Given Argentina’s thoroughly convincing qualification utilising Alejandro Sabella’s 4-3-3 system which had seen Lionel Messi produce his best form in an Argentina shirt, in tandem with Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María, many had thought this World Cup could see an unrivalled attacking force. However, four games in and Argentina have yet to really find their groove. Four narrow wins made possible by the individual brilliance of Messi have followed but how much longer can this continue. Why is this Argentina side looking so blunt?
For a side that came to Brazil with a settled starting eleven, were comfortable winners of a difficult CONMEBOL Qualification group and as the leading scorers, Argentina have looked surprisingly disjointed so far in this World Cup.
Lionel Messi is obviously exempt from any criticism levelled at the side so far this campaign, given his critical contributions in all four matches. Plus perhaps surprisingly, given the pre-tournament doubts, Sergio Romero and Marcos Rojo have also performed well.
However the fact that these two are now recognised as two of the better performers speaks volumes about the underwhelming displays by some of the players who had been expected to light up the tournament.
Fernando Gago is one such culprit. During qualification, Gago proved to be a central cog in Sabella’s side and provided much of the thrust to Argentina’s frightening speed on the break. Gago would pick up the ball deep and quickly get the ball to his good friend, Lionel Messi to devastating effect. This ability to begin breaks and feed Messi is Gago’s prime purpose in the side but, bar his substitute appearance against Bosnia, we have yet to see this have any kind of effect in Brazil.
Commonly, when Argentina are at their most effective, this pass combination of Gago to Messi is the most used between any two players. However, against Switzerland this was only the sixth most common and instead passes between many of the defenders and Javier Mascherano were being used more regularly. With the majority of the passing taking place so deep it proves that much of this possession was either going sideways or backwards, when Argentina enjoyed most of their success with this system moving the ball forward quickly. In spite of the wonderful individuals in this Argentina side it is not set up to play the tiki-taka possession football that we have seen Barcelona or Spain use to such success.
Naturally, this is equally caused by sides sitting deeper and not allowing Argentina to hit them on the counter. Iran and Switzerland both illustrated the difficulties that Argentina can have breaking down a side who pack the defence and swarm on Lionel Messi.
However, Argentina need to have a degree of versatility here and it is fair to say that so far Gago’s passing has not been at the required level. Against the Swiss, Gago completed only 78 of the 88 passes attempted (68.6%) in the 105 or so minutes he was on the pitch. For the perceived metronome of the side these stats suggest a failure on his part.
Argentina may benefit from a midfield accomplice to Mascherano who is a bit more mobile and can offer a few more options. Lucas Biglia or Enzo Pérez would be the obvious candidates in this system and certainly Biglia provided a little glimpse of what he may offer after replacing Gago during extra time. Biglia completed all 11 of his attempted passes in his 15 minute cameo and having played a number of years in Belgium might be a very good alternative in the Quarter Final.
Gago though is not alone. Gonzalo Higuaín hit 9 goals during qualification, only one shy of Messi and has proved to have a fantastic partnership with the Argentine captain but the striker who scored 24 goals in his first season in Napoli looks well short of that form presently.
Like strike-partner, Sergio Agüero, Higuaín came into the tournament off the back of injury, not participating in the warm up fixtures and entering as a second half substitute in the opening game against Bosnia. Question marks have remained over his fitness but Sabella stuck with him throughout the 120 minutes of the Switzerland match so the coaching staff do not appear to share these concerns.
In the four matches played so far, Higuaín has managed only 7 shots, most of which were off target or blocked. Given that Ángel Di María registered 12 shots from midfield, solely in the game against Switzerland, highlights the inactivity of Argentina’s number 9.
But it isn’t just in his lack of shooting that is a worry. Other than the neat lay-off for Messi’s wonderful goal against Bosnia, Higuaín has offered little in the way of approach play. In the entire Swiss match, Higuaín mustered only 6 passes in the final third from the 7 he attempted (85.7%).
This lull in the centre-forward’s presence, coupled with Sergio Agüero’s injury problems certainly has a knock-on effect to Lionel Messi. With the rest of the attack not providing as much of a threat, opponents are able to concentrate far more on Messi and at times he is immediately confronted by three or four defenders.
The introducion of Ezequiel Lavezzi in the absence of Agüero it was hoped would add width to the side and create space but the Paris St Germain attacker was equally anonymous.
Without wanting to read too much into the brief appearance of Rodrigo Palacio against Switzerland, it was the Inter Milan player who stole the ball on half way to set Messi away and for virtually the first time have the Swiss defence back-pedalling.
Palacio is a willing runner but looked sharp, almost latching on to a rebound after a Messi shot had been saved. He might not be a superstar and the most naturally gifted of footballers but he gives a directness and certainly, at present, is a more mobile figure in the attack.
Lastly, a side who are criticized for lacking width would perhaps normally ask their full-backs to overlap, as both Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta do for their club sides. However, Alejandro Sabella seems to be taking a more cautious approach and is aware of Argentina’s susceptibility to the counter attack.
Neither have contributed much offensively but Zabaleta has also looked somewhat shaky defensively. Surprisingly it has been Rojo who has impressed from the defence, given that pre-tournament it was he who was attracting most attention as the ‘weak-link’ in Argentina’s starting eleven.
Rojo’s suspension for the Belgium game is now the cause for concern as José Basanta will most likely be the replacement and face a very quick Belgian attack who have utilised their pace down the right with Napoli’s Dries Mertens.
Rojo will be the only guaranteed change for Sabella to make ahead of the clash with Belgium but given how the side has performed so far perhaps it would be wise to shuffle the pack a little more.