Argentina – Mexico: Messi Magic Breaks The Stalemate (2-0)
The struggles of Argentina to progress the ball when they had possession combined with a determined Mexico defense meant that very little was created in this game. In the second half though, Lionel Messi’s strike from distance put Argentina ahead, and they were able to defend their lead with relative ease before Enzo Fernández added a second goal late on.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
Argentina were beaten by Saudi Arabia in their opening fixture of this World Cup. They limited the Saudis to almost nothing in terms of chances in that game, but fell victim to some impressive finishing. In possession however, Argentina had shown some structural issues.
Looking to the game against Mexico, Lionel Scaloni made quite a few changes the team that started last time out. Argentina lined up in a 4-4-2 shape here with a back four of Gonzalo Montiel, Nicolás Otamendi, Lisandro Martínez, and Marcos Acuña. Ángel Di María and Alexis Mac Allister were the wide midfielders, while Rodrigo De Paul and Guido Rodríguez played centrally. Lautaro Martínez then played in attack with Lionel Messi.
Mexico coach Gerardo Martino decided to switch to a 3-5-2 system for this game after their goalless draw with Poland last time out. Néstor Araujo, César Montes, and Héctor Moreno were the three center-backs, flanked by Kevin Álvarez and Jesús Gallardo as wing-backs. Héctor Herrera had Luis Chávez and Andrés Guardado either side of him in midfield, while Hirving Lozano partnered Alexis Vega up front.
Argentina’s possession struggles
Mexico approached this game with an energetic defensive scheme. They did not always press high, but wherever they were positioned on the pitch, they were usually quick to pressure the ball in their 5-3-2 shape. Argentina’s spent most of the first half with the ball among their backline trying to figure out how to break this defensive scheme down.
Argentina often formed a back three in possession, as Rodríguez dropped between the center-backs during buildup. Acuña would usually have the left wing to himself, while Montiel and Di María shared the right.
One issue for Argentina early in the half was with their occupation of the number six space. With Rodríguez dropping into the backline, the space immediately in front him was then vacant. De Paul often took up advanced positions or drifted out to the right, while Mac Allister initially often positioned himself higher in the left halfspace.
Argentina once again had structural issues in midfield.
Messi started between the lines but found himself dropping to fill the empty space in the Argentina midfield on occasion. Around midway through the first half, Scaloni looked to remedy this by dropping Mac Allister back into this space, which did make the structure a bit more sound.
Argentina still struggled to move the ball forward against a compact Mexico unit though. Messi had a few bursts where he tried to create tempo with a quick combination, and Di María had one or two dribbles, but otherwise Argentina’s possession was very stale. They were unable to bring Lautaro Martínez into the game, and it took them well over half an hour to have their first shot.
Messi breaks the deadlock
In the second half, the game did not improve that much. It was perhaps marginally more open, as it was difficult for Mexico to keep the defensive intensity that they had in the first half. Therefore, the spaces in midfield were slightly bigger.
Di María’s positioning seemed to alter slightly in the second half, as he appeared closer to the touchline while Montiel was more reserved, almost forming a back four when Argentina had the ball along with the split center-backs and Rodríguez dropping in. The move was perhaps to get Di María more isolation opportunities on the right, and he did have a couple of decent moments.
Scaloni waited until around the hour mark to start making substitutes. Enzo Fernández was brought in for Rodríguez, while Montiel and Lautaro Martínez were swapped out for Nahuel Molina and Julián Álvarez respectively.
Immediately after the substitutes arrived, so did the first goal. Messi found himself in a rare bit of space on the edge of the Mexico area, and punished them with a pinpoint accurate shot from distance into the bottom corner.
Mexico responded to going behind by bringing on Uriel Antuna and Raúl Jiménez as they switched to a 4-2-3-1 shape to try and chase the game. Argentina meanwhile tried to secure themselves defensively by bringing on Exequiel Palacios and Cristian Romero on for Mac Allister and Di María, changes which saw them switch to a 3-5-2 shape with Romero slotting into the backline.
The pattern of the game was now flipped, with Argentina sitting back in their compact 5-3-2 arrangement and Mexico desperately trying to find a way through. Mexico’s possession game was arguably even poorer and less connected than Argentina’s though, and they looked less dangerous than ever.
Argentina were able to seal things in the final minutes thanks to a wonderful finish from Fernandez who curled the ball past Guillermo Ochoa in the Mexico net to put Argentina 2-0 up and out of sight, handing them a crucial win.
Stylish or not, Argentina desperately needed a win here and they got it thanks to two moments of magic. There are still issues to resolve in buildup, as they once again looked somewhat disconnected in midfield for much of the game due to structural issues. Against the ball they were fairly solid again, although against lacklustre opposition.
Mexico brought good intensity into the game against the ball in the first half, but were punished in the second half by individual quality. They limited their opponents to almost nothing in front of goal, but also created nothing themselves, and looked bereft of ideas when the impetus was on them to attack.
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