Argentina started off their World Cup campaign with a disappointing draw against Iceland in which Lionel Messi missed a penalty and generally was unable to influence the game much. Whenever Messi got the ball, three defenders rushed to press him and made it difficult for the Barcelona man to have any sort of an impact. Iceland sat deep in a compact defensive structure which allowed their midfielders and defenders to squeeze the space of any Argentinian forward in central areas. The midfield of Biglia and Mascherano did a decent job in recycling the ball but they didn’t have the energy or the skill to drive through the Iceland defense nor did they try to stretch the play by cross-field balls.
Messi was allowed a free role by Sampaoli against Iceland and almost every time the Argentine midfielders had the ball, they looked to find their talisman. As soon as Messi had possession, three Icelandic defenders tried to immediately close him down and this is where the difference between Barcelona and Argentina shows up. The mere presence of Messi should ideally make it easy for other Argentine attackers to find space and time with the ball. The mere presence of Messi distorts the opposition’s defensive line and their structure because they tend to over-commit defenders towards Messi when he is in possession. This is when the other Argentine attackers need to take advantage of, which they didn’t. Sampaoli’s side dominated possession but the midfield pairing of Mascherano-Biglia was lacking in creativity and mobility and Iceland were very comfortable in holding their shape.
Even with Messi crowded out most of the times, most of Argentina’s attacks were going through him. Messi tried to drop deep like he does for Barcelona but struggled to find the right runs by his teammates. He even tried his iconic one-twos which he pulls off easily at Barcelona but failed to connect with his teammates properly.
What can Sampaoli do to solve Argentina’s attacking issues?
With the attacking talent at Sampaoli’s disposal, it is not mandatory that they look for Messi every time they have the ball. Against sides who will dominate possession against Argentina like Croatia will, Messi can reprise the free role he played against Iceland. But against sides like Iceland who will sit back, Messi needs to play much deeper or maybe even on the right hand side where he would likely find more space and time. If the opposition decide to double mark him in much deeper areas then it is more likely that other Argentine attackers will find themselves in dangerous areas relatively unmarked.
Another big conundrum for Sampaoli is incorporating Paulo Dybala in the side alongside Messi. Although before the World Cup it was expected that Dybala and Messi wouldn’t be playing together, the dire performance against Iceland will force Sampaoli to do a rethink.