When Lio Builds Around Leo
While in some national teams like the Netherlands or Spain the coach is the superstar of the project, Lionel Scaloni has followed a more player-based approach. His flexibility and diplomacy allowed him to build the most consistent Argentina of the Messi era, with particularly strong possession and counterpressing phases.
This tactical preview has been written by José Pérez.
He was talking about his team’s loss in the 2016 Olympics, but the following statements from former basketball star Manu Ginóbili beautifully summarize the problem with the Argentinian national football team in the pre-Scaloni era.
Cuando Argentina cae, hay que escuchar a Manu Ginobili siempre. pic.twitter.com/wOW3ba1jnh— Luis Vallejo (@Lvallejocolom) June 30, 2018
“We got a little crazy because of our eagerness to win with courage and all that. And well, that usually happens to us in our country. We think that everything is won with balls. But no, you win by playing well first; then you add balls and courage. At times we thought that we could turn it around just by pushing forward, and no, no, no, that’s not enough. You have to play well too.”
Argentina lacked a clear process and identity for many years, with nine different managers in fourteen years (2004-2018). To make matters worse, the Argentinian FA often appointed managers of contradicting philosophies one after another, making it even harder for the team to adopt the new process and identity. It’s hard to compensate for that instability with passion and old-fashioned cojones.
Lionel Scaloni was supposed to be a temporary managerial appointment in 2018 for two friendlies against Guatemala and Colombia. Yet, he has been in charge for over four years, the longest tenure of an Argentina manager since Marcelo Bielsa. Scaloni has achieved this stability by channeling his inner Carlo Ancelotti and becoming a savvy football diplomat. He was able to put out the fires created by the incendiary Argentine press, and he did not want to impose a specific football philosophy and structure on his players. Scaloni discussed his Ancelotti influences and his method with the players in a recent interview:
For me, Ancelotti is a reference. I don’t like authoritarianism or ‘my way or the highway ’ approaches. I didn’t like them when I was a player or now as a coach. It is important that, when we go out onto the pitch, we all go as one. Not five on one side and three on the other.
The coach is always in charge, that is unquestionable, but I can say that I talk to the players…That we have changed our way of playing since, in the 2019 Copa America, we saw that we had players to play something else. We got together, we talked, and we found the solution. Obviously, I choose who plays, but it’s good that the players are comfortable on the pitch.
Scaloni has arguably created the strongest Argentina team of the past 20 years on this bedrock of stability, diplomacy, and tactical flexibility. As seen in the speech by Leo Messi before the 2021 Copa América final, this Argentina is a tightly-knit group that plays well and adds plenty of courage and passion.
🎥 Lionel Messi’s speech before the Copa America final against Brazil (with English subtitles) pic.twitter.com/oYhi4NudAA— All About Argentina 🛎🇦🇷 (@AlbicelesteTalk) November 2, 2022
Let’s review how this team building is reflected on the pitch.
Passing and Running off Playmaker Messi
Scaloni started his tenure as Argentina’s manager with a more direct idea of football with two wingers out wide, as we can see from his first starting XI against Guatemala. During the 2019 Copa América, specifically before the game versus Qatar, Scaloni had the conversation with the players he described in the interview. This was when Argentina’s team identity emerged, with Scaloni switching into a 4-3-1-2 diamond and a narrower, more possession-based side where Messi could easily play off his teammates.
Calling Argentina's shape a 4-4-2 diamond would have been closer to the truth. Lo Celso pushing up to play as a central midfielder, Martínez playing as an out-an-out striker. pic.twitter.com/lcI9PSptul— Between The Posts (@BetweenThePosts) June 24, 2019
However, building around a playmaker Messi like this requires midfielders with broad skill sets. They should be comfortable behind the ball but also be ready to make runs and stay ahead of the ball whenever Messi drops into deeper and more central areas. Moving constantly behind and ahead of the ball also means they need a physique that can cover a lot of ground. Fortunately, Scaloni had the right guys for this job in Gio Lo Celso and Rodrigo de Paul.
De Paul has disappointed after his transfer to Atlético de Madrid, but with Argentina, he continues to showcase all his best qualities. He is equally comfortable making winger-style runs, doing one-twos with Messi, or delivering a long pass into space to get the winning assist in the Copa América final. He has developed a strong relationship with Messi and will gladly bump heads with opponents who tackled Messi as if they hurt De Paul’s own ankles. Below is an excellent example of his one-two combos with Messi against Jamaica.
buena combinación de Leo con De Paul y remate de Messi que toma el arquero! pic.twitter.com/TlU6oPFSIN— Argentina Gol (@BocaJrsGolArg) September 28, 2022
Similar things can be said about Lo Celso but on the left side of midfield. He usually stays ahead of the ball more often, while De Paul stays back and behind the ball.
With the Leandro Paredes, De Paul, and Lo Celso trio, Scaloni set up a midfield unit that loved to have the ball at their feet and combine with Messi but could also run and stay ahead of the ball when needed. Meanwhile, Messi would often be the free-roaming playmaker behind the striker.
Scaloni would tweak the tactics further in the next two years following the 2019 Copa América, switching one of the strikers in the 4-3-1-2 with a winger and shifting his team’s shape to a nominal 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. However, the core concept of staying narrow and central to combine more readily with Messi and the midfield technicians would become a key feature of Scaloni’s managerial tenure.
You'll have to look through the ugliness of all the fouls in this game, but that Argentina right side has a lovely Messi-Di Maria-De Paul triangle.— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) July 11, 2021
However, Argentina having a neat possession game would make them a good team, not a great one. The most exciting evolution of Scaloni’s Argentina since 2019 came in off-ball aspects.
Strong Counterpress, Opportunistic Press
As we mentioned in our 2019 Copa América reports, Argentina’s switch to a narrow possession structure helped them with the attack but left them vulnerable to counterattacks. Scaloni’s solution to this issue was a surprisingly strong counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. phase after losing the ball.
Argentinian midfielders and forwards, including Messi, will gladly launch tackles at their opponents to regain the ball as quickly as possible. Below are a few examples of Argentina executing this counterpress in the 2021 Copa América final, compiled by analyst Morena Beltrán.
Por eso, cuando pierde la pelota, recupera con tal rapidez y energía… Por todo lo que generó previamente: secuencias largas de pases, flexibilidad en posiciones y, claro, por ese sentir del jugador de quererla todo el tiempo. Las cualidades de sus centrales son claves en ésto. pic.twitter.com/2w7H5k5hkV— Guia Qatar (@GuiaQatar) November 7, 2022
While their counterpress is strong, we should note that Argentina is generally not a high-pressing team. They are opportunistic about their pressing and will choose their moments to do so, as we can see in these clips of the 2022 Finalissima against Italy. As the 2021 Copa América final showed, Argentina is happy to close the shop and stay back once they have scored.
Developing a coherent, compact, organized pressing structure takes time, and that’s one of the most scarce resources in international football. So it should not surprise us to see that Argentina’s press is not highly coordinated and relies heavily on the individual initiative of the players rather than a structure.
It’s inherently tougher to implement Scaloni’s player-based approach in defense. One can build great attacks by fostering chemistry between three or four players, but it’s hard to build an exceptional defense without excellent coordination among all eleven players. The striker or central midfielder who doesn’t press will put the man behind him in trouble. The winger who doesn’t press an opponent’s switch of play will make life harder for the fullback on the opposite side of the pitch. Defending well just by natural player instinct and decisions is more complicated. If we had to nitpick a “weakness” of this Argentina side, it would be this looser defensive structure.
Squad Balance and Potential Starting Lineup
Argentina’s squad has suffered a few issues due to injuries. Paredes, Paulo Dybala, Angel Di María, Cristian Romero, and Marcos Acuña all had discontinuous game time in the last few months due to injuries. Gio Lo Celso will have to miss the tournament entirely. Just a week before starting the tournament, Scaloni had to let go of Fiorentina’s Nico González and Inter Milan’s Joaquín Correa, who could not recover from their injuries on time. González, in particular, has been an important role player throughout the Scaloni cycle. They will be replaced with Atletico de Madrid’s Ángel Correa and Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada.
Despite these issues, Argentina’s squad is deep, balanced, and has a healthy mix of profiles for each position. While Otamendi and Romero are the starting center-backs on paper, Lisandro Martínez is having an outstanding season with Manchester United and could do a great job. Whenever Scaloni wants a more defensive midfield option, he can use Real Betis’ Guido Rodriguez instead of Paredes.
Despite Lo Celso’s absence, the squad has another midfield Swiss Army knife in Alexis Mac Allister, who has excelled in all sorts of midfield roles at Brighton. Up front, Manchester City’s Julián Álvarez keeps growing and showing that he can be a threat, either as a winger beside striker Lautaro Martínez or directly as Lautaro’s replacement. The newly selected Ángel Correa can provide plenty of surprises as an impact substitute like he has done at Atlético.
All in all, we can expect Argentina to stick to their 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 shape throughout the group stages. The starting defensive unit will likely involve keeper Emi Martínez defended by a back four of Nahuel Molina as right back, Otamendi and Romero (if he’s recovered from his injury) as center backs, and Nico Tagliafico as left back. De Paul and Paredes will surely start in midfield, along with Messi and Lautaro in the forward line.
Potential 4-2-3-1 lineup for Argentina during the World Cup. If Di María playa on the left, it could become a 4-3-3 with Messi and Di María as narrow wingers.
The prominent question marks about the starting XI are the third midfielder and third forward. Alexis MacAllister or Papu Gómez (a more offensive option) are the main options for the left midfield role, while the winger could be Di María (more creativity) or Julián Álvarez (more runs and shooting). Scaloni will choose depending on the opponent.
In international football, managers have little time to implement complex tactical structures, so managers usually let the players have more initiative and freedom. Watching Argentina, it’s not hard to see the many ways Scaloni has been inspired by the player-based approach of Carlo Ancelotti, which runs contrary to the tactical trends of European club football.
Scaloni did not have any strong attachment to a particular tactical philosophy or structure and was more than willing to change his approach after discussing it with his players. Like Ancelotti, his defensive system relies more on individual player initiative than on a compact and organized structure.
While in national teams like Spain or the Netherlands, the coach is the project’s star, it’s clear that Scaloni wants his players to be the stars instead. It would be fascinating to see Argentina reach the knockouts against one of these teams so we can see whether the coach-led or the player-led approach will win.
We’ve decided to make all of our World Cup 2022 content freely accessible for everyone. If you want to support our project, please consider taking a subscription.
Between the Posts has also decided to donate all returns generated during this World Cup to Amnesty International.