Argentina – Saudi Arabia: Saudis Succeed With Ambitious Gameplan (1-2)

Saudi Arabia brought an ambitious gameplan into this match, looking to impose themselves on the game by pressing Argentina’s buildup and deploying an offside trap to stay high up the pitch. This looked exploitable at various points, but Saudi Arabia were able to take their limited chances at their other end of the pitch, scoring twice to shock Argentina and walk away with a 2-1 win. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

Argentina arrived to Qatar unbeaten in their last 36 international games, including their Copa America victory last year. Lionel Scaloni’s side started this match in a 4-2-3-1 shape with a back four of Nahuel Molina, Cristian Romero, Nicolás Otamendi, and Nicolás Tagliafico. Rodrigo De Paul and Leandro Paredes were the central midfielders, while the front four consisted of Ángel Di María, Lionel Messi, Alejandro Gómez, and Lautaro Martínez.

Saudi Arabia came into this match as heavy underdogs. Hervé Renard lined his side up in a 4-3-3 formation, as Saud Abdulhamid, Hassan Tambakti, Ali Al-Bulaihi, and Yasser Al-Shahrani made up the defensive line. Abdulellah Al-Malki was the deepest midfielder, with Salman Al-Faraj and Mohamed Kanno in front of him, while Firas Al-Buraikan, Saleh Al-Shehri, and Salem Al-Dawsari made up the front three.

Saudi Arabia’s aggression

Renard’s side were not content to sit back and allow Argentina to play around the Saudi penalty box. Instead, the Saudis looked to pressure Argentina’s buildup through the defensive and midfield lines at every opportunity.

They usually started from a mid-block, looking to advance and push Argentina into their own half. The two central midfielders of Saudi Arabia would often push quite far out of the center, leaving the wingers in line with the number six Al-Malki as they directed attention to Argentina’s fullbacks. Therefore their 4-3-3 shape could sometimes appear as a 4-3-2-1 arrangement against the ball.

The feature of their game which had the largest impact was the offside trap though. They continuously sought to keep their defensive line out of their own defensive third. This naturally attracted a lot of passes over the top from Argentina, who saw this as an exploitable feature.

Disconnected Argentina

Argentina were able to go ahead ten minutes into the game via Messi’s penalty. They did not create huge amounts of shots on goal in the first half, but there was an underlying danger that always seemed present due to their focus on exploiting Saudi Arabia’s offside trap.

They had the ball in the net three other times in the first half, all of which were disallowed for offside. In terms of their structure, Argentina were very much geared towards the last line, often with four or five players up against the Saudi Arabia defense.

While this last line presence was useful for playing over the top, it could make them somewhat disconnected in midfield. This was especially the case when De Paul pushed up alongside the forwards as he did on a fair number of occasions, leaving Paredes quite isolated in the number six position against the aggressive Saudi Arabia midfielders.

Argentina’s midfield was sometimes slightly empty in buildup situations. 

The likes of Messi and Gómez were occasionally able to alleviate this by dropping into zones either side of Saudi Arabia’s defensive midfielder, something that might have been desirable slightly more often in order to introduce more variety into Argentina’s play rather than relying on the direct passes in behind.

Saudis stun Argentina

Despite the structural issues, things were not going too badly for Argentina at the interval. They were in the lead, and looked capable of scoring more. They were stunned twice in the ten minutes after half time though, as Saudi Arabia were able to go 2-1 up in this period thanks to good finishes from Al-Shehri and Al-Dawsari.

The dynamic of the game naturally changed after this point. Saudi Arabia dropped a bit deeper as the game went on, while Argentina pressed for an equalizer. Scaloni made three changes on the hour mark, bringing Lisandro Martínez, Enzo Fernández, and Julián Álvarez in for Romero, Paredes, and Gómez. Marcos Acuña also later replaced Tagliafico.

Argentina still looked somewhat disconnected at times in key areas, which was perhaps even worsened by the replacement of Gómez with Álvarez as the latter is more likely to focus again on the last line of defense.

Nevertheless, Argentina created a fair number of shots in the final stages of the game, although they were not particularly high quality ones. Saudi Arabia sometimes dropped into more of a 6-3-1 shape at times as the wingers were pushed back by the fullbacks of Argentina.

However, the energy levels and pressure on the ball from the nearest player pretty much always remained at a good level. They were also happy to break up the game using less legal means, as they collected six yellow cards within the final thirty minutes. In the end, Saudi Arabia defended well to keep Argentina at bay, and were able to secure a surprise win.


Argentina’s main problem here was the disconnected possession structure. It may have been partly an adaptation to Saudi Arabia’s high line, which would be more understandable. If not, it is an issue which should be addressed for future games. Defensively they limited their opponents to three low-xG shots, and ended up conceding from two of them.

Saudi Arabia’s approach here was ambitious, and it saw them gain a good result. They were brave to defend in the way that they did, although they were living dangerously throughout the first half. They did not create much going forward, but quality shown for the two goals can be applauded. 

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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