Argentina 1-0 Belgium: Argentina become even more reliant on Messi

July 6, 2014

The starting line-ups

In their fifth World Cup game, Argentina recorded their fifth one-goal victory.

Alejandro Sabella was without Marcos Rojo so brought in Jose Basanta at left-back, and replaced Federico Fernandez and Fernando Gago with Martin Demichelis and Lucas Biglia.

Marc Wilmots played Kevin Mirallas rather than Dries Mertens on the right flank, but otherwise the side was as expected.

Belgium remain a group of individuals, while Argentina play to the strengths of one individual.

Belgian midfield freedom

In a rather slow game, the main tactical point of interest was the Belgian midfield zone, and their battle against Leo Messi. In Messi’s previous game, he’d been up against two Swiss central midfielders who double-marked him throughout, in the belief that if you stop Messi, you stop Argentina too – they weren’t far wrong.

Belgium had a more relaxed approach. Axel Witsel was the deepest midfielder, but Marouane Fellaini had plenty of license to move forward and join Kevin de Bruyne higher up – particularly when challenging for long goal kicks, when he became a second striker. This fluidity made the midfield zone very open, and Messi had plenty of space.

Belgian centre-backs out

Another interesting factor was how the Belgian centre-backs moved up the pitch, with and without possession. They stuck tightly to Gonzalo Higuain when he dropped into deep positions, in stark contrast to the manner the French centre-backs let Miroslav Klose drift up the pitch unmarked the previous day, for example.

Kompany also moved up the pitch shortly before Higuain’s goal, being dispossessed by Messi. He had enough time to recover his position, and it was a fortunate deflection that took the ball to Higuain – and a brilliant strike into the far corner. Still, it shows how Belgium were being risky with the positioning of their centre-backs and central midfielders against Messi.

Messi slows the play

Messi instigated most of Argentina’s attacks, but the crucial feature of his performance was how he calmed the pace of the game, holding onto the ball and allowing opponents to get goalside before delivering penetrative through-balls from deep positions. The best example was his brilliantly measured ball to Angel Di Maria, perhaps the pass of the tournament.

This is an Argentina side based around Messi, and therefore Messi’s reserved approach to attacking means Argentina’s tempo has been transformed from the qualifiers, where they tended to break quickly and bypass the opposition defence immediately. The transformation has been significant, with Argentina becoming more classically South American rather than a European, and Messi becoming a more typical Argentine number ten.

Di Maria off

Sabella was forced into an early change after Di Maria limped off with a tournament-ending injury, and Sabella’s decision to use Enzo Perez in his place was good demonstration of his mindset – Perez is a defensive-minded midfielder more at home in Biglia’s role. With Argentina ahead, Sabella was happy to defend.

He was also concerned about the forward running of Jan Vertonghen, who enjoyed a good tournament in his unfavoured left-back position. He made some good off-the-ball bursts and whipped in some dangerous crosses too. It made sense to summon Perez up against him, although he wasn’t actually very effective at stopping the crosses. Logically, he attacked much less than Di Maria.

Belgium mini-fightback

Argentina were happy to kill the game, and the focus was therefore on Belgium to stage a fightback.

Throughout this tournament, Belgium have looked much better towards the end of matches, generally having introduced substitutes. Wilmots has received some praise for this, but it’s not as if his substitutions have significantly changed the shape of the side significantly – it’s just about introducing fresh legs. Belgium’s overall strategy still remains highly questionable, but more than any other side in this competition they have back-ups of a similar standard to their first-choices, and therefore they’ve received significant boosts late on.

The same thing happened here – Mertens replaced Mirallas, Romelu Lukaku replaced Origi, but Belgium’s formation remained the same. Later, Nacer Chadli would come on for the ineffectual Hazard.

The key in Belgium’s strong spell towards the end of the game, though, was the fact they became more direct. Rather than trying to find De Bruyne in pockets of space or get Hazard running at defenders, they played a much simpler strategy. Fellaini moved upfront more regularly and caused problems in the box, getting his head to a couple of crosses (although giving away too many free-kicks). Vertonghen continued to be a threat on the left, while De Bruyne went right and crossed. Belgium also hit long balls – one late De Bruyne half-chance was simply because Fellaini was acting as a target man.

There was nothing clever about the approach, but it caused Argentina problems and resulted in Belgium’s best period. They are, while clearly technically talented, primarily an extremely strong, physical side – with four centre-backs along the backline, plus Witsel and Fellaini in midfield, and Origi or Lukaku upfront. A more simple, physical game plays to their strengths.

Argentina were super-defensive in the second half – Rodrigo Palacio replaced Lavezzi, a straight swap, but then Fernando Gago came on for Higuain, meaning Argentina were now a 4-5-1 system with four solid defenders, four holding/defensive/central midfielders, then Palacio running forward from the left and Messi upfront alone. In fairness, the latter two created the best chance of the second half, a one-on-one for Messi in stoppage time.


This game confirmed the suspicions about both sides – Belgium don’t know their best XI but are good at rallying late on, while Argentina increasingly play to Messi’s strengths, especially without Aguero and Di Maria. His strengths, however, are different with Argentina compared to Barcelona.

Belgium’s tournament has been labelled disappointing, yet it’s roughly what should have been expected. In fact, they’ve overachieved slightly by reaching the quarter-final stage. Only in one game have they looked impressive – against USA – and even then, they had a major problem converting promising moments into goals. They’ll be stronger for Euro 2016.

Argentina march on – or should that be ’stumble on’? They’re still yet to play well despite facing mediocre opposition, but they’re getting the job done – and there’s every chance Messi could drag them to glory.

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