Argentina 1-0 Switzerland (AET): Switzerland concentrate on stopping Messi

July 3, 2014

The starting line-ups

In a very enjoyable World Cup second round, this was surely the least exciting game. Everything went through Leo Messi, and he eventually assisted the winning goal.

Alejandro Sabella was without Sergio Aguero, so brought Ezequiel Lavezzi into the side – he started on the right, and Argentina were pretty much a 4-4-1-1 / 4-2-3-1 system.

Ottmar Hitzfeld kept an unchanged side for his last game as a manager before retirement.

This was a very poor game, with essentially only one major question – could Switzerland successfully shut down Messi, or would he come up with a moment of magic to win the game?

Stopping Messi

Switzerland’s approach against Messi was pretty simple – they effectively double-marked him with both Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler.

Whenever Messi received possession, they’d both fly towards him – the first was often beaten, but the second would either win the ball from Messi, or force him into a heavy touch or a hurried pass.

As a result of the two holding midfielders playing such a strict role, the two Swiss wide midfielders tucked inside and played very narrow, protecting the centre of the pitch more than you’d expect for wide midfielders in a four.

Neither contributed much going forward, aside from breaking forward determinedly when possession was won.


Messi was dragging Switzerland’s two holding midfielders out of position, which theoretically created a huge amount of space for another Argentine player to drift into, a pocket of space between the lines.

This didn’t happen, though. Argentina were alarmingly linear, and whereas previously this side boasted three players capable of finding space between the lines – Messi, Aguero and Di Maria – here the creative responsibility was left to Messi.

Lavezzi did his usual thing, charging up and down the touchline without having too much impact with the ball at his feet, and while Di Maria sometimes changed positions with him, neither attempted to move more centrally. In fairness, Di Maria was the liveliest player aside from Messi, but always seemed to get himself into good positions put wide before playing a poor final ball. He was also constantly fouled by the Swiss players, with Granit Xhaka the first in the book, and fortunate not to receive a second yellow card later on.

Higuain contributed very little upfront, Fernando Gago’s passing was poor, and Argentina were flat throughout.

Swiss counter-attacks

Switzerland played almost exclusively upon the counter-attack. The approach was very simple – Josip Drmic would stay upfront, Xherdan Shaqiri would play just behind, and they would receive long balls and attempt to manufacture goalscoring opportunities with quick passes.

Shaqiri was the key player in the system, often dropping back onto Javier Mascherano without the ball but then darting forward to create 2 v 2 breaks. The front two had combined so well against Honduras in the previous game, and they created the game’s clearest chance with a perfect example of their approach.

Switzerland played a long ball out of defence to Drmic, who knocked the ball back for Shaqiri and sprinted forward for the return. Shaqiri played the pass for Drmic to have a one-on-one with Sergio Romero, but he produced nothing more than a tame chip into Romero’s arms. Had Drmic finished better, the tactical approach of Argentina would have been regarded as absolutely brilliant.

Boring changes

The frustrating thing about this match was the fact there was no progression to the tactical battle. Sabella replaced Lavezzi with Rodrigo Palacio, Marcos Rojo with Jose Basanta, and Fernando Gago with Lucas Biglia – straight swaps, although the last provided more of a defensive shift.

Hitzfeld’s changes were also cautious. Xhaka, at risk of a second booking, was replaced by the much more defensive Gelson Fernandes – who was promptly booked within ten minutes. Haris Seferovic replaced Drmic for fresh legs upfront, and then Blerim Dzemaili came on for Admir Medmedi – a replica of the first change, a holder for a winger. Switzerland were now playing four defensive midfielders together.

Messi steps up

Everything, really, was going through Messi. Argentina fired the ball into his feet, even when he was tightly marked, and asked him to produce moments of magic. He couldn’t quite provide anything as good as his goal versus Iran, but there was a stream of good contributions – some clever one-twos through the middle, some dangerous crosses when he drifted to wide areas, a couple of great long-range shots, a clever chip towards Palacio in the box.

He eventually provided the winning assist, finally collecting the ball between the lines, evading a sliding tackle, and slipping the ball into Di Maria for a cool finish. It was difficult to imagine Argentina creating anything unless it came through Messi.


Switzerland might have lost the game – with two minutes of extra-time remaining – but Hitzfeld’s approach was perfect. He told his players to concentrate on stopping Messi, gambled that no-one else would step up and lead Argentina (and prayed Messi couldn’t produce something truly spectacular) and then counter-attacked quickly into the front two, who had combined so well in the previous game. Hitzfeld might have ended his career with a loss, but that was always likely to happen at some point in this tournament, and he at least ended his career with a demonstration of what a fine tactician he was.

Argentina were extremely unimpressive, and while we all know the raw quality of Higuain and Di Maria, they simply looked like a one-man team here – others will surely have to improve if they’re to triumph.

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