Argentina will play their final World Cup group game against Poland on Tuesday not knowing what scenario their campaign follows.
The hope is that it plays out like in Italy 90, when they recovered from a shock opening game loss to Cameroon and made it all the way to the final. The fear is that he could follow South Korea/Japan 2002, when they arrived as favourites, had plenty of possession but created little, and after a win (over Nigeria) and loss (against England) , they drew 1-1 with Sweden and failed to make it out of the group.
Many will see disturbing similarities to 2002. So far, Argentina have failed to live up to their reputation as one of the best candidates to lift the trophy. People have wondered how this team managed to enter the tournament on a 36-game unbeaten streak, beating Brazil and beating Italy at Wembley. What happened to Lionel Messi & Co? There seem to be two answers.
First, the adversaries studied them in depth, looking for ways to neutralize their forces. Coach Lionel Scaloni’s team was built around a basic idea: a passing midfielder who patiently builds up the pace, seeks to wear down the opposition, and waits for the right moment to turn possession into penetration .
Saudi Arabia came up with a bold solution: squeeze space in midfield by using a high defensive line. It was a risky strategy and only the tightest of offsides prevented Argentina from building an unassailable lead in the first half, but the Saudis’ bravery was rewarded with a shock 2-1 victory. They denied Argentina time and space to play their normal game, and Argentina never found a solution.
– 2022 World Cup: News and files | Schedule | Teams
On Saturday, Gerardo Martino’s Mexico attempted something much more conservative: defending with a block of three central defenders protected by another trio of central midfielders. It wasn’t easy to watch – Mexico’s thrilling wingers of four years ago are now a distant memory – but it was frustrating and almost worked, before Messi struck and Argentina finished victorious 2-0.
It’s all part of the game, but (and here’s the other part of the explanation) Argentina haven’t been at their best either.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (US)
Alarm bells started ringing shortly before the competition when midfielder Giovani Lo Celso withdrew through injury. Scaloni has confessed he doesn’t have a similar replacement and Lo Celso is a key part of Argentina’s midfield trio. During the long unbeaten streak, Leandro Paredes had played the first ball forward with quality, Rodrigo De Paul had provided thrust and Lo Celso, with his small, subtle passes, had brought Messi into the game close to the ‘opponent. objective. Good teams are made of small partnerships and the bond between Messi and Lo Celso was an important part of the squad. Alejandro Gomez stepped in for the Saudi opener and Alexis Mac Allister for the Mexico encounter; neither was a big hit, although there were extenuating circumstances.
Scaloni made five changes for the game against Mexico, one of which was the forced replacement of Paredes in the midfield anchor role. The 28-year-old struggled for his fitness and was far from his best against the Saudis, but the inclusion of Guido Rodriguez to take his place made little sense.
Rodriguez is a 6-foot-2 defensive midfielder. He could be a good option to come in and hold the fort when the team is protecting a lead, but he was all wrong for the game against Mexico. It was up to Argentina to create, to move the ball, to create a head of steam. The pace comes from the back and it’s hard for more advanced players to create anything if everyone is marked. The midfield setter must step forward, engage their opponents and create the space for a constructive forward pass. That’s not Rodriguez’s game and as the game progressed it was clear that Messi was growing more and more frustrated.
Argentina looked like a team caught between two concepts. Was Rodriguez included because Scaloni was keen to protect the defence? But while he was there, it was difficult for Argentina to be themselves. And then Rodriguez gave way to Enzo Fernandez.
Much has been said about the two inspirational moments that won the match – Messi’s shot from outside the area and Fernandez’s wonderful curling finish late in the game. But there is something else. Messi scored after receiving a clever pass from Angel Di Maria on the right wing; Di Maria received the ball from Enzo Fernandez. Suddenly, with Fernandez on the pitch, Argentina had a passing circuit taking place in the opposing half.
It’s the golden rule of football: the team makes the stars. Messi and company hadn’t suddenly become bad players when Argentina struggled to break down Mexico. The team hadn’t moved the ball well enough to give them space to do their thing – until Fernandez arrived. Now he has surely earned a place in the starting XI against Poland.