Despite being the host nation for this summer’s Copa America, Argentina are off to a dreadful start. Through two matches, they have two draws, one goal scored, and one goal conceded. They have achieved these meager results against Bolivia and Columbia, two teams that did not make last summer’s World Cup. It’s not like Argentina are struggling against the strong South American sides that made such a good showing in South Africa.
Argentina’s struggles come despite the fact that they deploy the undisputed greatest player on the planet. When we last saw Leo Messi, he was scoring the winning goal in the Champions League Final. He was wrapping up a season in which he scored 50 goals and added 21 assists in 47 games. He’s the best player on the best team in a generation. Because Messi is following in the footsteps of Diego Maradona and Maradona’s greatest achievement was dragging the Albiceleste to the ‘86 World Cup title, Messi needs to add international success to his resume with Barcelona in order to vault into the Pele/Maradona pantheon of the greatest players of all time. Playing for Argentina at home with a wealth of potential attacking partners* seemed like the perfect opportunity. At present, it looks like the Copa America is going to be another missed chance for Messi.
* – In the match against Columbia, Argentina had the following players on their bench: Kun Aguero (about to make a 45M Euro transfer from Atletico Madrid), Angel di Maria (starting winger for Real Madrid), Gonzalo Higuain (starting striker for Real Madrid), and Diego Milito (the star striker for the Inter side that won the treble in 2009-10). No team in the world has the collection of attacking talent that Argentina possesses.
Why has Argentina struggled? To use a term from our football, it’s a lack of constraint plays. Argentina are trying to mimic Barca’s style, which entails Leo Messi playing in a central role between the forward line and the midfield. This role takes advantage of Messi’s passing ability, as it gives him forward options on either side to pick out. Ezequiel Lavezzi is in the side ahead of a number of other bright attacking options specifically because he can play the cutting winger role that Pedro and David Villa play for Barca. The role also puts Messi in a tough spot for opponents, as he is between defense and midfield. However, any player, no matter how talented, can be negated with the right tactics, and Argentina’s opponents have played in a narrow, defensive style to surround Messi and his compatriots on Argentina’s front line.
Why does this tactic work against Argentina and not Barca? Barca has two primary countermeasures. The first is Xavi and Andres Iniesta crashing into offensive areas. If Messi is drawing a lot of attention from the opposing defense and midfield, then this creates space for Xavi and Iniesta to occupy. Barca’s opener in the 5-0 thrashing of Real and their critical second goal in the second leg against Arsenal were both scored by Xavi running into space created by opposing defenses being occupied by Messi & Friends. The second is that Dani Alves, ostensibly a defender, bombs forward on the right wing to take advantage of the space that defenders have created by clogging the middle of the field. Alves scored several goals this year, including an important one against Shakhtar Donetsk, by making runs into open space on the right.
Argentina either don’t or can’t make the same options work. Here is Michael Cox describing the issues against Columbia:
With Messi-minding left to Sanchez, this meant that Argentina had 4 v 3 in the midfield when Messi moved deep, a situation they didn’t take full advantage of. A slight problem with a 4-1-4-1 is that when the holding midfielder is taken away from the centre (or if he departs completely, like Pepe in the Champions League semi-final first leg) and the midfield doesn’t drop deeper, there can often be too much space between the lines. Neither Ever Banega nor Esteban Cambiasso moved into that ‘red zone’ often enough – it was (surprisingly) the latter who did find himself in space there on 30 minutes, but Argentina didn’t play the ball to him.
Colombia’s tactics higher up the pitch worked excellently. They let Nicolas Burdisso and Gabriel Milito have time on the ball, confident that neither are technically proficient enough to provide clever passes from the back. Instead, they dropped deep into their own half and pressed as soon as the ball was played into midfield, forcing Cambiasso and Javier Mascherano to return the ball to the back. The two Colombian wide players tracked the full-back, where there was less overlapping than in the first game, with Zabaleta not a great attacker, and Zanetti on the ‘wrong’ flank (albeit somewhere where he is comfortable).
And here is Cox explaining the midfield issue against Bolivia:
That problem was related to the role of Banega, who did a decent job with the ball at his feet connecting midfield and attack, but was cautious with his movement off the ball. When Messi plays in the centre and drops deep he attracts two or three players to him, opening up space for an attacking midfielder to exploit – at club level, most frequently Andres Iniesta. Banega remained quite deep, however, and there was no real need for him to do so with both Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso in that zone, plus no real driving runs from midfield from Bolivia.
It’s hard for Argentina to make players like Ever Banega and Pablo Zabaleta play in the same way as Xavi and Dani Alves. They just haven’t been taught to play those roles and two weeks is not enough time to learn. The situation is especially difficult for Zabaleta and the other Argentina fullbacks because they are playing with slow center backs who will struggle if they are put into the space that Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol are used to handling.*
* – One of Argentina’s center backs is Gaby Milito, a player in whom Barca had so little confidence that the Blaugrana deployed defensive midfielders Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets at center back in the biggest matches of the season rather than trusting Milito. It’s always possible for an older player to come up big over a short international tournament (see: France ‘06), but Milito looks a shell of himself before his knee injuries.
In short, Argentina lack constraint plays. They lack the threats that would make opponents pay from taking away the primary option. Brian Cook’s post on constraint plays and the Michigan offense gave me this idea. The Michigan version of Leo Messi running wild in the space between defense and attack is Denard Robinson running wild in whatever space the offensive line can create. Al Borges now faces a similar quandary to Sergio Batista. He has a supremely talented offensive player who thrived in a system that was perfect for that player. Those systems were run by Rich Rodriguez and Pep Guardiola, both of whom are experts in the systems. Can Borges do better than Batista at mimicry? Conversely, if Borges tries to shoehorn Michigan’s personnel into a more conventional offense, is he going to have a collection of players who have no idea what they are doing, not unlike Messi’s Argentina teammates trying to copy the movement of his Barca teammates? Futbol often presents fascinating test cases where club stars have to function in different systems when they play for their countries (and vice versa). American football doesn’t have as many change scenarios, but Michigan’s offense presents one this year.