Argentina 4-1 Spain: good audition for Batista

September 8, 2010

The starting line-ups

Argentina beat Spain at their own game – passing them off the pitch, and finishing chances ruthlessly.

Sergio Batista has replaced Diego Maradona as manager, but is not yet certain of the position on a full-time basis. He chose a 4-3-3 system, bringing back Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, who had both been omitted from the World Cup squad. Ever Banega played in a tight midfield three, whilst the Messi-Tevez-Higuain trio was retained, in a different format.

Vicente del Bosque continued with the 4-2-3-1 system that served him so well in South Africa, with a few notable changes. Only Gerard Pique was retained from the first-choice back five, whilst Cesc Fabregas – who only appeared as a substitute at the World Cup – was in for Xavi.

First, Argentina were defensively stronger than they ever looked under Maradona. The key was not the combination of the back four, but the fact they defended better from further, with two classic holding players in Cambiasso and Javier Mascherano, and another relatively solid mdifielder in Banega. That trio makes the Mascherano-Di Maria-Rodriguez midfield used at the World Cup extremely lightweight, and it was noticeable how much better Argentina were at winning the ball.

Spain below-bar

They were assisted by an uncharacteristic sloppy passing performance from the World Champions. They lifted the trophy after playing a precise, neat, close passing game that sometimes didn’t appear to be going anywhere, but eventually found a way through, whilst tiring the opposition. In this game they looked to play a killer pass too soon, and appeared too keen to force the ball forward through Argentina’s seven defensive players.

Fabregas was partly to blame for this – he was playing in the Xavi role, but is clearly a very different type of player to Xavi. The Barcelona player drops very deep and is happy to play backwards passes to Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, but Fabregas’ usual game at Arsenal these days is play high up the pitch, and to drive forward to link up with Robin van Persie. That worked well as a substitute in South Africa, but today he needed to start with a more low-tempo, patient approach to help keep the ball – maybe he was too keen to make an impression, given a rare start. Then again, replacing Xavi is not easy.

Width for Argentina

Argentina’s three forwards were giving Spain’s back four a torrid time. At the World Cup, Lionel Messi played behind Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, and there was little width or variation in Argentina’s build-up play. Today, they were spread out across the pitch, with license to interchange. “The tactics of the Argentine national team are now similar or the same as those of Barcelona, and that’s how I like it”, said Messi last week. He generally started from the right, with Tevez and Higuain taking it in turns to move to the left. Not only did they pin back Spain’s full-backs, they also stretched the defence and found more gaps to play passes through.

Those through passes were constantly catching Spain’s defence out. All too often, the backline was far too square – one simple pass was beating three players, and their pressing game meant they were high up the pitch, with Tevez and Messi outpacing the defenders to the ball in behind. Also, if tiki-taka is effective as a defensive tactic, Spain’s surprisingly poor ball retention can be blamed for exposing their defence too often.

Spain shifted David Villa out to the left, meaning David Silva had to go upfront

The first two goals came in the opening 12 minutes – first Messi was left free on the left and brilliantly chipped Pepe Reina, in a finish that is becoming his trademark. Higuain also had a free run on goal, with his preferred finish being to round Reina before finished from a tight angle. The third was comical – Reina slipped when attempting a clearance, and Tevez slid in to grab himself a goal. 3-0 probably flattered Argentina, but they were by far the better side, and their forward trio getting a goal apiece summed up how effective they were.

Villa positioning

One of the few problems del Bosque had at the World Cup was how to deploy David Villa. He performed excellently in the opening games when he drifted in from the left (despite Fernando Torres, the striker, playing poorly), but when Torres was eventually dropped for Pedro Rodriguez, Villa moved upfront and struggled to become involved in the game.

That was what happened when he was used as a centre-forward here – he was kept quiet by Gabriel Milito and Martin Demichelis. Halfway through the opening period, he decided he’d had enough of that, and instead moved out to the left, where he almost immediately hit the bar with a superb long-range drive. He was in the game more, but the knock-on effect was that Andres Iniesta switched to the right and David Silva was upfront – where he looked completely uncomfortable.

Second half changes

As so often happens in international friendlies, the second half was less interesting after so many substitutions. Jesus Navas made a very good impact on the right wing, and there’s still a feeling that his natural width is important for Spain – even if not as a starter, his ability to get to the byline and swing crosses in gives Spain something of a plan B. He should have created a goal through this very method, but Fernando Llorente nodded wide from point-blank range.

Despite this, Llorente played well, creating a focal point for Spain’s attacks, as he did against Portgual, and it would have been interesting to see him and Villa together – one had replaced the other at half-time. Del Bosque clearly wanted to get back in the game – bringing on Pedro for Alonso was an attacking move – and Llorente grabbed a consolation with a well-taken spin and shot. Sergio Aguero wrapped up the win with a stoppage time header.


We should be cautious when considering the significance of the result – it was a friendly, after all. It was also a game where Argentina had more to play for – they were trying to impress a new manager, who himself was desperate for a positive result. Therefore, Argentina’s performance is of more interest than Spain’s.

Batista should still take great credit, although some would say decisions such as playing a forward trio wide across the pitch, and using Zanetti and Cambiasso were rather obvious choices that Maradona got wildly wrong. Nevertheless, beating the newly-crowned World Champions doesn’t come about through simply picking the right XI – Argentina were compact, disciplined and patient in their passing approach. There was not such a reliance on Messi for creativity, and the strong midfield trio protected what is, in fairness, still quite a weak back four. One concern was how many free-kicks they gave away in dangerous areas, but overall it was an extremely positive performance.

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