Wednesday, April 17

Argentina’s World Cup: Collective tactical evolution and Messi’s brilliance

Sudesh Baniya, Doha, Qatar

The Albiceleste overcame the Netherlands in the shootouts to qualify for their fifth semi-final since 1990. 

It was the moment that could keep the Argentinian dream alive or craft Lionel Messi’s last moments at the grandest stage. As soon as Lautaro Martinez deceived Noppert to go left, the Albiceleste came out of one of the classic knockout matches unsubdued and with the heads held high. 

Two back-to-back saves from Emiliano Martinez, denying Virgil van Djik and Steven Berghuis had already supplied Messi and company with the edge to succeed, but the battle was far from done. In fact, Albiceleste’s win was a mirror of their campaign so far, and a testament to Lionel Scaloni’s project – a group that sings the same songs and fights its battles together. 

Despite being in the driving seat with two goals and seven minutes to ninety, Louis van Gaal’s substitutions caused enough turmoil to force the spot kicks. Wout Weghorst’s brace meant Argentina were denied a normal-time victory in the last minute of added time. 

However, the storm for Argentina came after taking a two-goal lead, one that looked comfortable enough to gallop to the semi-finals against Croatia. The Albiceleste opened the scoring with a Nahuel Molina goal in the thirty-fifth minute, courtesy of a spell-binding Lionel Messi assists in the first half. Messi’s goal from the penalty spot in the second half leveled Gabriel Batistuta’s 10-goal tally at the World Cup, leaving Argentina just 17 minutes of regular time to defend the lead. Until Weghorst’s 83rd-minute header, the Dutch were yet to register a single shot on target. 

Argentina’s minutes of panic came in a similar fashion that Australia had cued in the round of 16 fixture at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium four days ago. The Socceroos, requiring a goal to equalize, deployed 6-feet-6 center-back Harry Souttar upfront in the later minutes to cause havoc with long balls. 

                                   Harry Souttar seen occupying the advanced role vs. Argentina. 

To Netherlands’ advantage, Luuk de Jong and Besiktas’ Weghorst were readily available, and the first goal came with a familiar move – a thumping header beating Martinez on goal. The second goal came with a clever free-kick routine, one that resembled Weghorst’s strike for VfL Wolfsburg in 2020. 

All in all, it was not certain for Argentina at the Lusail Stadium on Friday night. It never has been for them throughout this tournament – Scaloni’s side has had to evolve in order to rectify their mistakes to overcome one barrier after another. 

The first match, expected to be a cruising victory against Saudi Arabia, ended up in one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. In the 2-1 routing, the Copa America champions’ frailties in patiently unlocking the low block and finding ways to beat a well-organized offside trap were exposed. Whilst Saudi’s heroic team effort played a major part, Argentina’s inabilities were on display. The game ended not only with an upset but with a need to resolve and shrug off the defeat to make it to the knockouts. 

And Argentina did just that. While it took a gracefully crafted Messi goal to set the affairs on right track against Mexico, Argentina had started looking like their 2021 versions by the time Enzo Fernandez curled one past Guillermo Ochoa. Against a Mexican side that switched to a 5-3-2 from a 4-3-3, Argentina found their arc after exploiting spaces that opened outside of the box on occasions when the opposition maintained a low block. 

The fixture against Poland offered less threat, yet after their talisman missed from the spot, Scaloni’s men maintained their rhythm to cruise out victorious. While Alexis Mac Allister – who would not be considered to appear if not for Giovanni Lo Celso’s last-minute injury before the World Cup – found his mojo in the team, the squad’s discoveries ranged from Enzo Fernandez’s ability to control from the center and Lisandro Martinez’s role in the team. When Messi suffered, the team delivered – a factor that the sides in 2014 and 2018 lacked significantly. 

The round of 16 against Australia followed similar suites, yet, Argentina weren’t spared unscathed. The last minutes called upon committed aerial duels from Nicolas Otamendi and Cristian Romero, coupled with heroic blocks from Lisandro and Emiliano Martinez. Conceding a goal off a deflection did not help either. 

The Netherlands challenge was unique and bigger than the previous ones, for more reasons than one. Despite showing up as a stellar side in their group-topping performances, the recent USA clash had established van Gaal’s team as an adaptable unit – one that exploits your mistakes, while neutralizing your strengths. 

“Team USA didn’t adjust, they didn’t adapt,” van Gaal said following the USA game, hinting at his side’s nature of having a plan B to hit where it hurts. For Argentina too, that was a call to action. Against van Gaal’s side, Argentina opted for a 3-5-2, and had options aplenty if the Dutch’s central core, comprised of Frenkie de Jong and Marten de Roon, kept it tight. Messi and company ended up doing that too, consequently involving Nahuel Molina and Marcus Acuna in the mix. 

The former Manchester United manager’s plan B came to play with long balls to two aerially-sound strikers. The Netherlands attempted 68 long balls and 25 crosses, most of them coming towards the latter phase of regulated time, a period that they pushed Argentina to the back foot. 

However, for a fair share of time, the Dutch were chasing the game, yet were able to neutralize Argentina. It took a difference maker in Messi to unlock a pass to Molina in the first half, and a moment, a foul just at the right edge of the box for the penalty to create differences. It was always meant to be this way, as van Gaal hinted, “it’s not hard to imagine what we’ll do.” 

Yet another Messi masterclass and an endurant performance to rise above Netherlands’ momentum mean Argentina are through to the semifinals. Yet, the crux of their success so far, or if the last dance is to end in a paean, is a balance of constant tactical evolution and Messi’s individual brilliance. So far, it’s fair to say the Lionels have handled it well. 

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