Argentina – Paraguay: A little less Leo Messi, a little more action (1-1)
In a contest between two sides that did not play particularly well, it was not much of a surprise that neither side came out on top. Scaloni’s game plan read like a book that had been torn up and put back together again… except, out of order.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Argentina manager Scaloni looked to mend some of the major struggles that he faced in the opening-game loss to Colombia. In his attempts to do so, he made changes up and down the starting eleven. The most surprising changes come up front, where Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María were both dropped, as Lautaro Martínez and Rodrigo De Paul were given a chance to shine. There was also a slight adjustment systemically, as Argentina fielded more of a 4-3-3 shape, here, albeit keeping to the tendencies of a 4-2-3-1 with Messi drifting into the center.
Paraguay, off the back of a disappointing result to Qatar where they surrendered a two-goal lead to draw their opening match, made a whopping six changes in order to keep things fresh. It was one goalscorer in for one out as Derlis González was handed a start, whilst Óscar Cardozo was not. Eduardo Berizzo did maintain the same setup, though.
Argentina’s improved setup still does not herald much success
Compared to the Colombia defeat, this was close to being a marked improvement – at least in terms of clarity and intent in their approach. The 4-3-3 structure was far more refined and functional. Mostly, Argentina would funnel their attacks down the right-side, using the fullback, winger and central midfielder triangle to rotate and find overloads.
It still was not quite fool-proof, however. In fact, it was almost hindered by Lionel Messi’s involvement in the moves. With Messi tending to be the deepest part of the triangle, the ball gravitated towards him, where he then preferred to take it inside too early. Argentina benefited more from playing into the attackers and looking to use the space before working it back across. Giovani Lo Celso showcased why having Messi positioned away from deep buildup play would be best.
On one occasion, where he shifted across to take on the ball higher up, he and Pereyra combined well out wide and managed to isolate the two defenders on that side. Eventually, this saw them access the box, although the eventual cutback attempt was blocked.
The issues here alluded to a far greater issue Argentina were still suffering from – an over-reliance on Messi. Every player seemed to share the mindset that the ball had to be at his feet at all times, when, really, taking the weight off of Messi’s shoulders would likely have been more beneficial. Argentina were able to create more than a few good openings in this match but were hindered by this mindset.
Especially when working it over to the left side, De Paul was frequently open as Lautaro had drawn in the far-sided fullback. However, instead of this being exploited through driven passes across, the ball-carriers, including Messi, felt the need to go short into the feet of Lautaro, which hugely congested the space in front. The problem with this was then amplified when every nearby player fed it back into Messi, thus cramping the space in which to play even further.
Paraguay deliver a killer blow
The lacking confidence in Argentina’s play was clear through that and also in the execution of their other combination attempts. In the first half, the central midfielders had done a good job of opening lanes into the attackers since Paraguay’s pressing structure was molded by the positioning of Argentina’s players. However, their failure to exploit such openings with even the most basic of combinations was a disaster, and one of them even proved as costly as a goal being conceded.
Ten minutes before the break, Argentina had worked open the flank for a run from Casco, as Messi’s position had drawn the defense inside and Pereyra’s movement towards the ball drew forwards Paraguay’s left midfielder. However, the ball from Germán Pezzella was woefully overhit and gifted the ball back to their opponents. It was quickly played out to Almirón, who drove at blistering pace down the same flank that was now vacated by Casco. Blasting past player after player, he got to the byline and dug out an amazing cutback, finding Richard Sánchez. His late run to the edge of the box was completely untracked and was met by a coolly-taken half-volley into the far corner.
Despite the lead, it was not as though Paraguay had been particularly impressive themselves. They looked exposed defensively and their possession approach was entirely ineffective. In a squished 4-4-2 diamond setup – where the fullbacks began deep and flat, meaning they could not push up in order to provide the right level of attacking width, the access into the strikers was incredibly limited. Argentina, in their 4-4-2 setup, found it easy to contain the threat.
The midfield narrowed, which suffocated Paraguay’s cramped diamond, which was very poorly spaced out in any case. Casco stepped up to cover Santiago Arzamendia, whilst De Paul dropped deeper on the other side, in a wing-back-like-role, to stop Iván Piris. This approach meant there were three defenders left to cover the two strikers.
Paraguay’s diamond setup versus Argentina’s asymmetrical defensive 4-4-2 shape.
Paraguay’s only answer to this was to field very early, low crosses into the box. Whilst this appeared to be a low-outcome strategy, its first attempt caused some disturbance as Nicolás Otamendi’s sliced clearance flicked up and back towards Franco Armani.
Scaloni’s second half changes inspire an equalizer
Pereyra was subbed off at half-time for Agüero. Now, it was looking much more like a 4-4-2 diamond that was skewed towards the right side but what Argentina gained in a direct threat up front, they lost in a wide threat down the left. However, Eduardo Berizzo’s tactical switch-up, that saw González detach himself from the midfield line in order to cover the threat of De Paul’s width in the first half, quickly became a problem for his side.
Whilst there was now no true attacking threat on the left flank anymore, there was through the left halfspace. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. With the rest of the midfield line of Paraguay being drawn towards the overly-crowded ball-side, it left the channel completely vacant for the central midfielders to step up into it, especially now that there were two strikers pinning back the opposition’s defense.
De Paul receiving in the open left halfspace in the buildup to the equalizer.
Just five minutes into the second half, as De Paul received the ball from the right in this vacant channel, he cut back and played a long ball over the top for Agüero. Finally, a runner in behind for Argentina. Agüero took down the ball in sublime fashion to round his marker and cut it back. Lautaro’s follow-up rattled back off the bar before Messi forced a save on the rebound. The initial effort, through VAR, was then found to have been handballed, resulting in a penalty that Messi had no problem converting.
Argentina’s continued halfspace threat was still let down by the lack of quality, which might have suggested that Messi could have been better placed filling in this role instead. His overbearing presence as a deep progressor instead of being an attacking threat was problematic and so holding this position away from the buildup, and in space, could have been a far more dangerous prospect.
Paraguay bite back… sort of
Paraguay were quick to respond. The danger caused by Arzamendia’s deep, driven cross in the first half was back. This time, Otamendi recklessly challenged his man from behind and gave away a penalty. It looked as though their hard work getting back into the game had gone to waste until Armani saved the day.
Scaloni’s questionable reversion
The predominant threat caused by the two strikers was soon quashed by Scaloni’s bizarre change to revert back to the old shape by swapping on Di María for Lautaro.
This meant Argentina actually caught up with Berizzo’s tactical adjustment, leaving their width covered for and their halfspaces empty. With just one striker holding the defenders back, they were freely stepping up and closing whatever spaces there were between the lines. This pushed all of Argentina’s attackers and midfielders deeper and wider, creating a huge disconnect between them and Agüero, much like against Colombia.
Even with half an hour still left, Scaloni’s men could not muster anything. On so many occasions was it a case of Messi versus the world.
The lacking quality at the international level rung true once again, here. Despite Scaloni’s game plan looking more settled and capable of doing damage, his reluctance to take initiative over Messi, much like his players, might be the thing holding the national team back just a peg. They must now beat Qatar and hope to at least get in as one of the best third-placed teams.
Paraguay are a point ahead in second and will be hoping Colombia are more complacent in their final match, because a loss could well see them eliminated.
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