“A huge component of Argentina’s recent success is the tactical intelligence to use different systems when it mattered.”
Author: Andre Sooklal, Trinidad & Tobago Women’s Senior Team Analyst, former scout at Perform
It is now official; Argentina has returned to the summit of world football. The country suffered many heartbreaks since 1993, and then a coach that many had doubts about comes in and wins the Copa America, Finalissima, and the much-coveted World Cup. In the euphoria and celebration, it can often be overlooked how tactically clever Lionel Scaloni was in orchestrating this wonderful era for the Albiceleste.
Heading into the World Cup, the strengths and weaknesses of this team were analyzed and the conclusion was a quietly confident notion that Argentina had all the ingredients to go all the way, however, it was notably pointed out how difficult that would be. Several weeks before the tournament began in Qatar, Scaloni and his team had some crucial losses that had previously brought them success in the last 2 years. Nico Gonzalez, Giovani Lo Celso and Marcos Acuna were all serious doubts for the tournament due to injuries. The eventual outcome was that only Acuna remained in the squad, and it was reported that he would not be playing at one hundred percent. This was a massive blow to a team that Lo Celso was a key component of. In conclusion, the entire left side of the Argentina team was injured and absent. This raised many concerns among analysts and pundits about how this impacted Argentina’s chances. This however would be the moment where anyone who had lingering doubts about the tactical ability of Lionel Scaloni and how he prepared this team would be resoundingly dispelled. A huge component of Argentina’s recent success is the tactical intelligence to use different systems when it mattered.
When Scaloni was appointed back in 2018 it raised the eyebrows of everyone. Argentina had a terrible World Cup by their standards, and it seemed to many that after the three consecutive final losses in 2014, 2015 and 2016, a very cold reality began to sink in, that perhaps Argentina’s time to return to the top had officially been a step too far. A valid thought, how could a team with such talent that played so many finals not win at least one of them? The fickle media world we live in does not remember the runners-up in these tournaments, and even though they played well, no one would remember these special players and what they just missed out on. It was a dark time, but Scaloni made a quote, which in hindsight, proved to be a positive foreshadowing of what was to come. Scaloni made this statement inspired by the French side that eliminated Argentina in 2018. Scaloni wanted to take his La Albiceleste in that direction, stating, “France and Croatia robbed the ball and were in a position to shoot in 3 or 4 seconds. That’s the way football is going, it’s the football I like and the moment has come to introduce this in Argentina. We are going to be more direct and vertical”.
This monumental task of rebuilding the national team would not start off easy at all, and the results did not come easy at the beginning. Notable losses to Venezuela and a bad opening against Colombia in the Copa America 2019 brought out the metaphorical knives from the media and critics. Diego Maradona even had the following to say when Scaloni was appointed in an interview with Clarin, “Scaloni is a great guy, but he could not even direct traffic”. It is at this point where you started to see Scaloni’s ability to not avoid mistakes but instead quickly learn from them. He even made a quote that directly showed his mentality of not being stubborn, a trait that has haunted many Argentina coaches in the past, by stating the following, “if you insist on dying with your idea, it will end badly”. Scaloni had no problems adjusting the approach he initially adopted when referencing the French team and began to make changes.
Fast forward to the Copa America in 2020, he went on to win the tournament breaking the “curse” that seemed to be on the team since 1993. This was then followed by the convincing triumph over the Euro 2020 champions Italy in the “Finalissima”. However, it seemed despite all this success there were still some doubts about the young coach heading into the World Cup in Qatar. This would further be exasperated by the fact that Argentina lost the first game of the tournament to Saudi Arabia. Once again, the sceptics returned and his experience was put under question. This was where the young coach would once again prove to the world that he was indeed very much ready for the challenge. Argentina, in all 7 games, used very different approaches, and those who follow Scaloni will know this is very consistent with how he does things.
One of the key attributes of Lionel Scaloni’s style is that he is not afraid to change things up tactically if required. In an era where “Football philosophies” is a popular term used by all those involved in coaching and analysis, Scaloni has proven himself to be quite flexible and tends to get the majority of his changes spot on. He has used the 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-4-2 with a diamond, 3-5-2, and even five at the back formations. He has built a squad of players that have the footballing intelligence to be able to adjust to these tactical variations with ease. Having a team that can do this is no easy task. This is why many coaches spend lots of time developing their style of play and getting players to fit their system, which is highly logical. Scaloni’s system can only be described as a multitude of systems. A team that can essentially adapt as they see fit and maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses. Make no mistake, no team is invulnerable and Argentina was no exception. Many questioned the pace of players such as Otamendi and Romero, among others, but Scaloni built his World Cup squad admirably, building on his success in the last two tournaments. One key attribute that Scaloni instilled in this team was the directness of how Argentina played. In the past, Argentina would rely heavily on dominating possession but Scaloni clearly identified that while this is a valid approach, due to the changes in how football was played it was key to adopt this direct approach even at the cost of traditionally high possession. In the first game, Argentina played a 4-4-2 and Scaloni played Papu Gomez where Lo Celso would have been, with Lautaro Martinez up front alongside Messi. This game was quite deceptive due to the number of offside calls, but it was clear to see that Gomez who is a very capable player was not the player needed in this position. Scaloni quickly realized that this new combination was not effective. Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul also came into the tournament with injuries, and it showed on the field. He was not afraid to switch out both players and swap them with Guido Rodriguez and Brighton man, Alexis Mac Allister in midfield to attempt to get balance. While not spectacular it did have the desired effect from Scaloni. In addition to this, Julian Alvarez and Enzo Fernandez were put into the squad and the immediate impact was clear for all to see. Scaloni had no problems changing up his initial tactics to adjust to the situation they were in. These changes gave Argentina, not just the balance they needed, but also the energy levels required to make the team be comfortable, dynamic and direct in how they played.
Against Poland, Scaloni used the 4-3-3 system opting to start the young Julien Alvarez up front with Messi and Di Maria. The midfield consisted of Mac Allister on the left, Enzo Fernandez and Rodrigo de Paul respectively. The use of Lisandro Martinez in the game against Mexico showed the dynamic nature of this team. After the first game against Saudi Arabia, regular starter Cristian Romero of Tottenham was not used against Mexico as he was recovering from an injury, and Otamendi and Martinez stepped in wonderfully. With each game like a final, Scaloni brought Romero back into the team and it is believed the reason for this was primarily to counter Lewandoski. Argentina would use this formation against Australia and once again even though Argentina was cruising at 2-0, Australia got a fortuitous deflection that made the game complicated for Argentina, and was it not for a tremendous block by Lisandro Martinez the game could have gone into extra time. The game against the Netherlands once again showed the range of this team with Scaloni opting to play with 3 centre-backs and 2 wing-backs which essentially can switch between five or three at the back. This worked admirably for the majority of the game with a mesmerizing pass from Leo Messi to send Molina through and a penalty that seemed to give Argentina the cushion they needed. However, as in previous games, Argentina conceded late goals which showed that the team was far from invulnerable. However, it was the tactical changes to the team that made Scaloni really stand out. Without recapping every single game, it is very obvious when observing how Argentina prepared and approached these games, they were very much prepared for different scenarios. Conceding goals as they did against the Netherlands would surely have broken most teams, but they adapted. This was also seen against France when a game that seemed they were totally in control of went off-script.
WHEN NOT IN POSSESSION
Argentina was not afraid to let teams come into the middle area of the park, and the press with overloads from the midfield four combined with the energetic Julian Alvarez upfront pressing as well. In different games, the press was a bit higher where you would see Julian Alvarez press in different scenarios high up the pitch forcing low percentage passes that the midfield of De Paul, Mac Callister, and co would swarm on. As it showed in all the games, while highly effective it was difficult to sustain for the entire 90 minutes but it further emphasized the team’s willingness to concede some possession in order to then stifle the opponent and strike quickly. When teams would try to go wide for example Croatia and France, the Argentina midfield would press in numbers with Alvarez being the key in this type of approach. This approach would severely hamper the opposition from attacking with pace. This was crucial in neutralizing these two teams for the most part. If the opposition was able to work the ball back into the centre of the pitch, the formation would quickly default into the 4-4-2 and the midfield four pressing aggressively. The back four would then sweep up or stifle any potential 1 versus 1 scenario, with the help of the midfield four as much as possible.
When Argentina is in possession they attack very quickly. The use of Enzo Fernandez, De Paul and Mac Allister’s dynamism helped to not only solve the problem of the loss of Lo Celso but also gave Argentina a different range that perhaps was not present before. In a counter-attacking scenario, the pace and technical ability of Alvarez were key with Argentina still maintaining a balance in midfield so they would not be caught also in a counter-attacking scenario. This was set up so that the opposition would not be able to attack at speed comfortably. In the game against France, the offensive runs of Tagliafico and Molina forced France to use their attacking players to defend and created favourable 1 versus 1 scenarios. This benefited Angel Di Maria who was quite dangerous and caused the French team to have to make quick decisions because of his ability to take on players and penetrate into the French defensive area. Often passing combinations and build-up from the back would draw the opposition to one side and as a result leave players like Di Maria with freedom. The quick diagonal cross-field ball caused many problems not just for the French but also for the Netherlands on the opposite flank, where Molina had a lot of space created. The wing-backs were very effective in this approach as they stretched the opposition and due to the speed of the cross-field ball, caused positional problems for the defending team. This combined with Messi’s free roaming in the attacking pockets of space combined with the support of Fernandez made the attack more potent.
Scaloni was very much aware that if the opposition was allowed to get momentum and run at Argentina it would be problematic so instead of sitting back with five at the back this approach proved most effective.
This Argentina team that Scaloni created showed that in attack and defence Argentina was well structured, and even though they had less possession than normally associated with successful teams, they were able to optimize the team structure in a way that minimized the weak points. An example of this is the ability to negate the lack of outright pace of the Argentina centre-backs and play in a way that it became a strength. This adaptation is quite clever because it deceives the opposition into committing players and allows the opposition to head into the Argentine defence, and in turn, allows the attacking players to thrive on the counterattack. It would be an insult to simply label this as counter-attacking football. This shows that Scaloni understood clearly what he wanted from this team, and it could not be more evident in the way he adapted to multiple scenarios that did not go his way during the tournament. The ability as stated before to switch systems in game combined with astute game management by players topped off by the brilliance of the players was an essential part of the success of this team. Scaloni is not brilliant because of his ability to not make mistakes but his ability to learn and solve these problems very quickly
Author – Andre Sooklal
Twitter – @AndreSooklal
Instagram – @AndreSooklal
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