Argentina 1-0 Nigeria: Maradona’s men dominate but fail to convince

June 12, 2010

Eight years ago, Argentina started with a 1-0 win against Nigeria and then crashed out before the knockout stages. You wouldn’t bet on the same thing happening again, but this performance didn’t suggest that Argentina have the ruthlessness needed to win the trophy.

They made one change from the widely expected line-up, with Carlos Tevez playing instead of Nicolas Otamendi, meaning Jonas Gutierrez moved to right-back, not a position he was comfortable in.

Nigeria fielded a fairly basic 4-4-2 rather than the 4-3-3 we expected. When attacking it often appeared they were playing three forwards, because of the nature of the wide players. Forward Chinedu Obasi was pushed onto the left-hand side, whilst Sani Kaita was on the right of midfield, despite being a left-footed defensive midfielder. This made Nigeria’s shape rather lopsided.

Argentina dominate possession

Nigeria looked boxey and static in a 4-4-2 shape that didn’t suit their players. Defending in two lines of four wasn’t effective as Lionel Messi was looking to play between the lines, and he continually picked up the ball in dangerous positions in front of the Nigeria defence. Nigeria surely needed a slightly more intelligent shape to their midfield, preferably with three men in the centre and one playing deep with the intention of picking up Messi’s runs.

A 4-3-3 may have helped further up the pitch too. Gutierrez looked nervous at right-back and although Obasi tested him early on, a more advanced player would have done so more often and more effectively, especially once Gutierrez picked up a booking before half-time.

Argentina’s shape was far more fluid and dynamic, with only Angel di Maria of the attacking four sticking to his starting position. Carlos Tevez drifted in from the right, Messi floated around the pitch and Gonzalo Higuain dropped off to the right wing. With Gutierrez getting forward far more than Gabriel Heinze, Argentina’s play was concentrated down the right, and di Maria rarely got into the game on the opposite flank.

Poor marking

Africa’s first representatives suffered because of poor marking from a corner yesterday, and Nigeria suffered the same fate. Nigeria were defending zonally, close to their own goal, allowing Gabriel Heinze to run into an unoccupied area near the penalty spot, and he powered a superb header into the far post.

Argentina should have furthered their lead – Higuain and Messi had the clearest chances, but Vincent Enyeama was having an excellent game and made five excellent saves. Argentina were dominating possession and dictating the play. Messi came deep to get the ball and acted like a spare man in midfield, whilst Higuain’s move to the right and Tevez’s willingness to take up central positions was confusing Nigeria and making their centre-backs redundant, with no-one to pick up.

A more detailed representation of Argentina's movement

For most of the game, Argentina were content to play in front of the Nigeria defence, but occasionally penetrated when Messi got on on the ball and looked to play quick one-twos. The Argentina threat down the right was even greater because of Obasi’s defensive reluctance, and Taye Taiwo came too high up the pitch to concentrate – meaning Higuain received the ball in the right-hand channel very easily.

Nigeria fail to expose Gutierrez’s weakness

There were two clear ways to get at Argentina. Firstly, Gutierrez took up poor positions when not in possession, generally being too central and too high up the pitch, but Obasi is not a true winger and didn’t take advantage often enough. Secondly, Argentina’s defenders are clearly lacking in pace, but the lightning quick Obafemi Martins wasn’t on the pitch until after half-time to cause them problems.

Peter Odemwingie was clearly needed, and was summoned shortly after half-time. He is a classic winger, generally playing on the right, but here he was deployed on the left and immediately caused Gutierrez problems. His final ball was lacking but the natural width stretched Argentina’s defence and provided an outlet when possession was won in the centre of the pitch. The introduction of Martins also helped – he worked the right-hand channel well and his pace gave Argentina problems, although in wide areas rather than over the top.

Argentina were creating chances but not finishing them, and as the game went on the lead looked less secure. They were losing the ball and failing to get back into position, and Nigeria were getting their midfield and full-backs forward on the break, missing two decent opportunities from inside the penalty box.

Maradona then took Veron off (few expected him to complete 90 minutes) but surprisingly put on Maxi Rodriguez who wandered forward and left the tiring defence exposed. A more defensive player like Mario Bolatti seemed more appropriate, as Javier Mascherano was getting through an awful lot of work as Nigeria pushed on.

The Africans didn’t use the ball intelligently enough in the final third, however, and they lacked a creative central midfielder to distribute the ball towards Odemwingie and Martins – this is the role Jon Obi Mikel plays, and his absence was obvious, with none of Nigeria’s midfielders taking command of the game.


1-0 was a fair result in an engaging but unspectacular game. Argentina will need to be more ruthless in the latter stages, and Higuain’s missed chances look even worse considering on-form Diego Milito was sitting on the bench for 80 minutes.

Argentina also looked incapable of shutting the game down. They kept possession well, but this was partly because Nigeria so instinctively dropped towards their own box in two banks of four, making it easy for Argentina to retain the ball in deep, non-threatening areas.

With Maxi’s introduction, Argentina had five attacking players on the pitch at 1-0 up, which seemed overly ambitious. Then again, there’s a fair argument that their strength is in attack and therefore for them, attack is the best form of defence.

Nigeria were not particularly exciting. Their shape didn’t make much sense; 4-3-3 seemed the better option, to try and retain possession in the centre of midfield and put pressure on Argentina’s full-backs. In fact, Nigeria actually had three central midfielders and three forwards on in their starting XI, but Lars Lagerback is a committed 4-4-2 man and it seemed unable to cope with the movement of Argentina’s attacking players.

Tags: , , ,