It is safe to say that we have not seen the best of Ángel Di María at this World Cup but that is not to say that his absence will not be keenly felt. The last gasp winner against Switzerland and his boundless energy from midfield are examples and provide further evidence of his crucial role in Sabella’s Argentina. With injury keeping the Real Madrid man out of Wednesday’s Semi Final, Sabella must find an alternative. How do Argentina solve this conundrum?
What are the options available to Sabella? Firstly, there is no like-for-like replacement in the squad for Di María. With an almost super-human level of stamina, there are few players in world football who could provide the cover that Di María does over a possible 120 minutes.
It is then no surprise really that the two sides that have utilised a similar 4-3-3, counter-attacking formation most effectively in the past year or so, are Real Madrid at club level and Argentina, internationally. The common factor in their midfield trio? Ángel Di María.
So with no obvious replacement this 4-3-3 would perhaps be either a little gung ho or too static. Caught between an attacker like Ricky Álvarez, who would not share the defensive burden or another central midfielder in the form of Enzo Pérez, who might not have the pace and stamina to run beyond Messi but still get back to support Mascherano.
This 4-3-3, which switches to a 4-2-4 when Argentina attack, is really made possible by Ángel Di María.
When Di María limped off against Belgium his replacement was Benfica midfielder, Enzo Pérez, who it must be added performed admirably. However, Sabella was forced to shuffle the formation and this saw Ezequiel Lavezzi play more on the left of a four-man midfield rather than a three-pronged attack and Pérez whose versatility is an asset here was able to fill in on the right.
Pérez is able to do this in addition to playing in a defensive midfield role or more suitably a slightly more advanced box-to-box type. Against the Netherlands, Sabella may well call upon Benfica’s player of the year to do the same.
It is equally worth noting at this point that centrally, Lucas Biglia has been excellent since replacing Fernando Gago. Biglia has brought an extra energy alongside Mascherano and is able to push forward with more verve than Gago. This in any formation on Wednesday will surely be the pairing in midfield.
So, if Pérez isn’t given the nod on the right then who else might Sabella turn to? An always reliable option would be Maxi Rodríguez who is comfortable playing in that position and has performed well under Sabella. His poor performance in the opening game against Bosnia, more a mistake in playing him in the central three in the 5-3-2, rather than Maxi not being up to the task.
Supposing, Alejandro Sabella does stay with this 4-4-2 the other option available on the left, where Di María would naturally line up, is Inter Milan’s, Ricky Álvarez. The former Vélez Sársfield midfielder is used to playing on the left at club level but so far this World Cup has played only a bit part. Whether Sabella will trust Álvarez on the left, where covering the left back against the dangers of Arjen Robben will be crucial, is another matter.
This obvious threat of Robben could see another formation altogether as Sabella could well revert back to the 5-3-2 which stuttered to a first half lead against Bosnia in the World Cup opener.
Marcos Rojo has been Sabella’s first choice left back and was excellent in the first four matches, prior to his suspension against Belgium when José María Basanta slotted in and also impressed. With the prospect of facing Arjen Robben, Sabella might opt for both. Basanta can slide across to the left of the three centre backs and Rojo can return to left full back.
This would have the aim of nullifying what is without question the main Dutch threat, but it is also a formation that Sabella is a fan of. It would be a little unfair to judge this formation purely on the 45 minute showing against Bosnia, where the midfield trio that day of Mascherano, Di María and Maxi undoubtedly failed.
Sabella is in essence a defensive coach and having to fit this current Argentina side into quite an attacking 4-3-3 went against his pre-Albiceleste philosophy. However, his 5-3-2 with Estudiantes was very successful. 2009 Copa Libertadores winners and moments away from the Club World Cup, only to be edged out in extra time by Lionel Messi and Barcelona, provide evidence of Sabella’s astuteness and familiarity with this system.
Certainly if Sabella reverts back to this formation on Wednesday, the midfield three of Mascherano, Biglia and Pérez will fare much better than the three against Bosnia. This would also see Lavezzi drop to the bench as Rojo would have license to attack down the left and feed Higuaín and Messi.
The concern will be that this midfield will not provide the thrust to support the attack and a lot of responsibility would fall on Biglia and, more likely, Pérez to do just that.
There are options available within Sabella’s squad and certainly systems that can still get the required result against the Netherlands but whichever system is decided upon it will certainly lack the edge that Di María gives Argentina.