How Scaloni’s Astute Game Management Set The Stage For Messi’s Iconic Moment

The iconic scene of the 2021 Copa América lasted just under thirty seconds. Two men in a close embrace, degrading the mix of celebrating and crying teammates to a mere background image, much like they have done countless times with their footballing qualities. Neymar congratulating his friend Messi on finally winning that international trophy was a very, very captive moment.

Written by Thanos Chelas.

Looking back, it seems almost impossible to believe that one of the biggest talent factories in the world had not won a major tournament title since the 1993 Copa América. This summer however, the stars aligned and a combination of player and manager maturity, good in-game decisions and opportunism led Argentina and Lionel Messi to win a major international title. The cream on top was winning it inside the historical Maracanã stadium against a Neymar-led Brazil that seemed like the big favorites.

This is the story of Argentina’s Copa América win, from a tactical point of view. We will start from the first group stage match against Chile up to the final against Brazil, trying to analyze the challenges this team faced and how its manager, Lionel Scaloni, fixed them.

Argentina – Chile (1-1)

The match against Chile set the stage for Scaloni as an adept quick-fixer of tactical challenges.

Against Chile’s press the Argentines found themselves under extreme difficulty as there did not seem to be any properly worked synchronized movements. Passing the ball back to the goalkeeper under extreme pressure requires something that a national team does not have lots of practice time. In addition, goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez  is not known for his comfortable risk-taking passing game. The fact that neither Messi nor Lautaro Martínez were dropping lower to create overloads When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. and neither one of De Paul or Lo Celso were coming over from the opposite side, made the Chilean press impossible to surpass.

During Chile’s more passive moments of defense, Argentina chose to find one of Messi, Lo Celso, Lautaro Martínez or Nico González between the lines through the fullbacks. In these moments, the fullback would push up getting covered by their side central midfielder De Paul, or Lo Celso or even Otamendi. It was also very interesting to see the use of a more “traditional” forward like Nico González in a winger position, as the now-Fiorentina forward would take advantage of the spaces created by his teammates and make diagonal runs behind the opposition defensive lines.

Argentina’s standard movements excluding the variations depending on the game.

Argentina’s standard movements excluding the variations depending on the game.

The fact that Argentina only scored through a direct free kick by Messi illustrates that their buildup plan did not prove as effective as they wanted. But despite getting into some dangerous positions through their pressing, their defensive phase proved problematic too.

Pressing in a 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 shape against a 4-3-3 formation is always a challenge as usually one of the forwards has to quickly run back towards the defensive midfielder immediately after pressing one of the center-backs. With Lautaro Martínez and Lionel Messi only pressing the central defenders however, either Lo Celso and Paredes had to mark three midfielders quickly moving from one opponent to the other, or De Paul was being forced to move centrally and mark Pulgar. It was no-win situation as even in the second option, in which the numerical superiority in the center for the opponent was avoided, fullback Mena was left open, forcing Argentina’s fullback to push up and thus creating space at the side of the center-backs deeper in the field.

Argentina’s off-the-ball problems did not stop there. Not only were there a few occasions in which Lautaro Martínez or Nico González initiated the press without Messi being ready to follow, but staying in a compact block proved to be a challenge too. When Messi and Lautaro Martínez were not in central positions close to the midfield lines, Paredes and Lo Celso were still pushing up to press the opponent midfielders, creating at times huge spaces between the lines.

These spaces were primarily covered by a very active De Paul helping everyone out and by a defensive line that played aggressively in order to not let opponents turn when receiving the ball. On the day, Chile failed to take advantage, but what could have happened if receiving between the lines was an in-form Eduardo Vargas together with Alexis Sánchez? Scaloni was lucky and knew he needed to make some changes.

Argentina – Uruguay (1-0)

Against Uruguay, Argentina presented with a more defensive-minded approach and first eleven. Acuña and Molina replaced the more offensive minded Tagliafico and Montiel in the fullback positions while Guido Rodríguez replaced Paredes.

Messi and Lautaro Martínez were more careful and concentrated this time, moving back to their positions quickly to close central spaces. Still,  they were not initiating the press unless an opposition back-pass had very good chances to be contested. The central-midfield duo was also more passive, covering space and not getting aimlessly dragged out of position during Uruguay’s short buildup play, aiding their team to stay in a much more compact 4-4-2 block.

Adjustments also took place on the buildup side. The defensive midfielder, Guido Rodríguez, was dropping between the center-backs in order to create a three-against-two and surpass Cavani and Suárez, while Messi was often positioning himself on the left sideline in an attempt to find more space and receive the ball outside of Uruguay’s 4-4-2 block. Scaloni had also taken more conservative measures against the opponent’s counterattacks as his fullbacks were only pushing up after their side winger had received the ball, changing their usual strategy of having at least one fullback providing width high up the pitch.

A Guido Rodríguez header promoted a Messi cross, after a short corner, to an assist and gave his team a very important win, even as the buildup phase of Argentina continued being sterile.

Argentina – Paraguay (1-0)

Paraguay manager Eduardo Berizzo’s teams are synonymous with continuous pressing on the ball and man-marking. Having to face that, Scaloni clearly prepared his two defensive midfielders very well. In addition to Messi, also Paredes and Guido Rodríguez made continuous movements without the ball, dragging their direct opponent out of position and thus creating space between the lines. Wanting to take full advantage of these spaces and looking for players to properly receive the ball and shoot quickly, Scaloni chose two inverted wingers, Á. Di María on the right and Papu Gómez on the left, with the first providing an assist to the second for the winning goal in the tenth minute.

An early goal once again gave the Argentines the opportunity to stay back, be less aggressive and close spaces more comfortably. As the minutes passed however, the defensive focus of the two wingers, who were either getting into position late or “shadow defending”, was proving to be a problem against Paraguay’s wing overloads. Thus, in the 71st minute, Scaloni changed his defensive formation from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 in order to offer more cover to the defensive line and more support to the fullbacks. De Paul was the added midfielder, Joaquin Correa and Di María the wingers and Messi the lone striker. A move good enough to lock the match.

Bolivia – Argentina (1-4) 

Against the tournament’s weakest team, the match proved to be a simple procedure in which Argentina took more risks in their offensive approach, but Scaloni tested some tactical adjustments too.

Compared to the other matches, both fullbacks were pushing up at the same time forcing the Bolivia wingers to follow them and, as a consequence, turn their team’s shape into a 6-2-2. With only two players covering the defensive line, Messi and co. wreaked havoc with quick combinations and went to the dressing rooms with a 3-0 advantage.

In the second half, probably in order to both test a possible future tactical solution and out of necessity due to the players he wanted to give playing time to, Scaloni tested an asymmetric 4-3-3 / 4-3-1-2 shape. Guido Rodríguez played in front of the defense with Lo Celso and Palacios a few meters in front of him, while the fullbacks were pushing up and Messi was free to move either on the right wing or centrally and behind the two strikers Álvarez and Agüero/ Lautaro Martínez.

Quarter-final:  Argentina – Ecuador (3-0)

Of Argentina’s seven matches this tournament, this was definitely the one where the  score was the least reflective of the performance of the two teams. Scaloni had returned to a first eleven with Nico González on the pitch, while the more defensive Acuña and Molina were occupying the fullback positions once again.

Argentina was relatively toothless. Paredes’ positioned himself between the center-backs in order to avoid the press and help progress the ball and Messi’s played more centrally, with De Paul making the opposite movement and becoming almost a right winger.. Ball circulation was slow and Ecuador was too disciplined defensively to allow big spaces for the Argentina forwards.

Despite that, in an opportunistic fashion that characterizes big teams with big players, Argentina opened the score before the half-time mark, after a long kick by the Ecuador goalkeeper was followed by an Argentinian rebound that set Messi free behind the opposition line. With the goalkeeper out of position having attempted to intercept the ball, the Barcelona legend had to only pass the ball to De Paul for the 1-0.

Argentina’s approach to close space and not take unnecessary risks meant that Ecuador had more of the ball but also that more moments of continuous transitions would occur. With Argentina stealing the ball and trying to quickly counterattack, spaces were being created that the Ecuadorians, in their turn, were trying to take advantage of after stopping their opponents. The result were moments of intense rhythm and chaos that combined with the dangerous multiple runs from deep by Ecuador, forced Scaloni to replace Nico González with Tagliafico in the 81st minute. He put the Ajax man on the left fullback position and Acuña right in front of him in order to fortify his defense.

Ecuador’s attempts to score meant that more spaces were available for the Argentines who managed to score two more goals on the counter in the closing minutes.

Semi-final: Argentina – Colombia (1-1) (3-2 after penalties)

Scaloni’s tactics did not change for the match against Colombia. However, this time Argentina managed to penetrate a higher-level organized defense, when Lo Celso’s pass found Messi inside the area, with the captain of the team assisting Lautaro Martínez. Another goal before the 10th minute mark.

The Argentines needed to defend their lead once again. All too often though, the central midfielders were out of position and unable to stop penetrative passes when Messi and Martínez were not in position. This, combined with Colombia’s long passes and runs behind the defensive line in order to stretch the opponent, win second balls and attack the Argentinian defensive line directly, caused a lot of trouble to Scaloni’s team. 

And trouble came. A quickly executed free kick launched Luis Díaz behind Molina, with the Colombian making it 1-1.

Scaloni substituted Nico González with Di María, put De Paul on the left and the PSG star on the right waiting to receive the ball on the sideline, move centrally and create. Constant fouls, a lack of rhythm and a lost opportunity after an interception meant that the game went to the dreaded penalties, where Argentina won to book their place in the final.

Final: Argentina – Brazil (1-0)

For the big final against the hosts Brazil, Scaloni put De Paul next to Paredes in midfield, with Lo Celso on the left and Di María on the right in this once again 4-4-2 defensive shape that turned into an asymmetric 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 when building up.

Brazil played with an aggressive press that placed Neymar on the Argentinian goalkeeper and the two wingers on the center-backs and Scaloni’s players were once again in difficulty. Their buildup did not include Messi or Di María dropping lower and creating overloads, putting full pressure on De Paul to make quick one-touch passes towards the wing  and initiate combinations that would free his team out of this pressure.

When the press was avoided, the Argentines tried to build up through the right wing, where Messi and Di María were combining trying to involve as many of their teammates as possible. Brazil’s compact 4-4-2 defensive block meant that those combinations were not translated into anything concrete, the time given to the midfielders on the ball however, was enough for them to make a few dangerous passes. One of these by De Paul, found Di María behind the defensive line for the winning goal of the tournament.

The Argentines found themselves again in the position they wanted, defending the lead. For this purpose and with Brazil attacking the penalty area with four or five players, Scaloni replaced Lo Celso with Tagliafico, positioning the Ajax player as the left fullback with Acuña protecting him from runs by Danilo. Ten minutes before the end, another defensive minded move followed, with Palacios replacing the scorer of the golden goal.

Regarding the handling of the Brazil forwards and especially Neymar, compactness, supporting the closest player and being aggressive in an attempt to not let them turn towards goal, proved to be sufficient for Argentina to lock the game and title.


A title is always the result of many factors. Luck, opposition underperformance, opportunism and having enough players being in-form at the exact right time are all factors that certainly helped Argentina.

Apart from these uncontrollables, Scaloni’s improvement since taking the reins of the national team was definitely an important contributing factor. No risky decisions, no utopist demands for the sake of dogmatically following a playing style, carefully adapting to the opponent, his players and the weaknesses of the team and great in-game management helped the young manager to become the first one in 28 years to manage this great football nation to an major international trophy. 

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