The underdog of the 2016 European Championships, Iceland announced themselves on the global stage with a fantastic 1-1 draw against one of the better nations at this summer’s World Cup, Argentina.
A Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina, whose capital Buenos Aires has 45 times the number of people as Iceland itself, couldn’t find a way past Hannes Halldorsson in the second half, as Iceland battled their way to a thoroughly deserved point.
After Sergio Aguero put La Albiceleste ahead, Augsburg striker Alfred Finnbogason equalised four minutes later, capitalising on some poor Argentine defending in the penalty area, with Messi missing a penalty in the second half.
But, how much of this resounding result was down to Iceland’s good work? Or was it a simply a case of Argentina failing?
A game of missed chances
It’s best to start with what probably turned out to become the game’s biggest talking point: Messi’s missed penalty.
Unlike his Portuguese counterpart, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi was unable to convert from the spot and Halldorsson saved what turned out to be a rather tame effort.
Moving into the lead as the Icelandic warriors began to tire would certainly have resulted in an Argentine victory. Instead, it inspired Strakarnir Okkar to fight tooth and nail for a share of the spoils.
Messi, in total, fired 11 shots at goal, more than the entire Iceland side combined, although only three of them forced a save from Halldorsson. It was clear that the Barcelona forward wasn’t at the races and wasted a number of good opportunities.
However, both Gylfi Sigurdsson and Birkir Bjarnason also produced efforts narrowly off target for Iceland, both of which could have changed the course of the game entirely.
It got Messi
Argentina had 78% of possession and completed 90% of their passes overall, but a majority of that possession was useless. There was no direction or incisiveness to their possession of the ball, with over half of their 751 passes targeted to the middle third of the pitch.
This was because Jorge Sampaoli deployed a midfield double pivot of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, two more defensively minded midfielders.
There was a severe creative drought in midfield, and it meant the service into Messi and Angel Di Maria was poor.
When Argentina struggle, Messi tends to drop deeper and deeper until he’s orchestrating the game from the edge of his box.
It means he’s often playing with his back to goal, trying to dictate play from a midfield position, rather than making runs in behind defenders, drifting inside from wide positions or just generally getting further forward.
With Messi on the ball from deep, therefore, there was no-one to make the runs he would usually make and options were limited in the final third. To have someone with Messi’s vision unable to see the game is, frankly, criminal.
When Ever Banega did eventually come on, there was a general consensus that it was 54 minutes too late and the Sevilla midfielder should have been starting to provide this degree of creativity so lacking in Argentina’s play.
KEY STAT: 56% of Argentina’s total shots came from outside the area, demonstrating an inability to work the ball into the box.
Is it surprising that Messi took over half of his shots once Banega got onto the pitch? Banega changed the game entirely and Argentina finally resembled a structured-ish team.
Faith in the system
It’s hugely unfair, however, to put Iceland’s draw solely down to a poor Argentina performance or Sampaoli’s tactical decisions. Hallgrimsson’s men performed brilliantly to earn a point and it was their organisation, commitment and teamwork that led them to this result.
Deployed in a 4-5-1 when in defence, transitioning to a 4-4-2 in attack as Sigurdsson pushed forward to join Finnbogason, Iceland effectively limited space in their own half and consistently doubled up on Messi when he was on the ball, with a spare man to cover.
The distances between players both laterally and vertically were perfect, contributing to Argentina’s lack of incisiveness in possession
When the ball was lost the onus wasn’t on aggressively high pressing, rather standing off and dropping back into their defensive shape, denying space and forcing La Albiceleste to use a creative range of passing, an aspect where they were lacking.
In the above screenshot, for example, from the 73rd minute, Iceland are compact and sitting deep, denying Argentina any space through the middle of the pitch with short distances between each player.
Once Messi beat Finnbogason, he’s faced with a bank of three midfielders then another bank of five sitting behind them.
In this scenario, there is space in behind on the right flank, but it’s not been recognised and no run was made, with Messi eventually dribbling into trouble.
It’s never black and white
Iceland played extremely well and goalkeeper Halldorsson saved the day when he denied Messi from the spot, as well as producing a number of other top drawer saves.
Hallgrimsson’s men also looked dangerous on the counter and successfully exploited Argentina’s weakness in defence, right back Eduardo Salvio, denoted by the fact that 49% of their attacking moves came down this side of the pitch.
However, the poor quality of defending certainly didn’t help Argentina’s case, with Finnbogason ultimately scoring by taking advantage of a defensive error in the penalty area.
Football is never black and white, and it’s unfair on Iceland to argue that the result derives solely from Argentina’s shortcomings.
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