Venezuela 1-0 Argentina: Sabella switches to three at the back; Argentina play terribly

October 12, 2011

The first half line-ups

Alejandro Sabella’s honeymoon didn’t last long, as Argentina looked completely disjointed in Puerto la Cruz.

Cesar Farias’ Venezuela were set out very similar to at the Copa America – 4-4-2 became 4-2-2-2 when in possession, with the same first choice XI used. There was one exception to this – Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Amorebieta has taken up Venezuelan citizenship, and he turned out to be crucial, heading in the only goal from a corner.

Sabella brought Martin Demichelis into the centre of his defence, pushing the full-backs from the Chile game into wing-backs. Rodrigo Braña dropped out, Javier Mascherano returned, and Ever Banega was the casualty of Demichelis’ inclusion.

Clearly, the story here was Sabella getting things wrong. Farias continues to put out a well-drilled, organised side who defend solidly and break quickly – and their impressive ratio of turning set-piece situations into goals should be admired. That said, they did little special here – they stood off, sat back, and marvelled at the lack of attacking threat from an Argentina side that simply didn’t feature enough good, creative players getting into the final third.


First things first, formation. If you win a game 4-1 with a flat back four, and decide to switch to a back three/five just four days later and end up losing, you’re bound to come in for criticism. That would be a lazy and simplistic analysis of Sabella’s decision, since the choice was entirely logical considering the threat of Venezuela. They play two (near-enough) out-and-out strikers and hit the ball long, which makes a back three work well – two markers, one sweeper.

A slight problem comes from the fact that Venezuela’s wide midfielders come inside quickly into the centre of the pitch, where the Argentine wing-backs don’t really want to stray to, but the absence of a Venezuelan number ten, or attack-minded full-backs, meant the primary Argentina holder, Mascherano, could deal with that threat comfortably.

The goal Argentina conceded came from a set-piece, which was not a result of the formation. Indeed, if anything, the presence of an extra centre-back should have helped them in those situations. The problem with Sabella’s selection was not the back three in defensive terms.


The problem, rather, was the players he used within the formation. Bringing in Demichelis, amusingly described by one Argentine journalist as a ’synonym of doubt’, was a dreadful decision. The system wasn’t a cause for defensive nervousness, but Demichelis’ clumsiness was. If a back three was needed, then perhaps Zabaleta could have been brought in from the right – not ideal, but more reliable than Demichelis. A more natural centre-back would have been Federico Fernandez – it’s odd that Sabella is so keen to include his ex-Estudiantes players, but chose to play Demichelis over Fernandez.

Marcos Rojo did well down the left, but a more attack-minded player than Zabaleta could have been used down the right. Argentina were likely to be dominating the ball and needing thrust down the flanks. Jonas Gutierrez could have been used here, for example. Zabaleta is a willing runner, but very much a full-back shoved forward and poor in the final third. A combination of a natural left-back and a natural winger (Rojo and Gutierrez) may have been a nice balance on the flanks.

The real problem was in midfield. Mascherano was the holder, and the freest player on the pitch. He’s not known for his distribution, but did well on the ball – hitting nice passes out to Rojo on the left. Ahead of him was the confusion, as Angel Di Maria was moved back to a central midfield role that didn’t suit his qualities at all. He likes to drift from out to in, picking the ball up on the move and running at speed. Here, he was occupied by Tomas Rincon and contributed little.

The role of Jose Sosa was particularly baffling. What was he meant to be? Slightly left-sided, ahead of the midfield, deeper than Messi. Presumably he was meant to drift in from the left to join up with the front two, but then why not give that role to Di Maria, and play a true passer (like the dropped Banega) alongside Mascherano? It made little sense, especially considering the trio of Di Maria, Messi and Higuain combined well against Chile. That was broken up. At least Sosa distracted Cesar Gonzalez and Roberto Rosales slightly, allowing Rojo space which Zabaleta didn’t get on the other flank.

Venezuela stood off, and Argentina were sluggish with their passing from the back. Mascherano, as mentioned, did OK on the ball, but asking him to be the deep playmaker is unlikely to reap true rewards. Argentina should have had a distributor in the midfield, but the confused roles of Di Maria and Sosa was a complete waste of two players. Venezuela only had to be concerned with Messi and Higuain in the final third – as dangerous as they are, Venezuela coped because they weren’t overloaded with additional runners to allow the all-Clasico front two more space.

After the goal, Sabella introduced others. Banega finally came on (for Zabaleta) as Argentina went to 4-4-1-1ish – again there was a question over selection, since whilst Zabaleta was hardly a force down the right, he was more likely to provide overlaps than Nicolas Burdisso, who was moved there. Then came Rodrigo Palacio and Javier Pastore, who predictably replaced Di Maria and Sosa.

By this point, the formation was less important. Venezuela sat deep, so deep that it was no longer a match-up of formations. Messi and Pastore couldn’t find their way through, and Venezuela defended well enough to deserve the point.


Perhaps not enough credit given to Farias here, but even he would agree his side had to do very little to combat the threat of Argentina. You couldn’t get much more of a standard underdog victory. Two banks of four, long balls and set-pieces, and rely on the opposition being poor in the final third.

Sabella changed a winning side, which is a grave error in football cliché terms, but perfectly acceptable in reality. He shouldn’t be criticised for that, he should be criticised for his choice of personnel – which was so bad that even the chance to use three substitutes couldn’t save the situation.

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