WORLD CUP: Argentina are the most tactically flexible World Cup winners we have ever seen – Michael Cox
This is how World Cups are won. They are rarely won by truly legendary sides, and they are often not won by the outstanding side in the tournament. The World Cup isn’t about playing spectacular football all the way through; it’s simply about finding a way. It usually involves shutting down the opposition, and generally depends upon fine margins.
Argentina were not a perfect side. They lost to Saudi Arabia in the group stage. On two occasions, against the Netherlands in the quarter-final and France in the final, they blew two-goal leads and relied on a penalty shootout to triumph. They were slightly fortunate not to suffer the same fate against Australia in the second round. But tactically, they neutralised the opposition for long periods, particularly at the start of matches. They also maximised the influence of their best player.
Lionel Scaloni didn’t have a Plan A at this competition. He used a 4-4-2 against Saudi Arabia and Mexico, before moving to 4-3-3 against Poland. He then reverted to 4-4-2 against Australia — and after switching to 5-3-2 at the start of the second half in that game, stuck with the 5-3-2 against the Netherlands. He switched to 4-4-2 again against Croatia, and then to 4-3-3 against France. No other World Cup winning side has been this flexible.
Even the one time he didn’t change formation between matches, for the win over Mexico, Scaloni changed half of his outfielders. And as often happens with the eventual winners, Scaloni suddenly found key players midway through the tournament.
Alexis Mac Allister didn’t start the opening game, but started the other six, and was excellent in the final. Leandro Paredes started the first game in the holding role, and Guido Rodriguez started the second. It was the third choice in that position, Enzo Fernandez, who made the role his own. Julian Alvarez started the tournament on the bench, and came into the side in a left-sided position against Poland, before leading the line in the knockout stages, when Scaloni’s formation choices worked well.
Against Australia the 4-4-2 was used, with Messi playing a more withdrawn role against an Australia side that spent long periods without the ball. He was able to exert his influence in deeper zones.
Against the Netherlands the 5-3-2 was introduced, providing a spare man at the back and using wing-backs against wing-backs. Nahuel Molina and Marcos Acuna didn’t simply nullify Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind — Molina ran in behind to open the scoring from Messi’s pass…
…and Acuna won the penalty for the second.
The 4-4-2 used against Croatia in the semi-final featured a narrow midfield to essentially block up the midfield against Croatia’s wonderful passers in that zone, and Alvarez, full of running, dropped back onto Marcelo Brozovic without possession…
…and sprinted forward through the Croatia defence for the first two goals. He then finished the move for the third, courtesy of Messi’s wonderful assist.
That assist, surely the best of the tournament, summed up why Messi was allowed freedom from defensive responsibilities, allowed to save his energy for brilliant attacking bursts. This is ultimately Messi’s World Cup victory: seven goals, three assists. Scaloni based the side entirely around Messi’s needs, even if he was used in three different roles: second striker, right of a front three, false nine. Whatever the formation, Messi ended up in his favoured positions.
He is surrounded by good rather than great players, who understand his genius and happily do his running for him — Alvarez and Rodrigo De Paul in particular. The comparisons to Diego Maradona in 1986 are inevitable considering their shared nationality, but it’s appropriate even without them both wearing the albiceleste. No other World Cup-winning side in the intervening years has been squarely based around one player. Even Brazil in 2002 were generally billed as the ‘Three Rs’ of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho until Ronaldo dominated the final.
Scaloni’s plan for the final was his most attack-minded, and his most effective from the outset.
It wasn’t a huge surprise that Di Maria returned for the final, in place of Paredes. But it was a surprise to see him deployed on the left.
Di Maria had played from the right in this tournament, and it was from the right that he was the match-winner in last year’s Copa America final victory against Brazil. It seemed most likely Di Maria would come into the side to help block up the flank occupied by Kylian Mbappe and Theo Hernandez. For all Di Maria’s attacking qualities, he’s always been a worker, accustomed to playing balancing roles to help Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mbappe shine for Argentina, Real Madrid and PSG respectively over the years.
Instead, Di Maria played from the left of a 4-3-3, with Messi playing from the right. This was a significant gamble, leaving Hernandez free to fly forward and combine with Mbappe.
They combined dangerously just before Argentina’s opener, winning a free-kick by the byline, which Olivier Giroud headed over. De Paul, playing to the right of Argentina’s midfield trio, was overworked.
But there were two benefits to this approach. First, Messi — given freedom from defensive duties, as ever — was left free to wander into space behind Hernandez, and was regularly involved. Secondly, and more significantly, Di Maria had a stormer down the left. Scaloni’s precise logic for using him down that flank is a little unclear. France’s makeshift right-back Jules Kounde hadn’t struggled defensively in this tournament, whereas Hernandez on the other flank certainly had. Perhaps Scaloni, a former right-back himself, sensed that a regular centre-back playing out wide wouldn’t relish playing against speed and trickery.
If so he was right. Di Maria won the penalty for the opener, from Ousmane Dembele’s foul.
He then popped up to round off a brilliant move for the second, which stemmed from Argentina breaking into the space behind Hernandez again.
He was outstanding throughout the first half, whether going down the outside of Kounde or looking to combine with Messi. It brought to mind his strong performance in the 2014 Champions League final down the left.
The curious thing about Scaloni’s approach in the second half was that, having shown a determination to switch to a five-man defence earlier in the competition, he didn’t opt to do so here. Maybe he considered that his switch against Australia was too cautious, and invited too much pressure. There had, in truth, been minimal sign that France were set to launch a comeback, so you can understand why he opted to stick with his initial shape, and when Di Maria inevitably ran out of steam after 64 minutes, Scaloni brought on left-back Marcos Acuna to play in tandem with Nicolas Tagliafico. That was what Scaloni did at a similar point in last year’s Copa America final, albeit it made more sense in that match after Brazil’s change of formation.
Argentina continued to play in a 4-4-2, simply with a left-back on the left of midfield. And with Didier Deschamps having essentially switched to a front four boasting bags of pace — Mbappe, Randal Kolo Muani, Marcus Thuram and Kingsley Coman — it was surprising that Scaloni didn’t do what he did against Australia, bringing on Lisandro Martinez to provide a spare man at the back.
Suddenly, Argentina looked ragged.
The thrilling extra-time period felt like tactical anarchy. Whereas some have suggested that the increased number of substitutions available hands managers too much control, maybe it’s the opposite. By the end of extra-time, Argentina had made six substitutions and France seven, as Adrien Rabiot’s departure was as a concussion substitution. The more changes, the more fresh legs, the less managers seem able to control the game. After Messi put Argentina ahead, this time Scaloni did change to a back five for the last few minutes, although Argentina conceded another penalty when trying to see out the game.
To what extent do Argentina feel similar to recent World Cup winners? Before the tournament The Athletic listed six common themes from the last World Cup winners.
The first: you don’t need to impress in the group stage. Argentina lost their first game, and at half-time of their second game against Mexico, were only a goal away from elimination.
The second: managers tend to stick with tried-and-tested star players. Scaloni changed more players than most World Cup-winning managers, although in the final he was rewarded for showing faith in Di Maria, when others might have stuck with those who played well — or played at all – in the knockout stage.
The third: there’s often a major system change along the way. That box was very much ticked.
The fourth: knockout clean sheets are vital. This wasn’t the case here — Argentina only kept one in their four matches.
The fifth: you don’t need a prolific No 9. That largely applies here. Argentina’s strikers, Lauturo Martinez and Alvarez, managed only three goals. Funnily enough, the only game where Messi started as the central attacker, against Poland, was the only game he didn’t score in.
And finally: you generally need extra-time and/or penalties. Argentina needed two shootouts to win this World Cup, just as Italy needed two shootouts to win last year’s European Championship.
Still, you won’t find many who will suggest Argentina didn’t deserve it. They were the better side in all four knockout games. They ‘won’ in expected goals terms in all seven matches. Their boldness created possibly the greatest World Cup final, and their captain is surely the greatest footballer the game has seen. They will be remembered fondly.
ARTISTRY GENIUS OF SCALONI 🏆
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