Argentina vs Croatia: How to get the best out of Messi

Messi was left frustrated against Iceland's aggressive marking. How can Argentina use him more effectively against Croatia?


Reuters/CARL RECINE

After being frustrated by Iceland, Argentina could find themselves effectively eliminated from the World Cup if they were to lose their second game on Thursday evening. 

Croatia will offer a different challenge. They’re unlikely to sit so deep and mark Lionel Messi as doggedly as Iceland and they will offer more of an offensive threat while their superior midfielders might even look to take control of the game. But having already defeated Nigeria, they’re aware that a point would be a good return and this might mean a naturally more defensive approach.

Messi saw a lot of the ball against Iceland, but his threat was nullified as Iceland had defenders on him within seconds every time. He was Argentina’s best player in qualification and dragged the team to Russia, most memorably with a stunning hat-trick in the final game, away in Ecuador. 

If Argentina are to even get out of the group, let alone compete to win the thing, they will need a different approach in order to get the best out of Messi. Here’s what they need to do:

Push further up and bring Ever Banega in

The water-carrying double pivot of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia was probably a bit too safe against a side playing with a deep defensive block. This was Sampaoli’s big mistake against Iceland. 

It’s understandable that the coach opted for a conservative approach after the sloppy goals conceded in qualification. The mauling suffered at the hands of Spain in a spring-friendly exposed how slow and frail Argentina’s back four are. 

Reuters/KAI PFAFFENBACH

While Iceland didn’t have the tools to exploit that, Croatia might. Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric are exceptional midfielders and will wrestle control of the game and set the tempo while Kramaric and Perisic have the mobility to find space. 

But with a win needed, Sampaoli has no choice but to be braver and hope the verve that a more dynamic midfielder – Ever Banega – offers, is enough to supersede the frailties at the back. The attack looked so stunted because Messi was forced deep to pick up the ball, due to the midfielders behind him not having the skill set to move the ball up the field. 

Find Nicolás Tagliafico

The left-back has had a meteoric rise, winning the Copa Sudamericana with Independiente and earning a move to Ajax in January. The Iceland game was only his sixth cap for Argentina, but he has become a key part of Sampaoli’s plans since his first call-up a year ago, especially with the scarcity of other options.

Reuters/ALBERT GEA

At Barcelona, Messi enjoys a great understanding with Jordi Alba, and their combination play is a key element of Barcelona’s offensive strategy. But this is yet to be replicated with the national team, a combination of Messi himself looking elsewhere and the left back’s reluctance to drive forward to the same extent. This left Argentina’s threat nullified on the left side.

For Croatia, Ivan Strinić played well against Nigeria, but he can be vulnerable. That left side, as opposed to the right (covered expertly by Atletico Madrid’s stellar Šime Vrsaljko, with cover from Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic) will be an obvious area to exploit. This demands more from the full backs.

Look for other options – ignore him if necessary

Wait, hear this one out. 

The respected Anglo-Argentine writer John Carlin gave an interview with messiworldcup.com, a website chronicling Messi’s totemic shadow in Russia, and came to the conclusion that Argentina do not use him well enough:

“They lack the humility to understand what every single Barcelona player has understood: as soon as you receive the ball, you look up and see if Messi is in space. Every time, that’s what you do. And if he’s in space, you give it to him. It’s very simple: give the fucking ball to Messi.” 

But this was exactly the problem against Iceland, who often doubled or trebled up on him. Messi did well to dispatch the ball out of tight spaces, but time and time again attacking moves broke down because the ball was drawn to his magnetic presence and into a dead-end space. 

Reuters/MAXIM SHEMETOV

It’s true that Argentina find themselves with a patchy and uneven squad, but they still boast prolific centre forwards in Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Angel di Maria is out of sorts but can be a handful on his day, while Cristian Pavon looked a live-wire in his brief substitute appearance. 

There are other offensive talents within the team. With the opposition focusing so many men on one player, it’s inevitable that gaps will appear elsewhere. It’s on Argentina’s forwards to make good runs and for their midfielders to look to players other than Messi in order to exploit that. Too often they use him as a crutch. 

Messi has been stupendous for Barcelona in recent seasons, dragging the team to compete with a superior Madrid and helping them usurp them last season. He can do that. But they are at their best and most ruthlessly effective when the other forwards exploit the gaps left as defenders are drawn to Messi – as with Luis Suarez & Neymar in 2015 and with David Villa & Pedro in 2011. 

Argentina must follow that template as opposed to blindly hoping for magic from their triple-marked deity. 

Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss all the action from Day 7 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.

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