Barely a week into the World Cup, but if there had been a goal for every time I’ve heard “They have to move the ball quickly and with more urgency”, Russia 2018 would’ve broken every conceivable scoring record there is, and perhaps there has ever been.
The flippancy that speed of ball circulation is routinely called upon, overlooks, the principle that World Cup winning coach César Luis Menotti has often championed: “Anything that’s done with haste invariably doesn’t end up at its best… And even more so when we are talking about football.”
Equally a similarly significant consideration typically omitted is that a pass is as much (if not more) about the locations of possible receptors, and is of course in relation to the opposition as well. It’s not purely about intent.
This is where, and amongst a host of other games so far early on in the tournament, Argentina’s opening fixture against Iceland saw many people largely disregard some of these key caveats, in favour of an analysis that centred excessively on a blind penchant for tempo. And to a lesser extent players above the dynamic of changing locations/roles.
Breaking down the lack of breakdown
Firstly lets get one thing straight, to say Iceland are difficult to break down constitutes at best a rather vapid scrutiny.
Any number of teams ‘put men behind the ball’ or ‘defend in numbers’. However, it doesn’t really allay any tactical considerations to simply present this in and of itself as a sweeping statement. Notwithstanding too that it also does Iceland and their coaches a disservice to reductively present this.
On Saturday Heimir Hallgrímsson’s side switched between a Zonal-Marking system  when the ball was in their own half. To a Man-to-Man marking variation in Argentina’s final third. Notably so at the restart(s) of play .
1: Iceland employing a meticulously drilled zonal coverage across the pitch.
Argentina though failing to stagger any players in the –perforated box- area of influence.
2: Iceland going Man-to-Man when Argentina restart/have possession in their own third. An unexploited opening for Sampaoli’s men?
As in every game the opponents structure presents a challenge and an opportunity.
When looking back it’s safe to say Jorge Sampaoli may well have been frustrated that his side was not truly able to take advantage of the inherent chaos in the transitional stages of the game. Even more so in the pronounced environment that comes when switching between two styles as Iceland endeavour to do.
Perhaps what was most required wasn’t necessarily (just) speed, but actually emphasising the team play a greater amount of longer, incisive passes to break the lines, and most crucially eliminate players.
After all not every pass is created equal. Ergo while speed is a somewhat noteworthy consideration, the ability to cut through opposition lines has an equal if not greater value against sides that reduce space so efficiently.
In large part though this difficulty could well have been down to Argentina’s true glaring problems on the day, in terms of staggering the team across different levels of the pitch, and indeed controlling the second balls.
Much was made pre-tournament of the 2-3-3-2. Albeit against Iceland the side vaguely resembled somewhat of a 2-4-4 instead. To an extent caused by the natural difficulties that their opponent presented them.
La Albiceleste, and even with the introduction of Éver Banega, where rarely able to position players between the lines.
Indeed the limited times they did do this often seemed disjointed, and didn’t typically allow the players to receive running onto the ball facing forward, as they had notionally intended to do so prior to the contest according to their manager.
AdJ: “Beneficio de estar marcado”.Situación: Argentina en ataque, Haiti en defensa organizada 4-1-4-1 bloque compacto en zona media, con su defensa alta.Concepto: Como el tener jugadores entre lineas acapara la vigilancia/marca de ultima linea y propicia la generación de espacio pic.twitter.com/kPhNNOyRVU
— Lucas Rivas (@LRivasFutbol) June 3, 2018
Argentina’s only pre-World Cup friendly versus Haiti did see them practice positioning players between the lines to then move off and receive at different levels to impact on the play.
A secondary obstacle to this was then the fact that Don Sampa’s men placed a perceivably exaggerated value towards contesting the first duel with the Icelanders, resulting in a great deal of complications in the eventual plethora of second balls.
This in turn meant that on the one hand: Iceland could wrestle away momentum from Argentina relatively easily by stretching the pitch lengthways, and attacking the anarchic lack of marking by Nicolás Otamendi, Marcos Rojo et al.
As well as in doing so also generating gaps that often lead to a veritable chasm of space in midfield, and something of an unfavourable ‘broken team’.
Iceland dominating the second ball. A tactic that generated their goal/best chances on the day. But also movement that stretched Argentina creating a void in midfield.
A result of said trend (+ examples of lacklustre positioning throughout) invariably meant that almost any recovery of possession often found the Argentina player doing so both far away from the opponents area, and isolated in terms of being able to combine with his teammates/facing a large number of defensive players in front of them.
Not for nothing engaging the opposition high up the pitch has been a Sampaoli trademark since his time in charge of Universidad de Chile – admittedly not something on show Saturday, or a great deal yet for his Argentina side.
Can the cavalry alone cut it?
While Cristian Pavón’s arrival to the game somewhat changed the dynamic, the Boca Juniors winger being a player willing to drive at the opposition and beat a man, it should be noted this was also assisted by the fact that:
A: The central defenders (on this occasion Marcos Rojo in the main) ventured forward into the midfield to create an overload. Thus pressuring Iceland’s meticulously organised form.
The impact a defender can have by penetrating with the ball, attracting attention so as to generate a spare man in midfield and move the opponent out of position, shouldn’t be underestimated against a low-block.
(A scrappy example being Argentina’s goal coming from Rojo breaking lines + with Tagliafico on the overlap!)
B: With the additional support around him Pavón was able to better connect the wings for Argentina. IE: Producing a Pavón, Rojo, and Tagliafico or Banega triangle in the wide areas of the pitch.
One example of such leading to the Argentina substitute receiving the ball facing forward and getting away a dangerous cross come shot saved by the keeper.
Overloading one side of the pitch to create, IE 3 vs. 2 on the wing undeniably afforded Argentina the most offensive joy in the game.
Of course the mainstream clamour will have, and indeed continues to simplistically suggest, changing personnel will resolve the issues. (With then the maligning lack of consistency in doing so?!)
Although truth be told the quandary would remain that on the day if the team disposition (& rotation) is not formed enough, even accounting for any amount of possession (such as the 78% in the last match). Will this realistically provide a platform for Argentina to actually combine fluidly as a team achieve the speed, or incisiveness of pass they are lacking?
Whilst of course more facetiously allegorical than instructional, if the team (irrespective of the incessant focus on velocity) is unable to carry out certain broad tactical premises, then even having the one and only Lionel Messi will more often than not still seem: ‘like giving a lantern to a blind person.’
Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielFMPro
#Bielsista & #Eterno21! Covering #Argieball, #SouthAmerica, #LaLiga #MLS & many more, both in #ENG & #ESP [Creator of @FootballARGnews]