Argentina Tactical Analysis: Messi checked by Icelandic wall

It was another frustrating afternoon in international football for the world's best player who couldn't make the difference for his side.


REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Jorge Sampaoli is one of the more revered managers when it comes to tactical analysis. 

He’s celebrated in these circles along with the likes Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola with all being considered disciples of new Leeds United manager, Marcelo Bielsa.

Bielsa has admitted that his strict adherence to principles can be a weakness for himself but that this flaw isn’t shared by Argentina boss Sampaoli.

“One of the virtues for a coach is flexibility, but I don’t give up my ideas and that is a defect. Sampaoli, instead, can give in to these ideas and that makes him better than me,” Bielsa commented last year.

“He has solved things by conceding things. I have lost out because I didn’t give up them. I don’t consider him a disciple because he has ideas that make an [original] idea better. I couldn’t do what he does.”

Sampaoli, though, is struggling to implement his ideas on Argentina as he once did at Chile. There he was able to continue Bielsa’s work while adding hints of his own style but Argentina have a number of unique characteristics which need to be worked around, not least the best player in the world, Lionel Messi.

Sloppy Messi

Being able to call upon Lionel Messi should give any manager an immediate advantage but historically Argentina head coaches have struggled to get the best from him. 

Sampaoli could still be the man to do so but Saturday’s showing was another example of everything going against Messi at international level.

Against Iceland the number ten had 115 touches of the ball and 11 shots on goal, only three of which were on target. 

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

One of these was a penalty which was saved by the excellent Iceland goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson, and only one of Messi’s other shots was closer to the goal than his spot-kick.

One of his more promising strikes from just outside the area was blocked by his own man, Ever Banega, in a moment which summed up much of what the Barcelona man experiences at international level.

His chances to make something happen himself came from the penalty spot, and several free kicks, but the goal just wouldn’t come. 

Formations

There are always a number of unfamiliar formations mentioned when discussing Sampaoli’s setup. 

From the Bielsa influenced 3-3-3-1 / 3-3-1-3 used during his time at Universidade de Chile, to his own spell in charge of the Chilean national team where he carried on Bielsa’s work, Sampaoli has also used a hybrid between 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 diamond. 

In one of his press conferences as Argentina boss, he mentioned the 2-3-3-2 setup which has been cited numerous times since as the way La Albiceleste will set up. However, Sampaoli naturally tends towards describing the attacking shape of a formation while, traditionally, the defensive shape is used to describe the team numerically.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

For example, his back four in defensive positions is rarely retained in attack as the full backs push forward to join the midfield, or in the most extreme cases, to join the attack. In these cases, though, they are still listed as a four. Sampaoli, however, is all for the extreme.

It’s possible to get lost when trying to pin down the Sampaoli formation. His setup is more of a mindset than a numerical system. The 3-3-1-3 had seen a return in some of Argentina’s friendlies in 2017, especially against Russia and Nigeria but this has also been referred to as 3-5-2. 

This is further confused by the fact that his players are also struggling with his system at the moment. The aging midfield of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia isn’t built for the pressing which was a key part of Sampaoli’s previous success and, at any rate, it wasn’t really required to provide defensive cover against a low block such as Iceland’s.

His tactics in this game were more like 4-2-3-1, although he might call it 2-2-6. Two centre backs sat behind a double pivot of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia. Messi was given a free role which saw him regularly join Sergio Agüero while Maximiliano Meza and Angel Di Maria occupied the wide areas just inside the adventurous full-backs.

Argentina’s full backs were very wide and very attacking.

Eduardo Salvio hugged the touchline and advanced so far up the pitch he became part of the forward line. Salvio has played much of his football on the wing anyway, so this was a natural position for him, even though he didn’t get much chance to show this.

Nicolás Tagliafico performed a similar role on the left and could regularly be seen floating around the opposition backline. But although the full backs made three key passes each, neither could assist a goal.

Clash of Styles

Iceland were almost the direct opposite to Argentina in their mindset. 

They were defensively-organised and well-structured at the back but unpredictable and chaotic in attack. This, coupled with Argentina’s unpredictable and chaotic defense, made for some exciting attacking play from the World Cup newcomers when they made it into the final third.

Iceland weren’t afraid to push players forward on the counter-attack and created better chances than Argentina in open play. The expected goals graph, from 11tegen11, shows that their two big chances had them on top for much of the game, until Messi’s penalty opportunity just after the hour mark.

Though Iceland’s gameplan was defined by their low block, they created the best chances of the game. Birkir Bjarnason should have scored in the opening ten minutes and Alfred Finnbogason’s goal came as a result of some persistent attacking, poor defending from Argentina, and the ability to convert a chance when it arrived.

Mascherano made more passes than the entire Iceland team in the first half with 70 compared to 69 but, although Argentina racked up the numbers, their only goal was an excellent strike from Agüero which wasn’t even defined as a “big chance” by Opta.

Substitute Cristian Pavón finally provided Argentina with a tool to break down the low block and should have had a penalty which would have provided Messi with an opportunity to atone for his previous miss. But, as with so much of Messi’s international career, it wasn’t to be.

What do you think? Were Argentina weak tactically? Let us know by commenting below.

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James Nalton

James is a world football writer and sports journalist for the Morning Star newspaper. He is the founder of global football outlet World Football Index, and the South American football website the Botafogo Star.

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