Argentina v Germany: tactical preview

July 1, 2010

Lionel Messi takes on Philip Lahm in March's friendly between the two sides - Argentina won 1-0.

Remember this fixture from 2006? The goals, the penalties, the fights?

Of most interest in tactical terms was Jose Pekerman’s decision to withdraw Juan Roman Riquelme towards the end of normal time, and replace him with the far more defensive-minded Esteban Cambiasso. In doing so, he gave up on his preferred 4-3-1-2 / 4-4-2 diamond shape, and switched to a very basic, rigid 4-4-2. Argentina went from being 1-0 up, to 1-1, to losing the game on penalties.

Sadly, we won’t be seeing Riquelme or Cambiasso in this contest, but Diego Maradona is faced with a similar tactical conundrum. Should he keep to the side he used against South Korea and against Mexico – essentially a 4-4-2 diamond, or add more steel with another central midfielder? Predicting Maradona’s selection decisions is not easy, as Argentina football expert Joel Richards points out…

Currently, Javier Mascherano is on his own in the centre of midfield, with Maxi Rodriguez and Angel di Maria shuttling either side. Those two have performed their defensive tasks well so far, but in the first real rest Argentina will face, one of them might find themselves dropped.

The return of Juan Veron alongside Mascherano is one option. He would replace one of the two shuttlers, and therefore shift Argentina back to something more like the formation used in their opening game against Nigeria, and increase their ability to keep the ball in the middle of the pitch.

Mario Bolatti is another who could feature, if Maradona wants to go more defensive. He has been given the classic Argentina No 5 shirt and is effectively Cambiasso’s replacement in the side, seemingly almost exclusively because of his crucial late winner in Montevideo in qualification. He remains a bit of a mystery – disappointing in his stay at Porto, used sparingly at Fiorentina since joining in January – but still a major part of the Argentina squad.

The composition of the midfield will determine how the front three of Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain are used. Primarily, it affects the movement of Tevez – he’s happy to move to wide positions on either side – he played to the right against Nigeria, but to the left against South Korea and Mexico. In turn, that dictates Higuain’s drifts to the flanks – he drops into deep positions and allows Messi or Tevez to become the temporary front player. Messi appears to have a free role.

Messi, as ever, is the key player for Germany to stop. Argentina’s pre-tournament 4-4-1-1 shape meant Messi could, to a certain extent, be the domain of one of the opposition centre-backs, but the use of both Tevez and Higuain ahead of him makes this impossible. So the responsibility falls to the German midfield; Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira have received rave reviews for their performances so far, particularly for the way they controlled the game against England, but they’ve yet to face a true central attacking midfielder in their four games so far, let alone someone as talented as Messi.

Possible starting line-ups

Schweinsteiger has generally played as the deeper of the two, so his job may be to concentrate heavily on stopping Messi – not as a man-marking job, simply as a ‘try and tackle the world’s best player’ job. Schweinsteiger’s switch to a central midfield role has been a wonderful success, but this is altogether a new challenge for him.

Equally, Argentina’s biggest task is dealing with Mesut Oezil. There is a more natural solution here, in Mascherano, but does Oezil play too high up the pitch to be his main concern? If Mascherano is the only true central midfielder for Argentina, and looks to get goalside of Oezil, this will open up space for the runs of Khedira from deeper positions.

Upfront, the movement of Miroslav Klose and the consequent direct running of Thomas Mueller and Lukas Podolski are a real concern for the fairly slow Argentina defence, and a deeper defensive line than usual is probably the order of the day here, considering how easily a similarly static England defence was carved apart last weekend.

The final tactical issue concerns the full-backs. Argentina’s rarely get forward, assuming that Nicolas Otamendi continues in place of Jonas Gutierrez (a naturally more energetic player) at right-back. The key to the game could be the offensive tendencies of Germany’s duo – Philip Lahm is clearly more of an attacking force than Jerome Boateng, but which one will have to be concerned with Tevez’s movement? Would Joachim Loew consider swapping them around (they’re both comfortable on either side) to release Lahm? Would Tevez follow? Would Argentina’s midfield be able to adapt accordingly?

Despite Argentina being the favourites, it is Maradona who appears to have the greater dilemmas ahead of this contest.

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