We’re currently only a day away from the 2022 Qatar World Cup grand final at the time of writing, and a feeling of positive unease runs through all football fans. Whichever the final outcome, there will be a deserving winner, but Argentina has an extra weight to carry.
It’s no secret. This will likely be Lionel Messi’s last World Cup and thus, his final shot at winning the grand prize of the sport. Whether or not this cements legacies or boosts his case in an all-time conversation is irrelevant: this is simply the last trophy he needs to fill the cabinet.
As for the rest of the team, it may feel disrespectful to view this through a Messi-centric lens but they no doubt feel the same.
“We play for the shirt, but we also play for him,” Rodrigo De Paul said.
“If we won a World Cup, I would be more happy for Messi, than for myself,” Leandro Paredes told Radio La Red.
This clearly means more than just another star above Argentina’s badge, but how exactly have they managed a finals run after looking completely deflated following their 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening match? Let’s unwrap Lionel Scaloni’s so-called “negative” football.
What Actually Beat Them
The defeat to Saudi Arabia was obviously monumental in terms of narrative and emotion, especially when Messi’s final shot at glory seemed in jeopardy, but don’t chalk it up as an inferior side seizing momentum.
Like many upsets this World Cup, Saudi Arabia did enforce a plan and carried it out meticulously until it broke down the so-called bigger side. Herve Renard imposed an extremely high line with a rigid block that allowed very little movement between lines for Argentina.
Also, note the space between Argentina’s front line and their midfield. Saudi Arabia’s congestion was key and caused a void for the two-time champions going forward.
Granted, it did take a phenomenal individual effort by goalkeeper Mohammad Al-Owais but it caused a headache for players like Lautaro Martinez who thrives off of getting in behind. Out of Argentina’s ten offsides, the Inter talisman had three including disallowed goals. Shifting from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 wasn’t the smartest decision either but this game clearly started their gradual improvement throughout the tournament.
This has been a debate with bigger sides long before Scaloni took over Argentina but they’ve seemed to really embrace a style people deem “negative”. To be fair to Scaloni, as it is a tactic that works and there is no correct way to play football, it’s more appropriate to call it plain, tournament football.
So, what exactly is being done? Many tweaks were made each match to be brief, but Scaloni’s tactical reboot began versus Mexico in a very long and quite dull 2-0 victory to kickstart a charge into the round of 16. Messi did Messi things, launching a shot from outside of the box to take the lead and setting up Enzo Fernandez to cement a victory.
The plan of attack was a bit embarrassing for a squad of 25 other players who worked every day of their lives to contribute to their country but it was simply “Give the ball to Messi and clear the area”. This wasn’t new but the way Argentina allowed these chances for Messi was very clever.
For one, the PSG forward isn’t going to defend as much as you’d like. He knows it, Scaloni knows it, the other team knows it and him being 35 years of age now only pushes it further. In comes Rodrigo De Paul, who has more or less been described as Messi’s “bodyguard”.
The 28-year-old started off quite poorly in Qatar, including this game, where his positioning was awkwardly pushing Messi to the side and forcing Angel Di Maria out even wider. Ideally, both are central and support the forward, in this case Lautaro Martinez, and Messi is deeper to pick up the ball and progress. Instead, Argentina got this:
The intention from De Paul is to leave space in the midfield open for Messi to drop but once he pushes forward to “cover” for Messi, he’d be in the way of any progression. Mexico seemed content with the excessive off-ball movement, leaving space in between lines for De Paul to think he was occupying gaps but was really just trapped.
Also, in the case above, Messi is on the complete opposite side of the ball. Had he been where De Paul is set up, he’d have had the space to drive through the center since Mexico has already overloaded the left side.
Once the first goal approaches, however, the positioning from all attacking men is near perfection. Marcos Acuña, Julian Alvarez, and Alexis Mac Allister push Mexico’s line all the way to the penalty area, the right is overloaded with players to create space for Messi on the left while De Paul is now actively trailing the star man for support.
Despite the ball only going through Di Maria, it is a perfect team goal in the modern era. Players are constantly creating problems off the ball to distract from Messi’s looming danger. Just as he can score, he can create, and once Argentina realized that there is a mental struggle for defenses in that idea, the movements became more daring.
Finding A Groove
The following games against Poland, Australia, and the Netherlands respectively weren’t too interesting tactically. Argentina played extremely securely to move on from the group stages versus a nervous Poland, the match against the Socceroos exposed some holes that the emotional game versus the Netherlands addressed through a very conservative 5-3-2.
Instead, we’ll look at the semi-finals match against Croatia, perhaps one of the most tactically stubborn sides in the tournament. The name of the game is meticulous possession that takes an opposing side out of the game until a crack forms. They’re very opportunistic but Argentina pounced on that early on.
The lineup was now fully embracing that the game flows through Messi. The 4-4-2 is much more narrow with Fernandez and Mac Allister on the left who can rotate whenever and on the right fully focused on saving Messi’s energy by keeping De Paul close to recover balls and immediately start counters. Notice the difference in space between Messi and De Paul compared to Mac Allister and Alvarez.
As mentioned before, De Paul is Messi’s defensive cover and in this match, he plays the role to perfection. Covering any transitions Croatia starts up on the right side of the pitch while allowing Messi to almost switch off from defending and set up in the area with the most space to receive the ball deep as he does.
This game showed their adaptability more than anything, however. Croatia wants to have the ball, so the aim will be to find a hole once they lose it, which occurred in their second goal scored by Julian Alvarez.
The play actually starts from a Croatian corner. The ball is cleared and Argentina immediately pushes while Croatia is desperately trying to reposition and adjust until their structure is redefined. The counter starts with a long touch from Messi that leads to Alvarez, a speedy forward, space in transition while being flanked by quick attackers.
Lucky bounces all the way through? Yes; but what is any success in sports without luck that follows perfect execution?
The rest of the game was cruise control until Messi found one of the brightest stars of Qatar, Josko Gvardiol, on the wing and proceeded to unleash a flurry of twists and turns that only he could have seen as an escape. The use of body feints as well as his low center of gravity against Gvardiol’s large frame was just the cherry on top of a perfect victory that saw Alvarez receive the pass from Messi after his individual brilliance.
The World Cup has been the home to plenty of great performances and consistent results but Argentina’s recovery from heartbreak, constant persistence to perfect their game, and their own maturity to even admit a problem has been monumental. Truly a unique and accidental way of proving the quality and resilience of a possible champion.