumbered 5 to 3.
This leads to a turnover, and Brazil tried to play out of the back. Brazil quickly loses possession of the ball in their own half, but they continue to press and maintain their numerical advantage.
This time, it’s three vs. two, and this tactic causes the ball to be played back to Pezzella.
The Argentinian is pressed again, this time by the three forwards, who continue to force play backwards. Pezzella plays the ball back to Andrada, his goalkeeper, who attempts to play out of the back. Brazil had an even 4 v 4 at this point, and they forced a dangerous turnover with Andrada out of his goal by some measure. Unfortunately, the Selecao were unable to capitalize on this mistake, and as a result, left the game without a goal.
Brazil, despite controlling a lot of the game, fell to Argentina because of a single mental mistake. They allowed Leo Messi to exploit space, which, as most of the world football knows, is a mistake that will cost a team points. While Brazil are winless in their last five games, their defensive organisation should not be cause for panic. If, while attacking, they can create and take advantage of the numerical superiority that they demonstrated defensively, the Selecao should find themselves back in the win column soon.
Argentina probably need to maintain more possession of the ball if they want to make the most out of Leo Messi’s final years as a player. While he clearly demonstrated with the penalty he won that he can make quick, incisive runs, he is better utilised when he is closer to the goal, creating spacing issues, headaches, and general chaos for defending teams.
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