How to explain the awful and uninspired performance by Argentina, one of the favorites to win this World Cup ? Argentina tied Iceland 1-1 and then was clobbered by Croatia 3-0. It now finds itself needing a victory over Nigeria to barely eek out of this group in second place, eerily similar to the situation it did before the final game of CONMEBOL qualifying, where it needed to beat Ecuador to avoid the relegation playoff.
Argentina started this World Cup with a bang. Against Iceland, Sergio Aguero scored in the 19th minute. The common belief was that Argentina could now coast to victory because Iceland would have to chase an equalizer goal, a style of game it isn’t suited to play. The Vikings like to score and then defend their field for long periods of time. Argentina, on the other hand, buttressed by the early goal, could take advantage of Iceland’s advance and score more goals. Argentina is a team that, given the talent they have, should be able to tactically adapt to any situation. But when a defensive lapse allowed Iceland to tie the game at 1 just 4 minutes later, the tactics of the game were reset. Argentina were now forced to again possess the ball and try to score while Iceland simply parked the bus and hoped for a counter-attack. And possess the ball Argentina did (by a whopping 73% to 27%). Maybe the most lopsided statistic was the number of completed passes: 718 for Argentina to Iceland’s 189.
This massive statistical advantage didn’t result in any additional goals however. Argentina were unimaginative and predictable in their buildup and approach. On corner kicks, they never attempted any variant (a short kick to Messi to dribble into the box, a short kick to cross into the box); on free kicks, it was always Messi over the ball and no-one else. There was no trickery, no wrinkles, just Messi. Even on Messi’s penalty kick, he executed exactly as he does on the Pepsi blue paint ball commercial, lightly and to his left. Never has a team with that much possession done so little.
Parking the bus is a tactic that allows Iceland’s to freeze a game that would make the most ardent proponents of the Italian Catenaccio proud. Against this Argentinian team, they never really seemed that hard pressed to lock the opposition down. Sure Iceland couldn’t ever possess the ball or do anything with it when they did, but the key is they never allowed Argentina to score again.
Against Croatia, Argentina was further exposed, especially on defense. Caballero, the backup goalkeeper on the national team and at his club side Chelsea, made a horrible pass early on that essentially gifted Croatia an early goal when Ante Rebic pounced on the ball and hit a nice volley over the hapless goalie. In the 80th minute, it was Real Madrid’s Luka Modric’s who hit a strike from outside the box after beating two Argentinian defenders. Ivan Rakitic, Messi’s Barcelona teammate, sealed the deal with a beautiful goal late in the game as the Argentinian defense was shredded to pieces attempting to step forward to cause an offside trap. Instead, Rakitic scored a third goal which now put Argentina on the edge of disqualification.
Messi has been there before and has come through. But the expression of disbelief after the Iceland game was matched only by his disturbing body language during the anthem before the Croatia game. Something seems amiss with Leo. He’s not playing up his level and Argentina only seems to play as well as their superstar does.
I wouldn’t count him out (Argentina has never lost to Nigeria in 5 group stage matches and it is Messi after all). Argentina has vowed to fight “until the final minute.” But even if Messi pulls Argentina out of this mess again, they’re likely to succumb soon thereafter in the knock-out phase.