The Only Way is Messi

It’s been an inauspicious start for La Albiceleste (Google it) as they’ve struggled to overcome Bosnia and Iran in their first two matches. Unsurprisingly, it’s been Messi who’s eventually unpicked the locks to secure victory in both games. But is the ‘give it to Messi’ tactic getting the most out of the team as a whole?

Below is a graphic showing the main passing lines for Argentina against Bosnia. Remember the bigger the circle the more touches a player has had. And the thicker the arrow, the bigger the number of passes made in that direction. All the players are stationed in the average position they touched the ball:

ArgentinavBosPMFirstly, the team hub is Mascherano – a neat and tidy player in possession but nothing more. Creativity from the middle of the park was a problem. All roads lead to Messi here but Messi’s main out-ball was shuffling it back to Mascherano after running into traffic.

You may notice that there’s an outfield player missing on the graphic. Aguero might have been on the pitch but his team mates barely found him. Here’s the shots Aguero and Messi got away during the game:

ArgentinavBosSMNot one shot from the main danger zone in the central swathe of the box. Messi did find Aguero four times in the box but always in a difficult wide angle and only one of these passes led to a quick shot.

Against Iran, coach Sabella’s solution was to drop defender Campagnaro for defensive midfielder Gago and swap Maxi for his other star forward Higuain. TWO centre forward vanishing acts ensued:

Argentina2NodeWith two ball shufflers in midfield the play was even more turgid. The centre backs got higher up the field in possession compressing the play and space was at an even higher premium. Iran simply dropped off and formed a wall in front of the penalty area. Here’s the shot maps for 3 of the world’s top finishers:

ArgvIraSMThe BBC’s highlights only feature Messi in open play when he goes it alone. All the more intricate moves Aunty deemed worthy of including show the star man merely looking on. What’s more, when Argentina got caught in possession, Iran really threatened in the transitions.

Playing against lesser teams in its first two games just highlighted the fact that Sabella doesn’t know how to find a balance with the talent he has available. Against better opponents with higher ambition in the KO stage, Argentina may find more space in the final third, but the weak-looking back-line will get tested too. Plugging the best player in the world into a badly set-up side isn’t enough to jump the highest hurdles. Ask the Portuguese.

It won’t happen but I’d like to see Messi stationed on the left of centre to encourage passing link ups with the main striker(s). Stationed on the right he’ll time and again ignore the overlap (Alves at Barcelona, Zabaleta here) and cut inside. Messi often gives only to receive in order to get nearer to goal himself for a shot. We saw above that it’s also making good passing angles for through balls difficult. However good he is, the current tactics are wasting some world class team mates.

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