Argentina 3-0 Costa Rica: Batista finally changes system, and Argentina progress

July 12, 2011

The starting line-ups

A much-changed Argentina side finally got a win, mainly thanks to some Lionel Messi magic.

Sergio Batista gave first starts to Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria, Fernando Gago and Sergio Aguero. Carlos Tevez, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Ever Banega and Esteban Cambiasso dropped out.

Ricardo La Volpe brought in Jose Cubero and Cesar Elizondo in midfield, and their shape was similar to their opening day defeat to Colombia.

Argentina were utterly dominant here, recording 17 shots to Costa Rica’s five, becoming the first side in the competition to score three goals in a game.

Costa Rica tactics

Costa Rica sat deep without the ball in a broad 3-5-1-1 system, vaguely similar to the unusual shape North Korea contested last year’s World Cup with, albeit a more attack-minded version than that.

As in the game against Colombia, there was lots of movement, particularly down the left side of the team. Francisco Calvo, Pedro Leal and Cesar Elizondo often seemed to be playing in the same position, such was their tendency to cover each other on runs forward. On the other side, the right-sided midfielder Heiner Mora played much narrower, and the wing-back Jose Salvatierra was pinned back by Aguero.

Argentina shape

The main story in this game was all about Argentina’s new shape, however. Having persevered with the Barcelonaesque 4-3-3 in the opening two games – with little success – Batista’s radically-changed XI was expected to line up in a 4-2-1-3 shape, with Lionel Messi in the hole. This has generally been Batista’s plan B, although a more boxy 4-4-1-1 was also predicted by some.

In fact, it was neither of those shapes – it was a strange, lopsided system that was vaguely a diagonal 4-2-2-2, but featured so much fluidity and movement from the attacking players that it’s difficult to give it a definitive name. Javier Mascherano sat deep in his usual role, with Gago slightly in front of him, to his right. Di Maria was generally in the centre of the pitch in an attacking role, but retreated to become a third midfielder without the ball.

Further forward, Aguero moved around but generally stayed on the left flank, whilst Messi played as a number ten, and Higuain was a traditional centre-forward. All this meant that Argentina didn’t really have anyone on the right – both Messi and Higuain took it in turns to move out to that side, but with right-back Pablo Zabaleta hardly the most technically gifted defender, they lacked an outlet from that position.

Out-and-out striker

Having struggled so far without a permanent frontman, Argentina looked delighted to have an obvious reference point upfront, emphasised by the fact that they looked direct to Higuain for a half-chance within the opening thirty seconds of the game. Like Brazil, Argentina have attempted to play without a true striker – as if the fluidity enjoyed by Barcelona (and others who use a false nine) is a must for any side to play beautiful football.

That may be the ideal, but with little time on the training ground to work on attacking moves and combination play, it appears difficult for international sides to play without a true striker. Just as Brazil turned to Fred to save them against Paraguay, Argentina relied on Higuain here – the centre-forward is being treated as something of a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

In truth, Higuain had a shocking game in front of goal. Messi constantly teed him up for chances, only for the Real Madrid striker to slice the ball over, to fire straight at the goalkeeper, or to miss the ball completely, as he did when presented with a point-blank cross from Messi in the first half.

Messi influence

The key, though, was that Messi was involved. In the first two games, he only had two options – to run with the ball, or to play a through-ball for Lavezzi in the outside-right position. Tevez came inside into his space, and often wasn’t a worthwhile passing option. Here, he had more clear passes ‘on’ – Aguero was the wide forward Messi could look to in order to spread the play, Higuain was the man making runs over the top and providing a physical presence, and Di Maria broke forward from midfield far better than Banega did in the opening two games, connecting midfield and attack.

More crucially, Messi’s role allowed him to find space, and he could run at the ball with speed. Part of this may be simply the fact that he was up against an U23 version of a side ranked 53rd in the World, and perhaps we should expect a good performance from the World’s best player in these circumstances. However, there was an improvement in the way he received the ball – when playing as a false nine he always had his back to goal and was moving away from the danger zone (with only one player, Lavezzi, running towards it) and in the 4-2-1-3, he was picking up the ball deeper than the opposition’s two holding players, again, far too deep.

This position seemed a happy medium – Di Maria was the man who brought the ball forward from midfield so Messi didn’t have to, and Higuain provided the battering ram presence to occupy the centre-backs. Higuain’s role also worked in a similar way to Javier Hernandez’s at Manchester United, in the way Hernandez forces the opposition to defend deep, opening up space for Wayne Rooney in the whole. Higuain doesn’t quite have that searing pace, but the concept is the same – the centre-backs’ first thought was not Messi, but the centre-forward.

The first goal was lucky – Aguero tapped home an open goal after a deflection and a rebound – but the second and third were excellent, and both involved Messi picking the ball up, running with it, and slipping the ball through to a left-sided attacker to finish – first Aguero, then Di Maria. The runs from the latter two are exactly what Tevez didn’t do, and exactly what Messi wants and enjoys at club level. Having strived to replicate Barcelona-spec Messi by copying Pep Guardiola’s formation, Batista seems to have found Messi’s best form by ditching it entirely.


Argentina have finally arrived. The quality of their performance shouldn’t be overstated considering the standard of opposition, but then Costa Rica put in decent performances against Colombia and Bolivia.The Costa Ricans often defended with nine players behind the ball, and Argentina created enough chances to justify praise of their system.

Batista now has to make a decision about his next line-up – Higuain’s finishing was terrible, yet he played an important part in the way the team played. An unchanged line-up wouldn’t be a surprise, although opposition with a strong left side would relish the lack of protection afforded to Zabaleta.

For Costa Rica, this tournament was purely a learning experience, and they may be out. If so, they’ve acquitted themselves admirably…but a Venezuela win over Paraguay would see them progress to the knockout stage.

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