Argentina: Balance, Fortune, and Hostility

As we gear up for the World Cup 2014, the Prawn Sandwich Brigade will be looking at this year’s favorites to win it all in Brazil.  These articles highlight the differences from four years ago, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each team.  This is Part 2 in a 6-part series on the bookmakers’ favorites. Part 1 can be found here

Argentina are the pantomime villain of football.  In many ways they’re like the Duke Blue Devils. But no one can deny that this side are seriously good and are vastly improved from the crazy-shenanigans of Diego Maradona’s reign 4 years ago.

Where they were in 2010

Argentina were in serious danger of missing out on the last World Cup despite having a lot of talent.  Diego Maradona was brought in to quickly get results and he did so to a decent extent as Argentina got the last automatic spot in CONMEBOL.  He then started to pick up impressive wins in friendlies against France and Germany and that generated some interest. In keeping with character, Maradona made some bizarre decisions.  He played a 4-3-1-2, with Messi playing behind Tevez and Higuain.  Tevez is a talented player but kept on taking spaces Messi wanted.  The sheer talent of the three players meant they’d always score goals but defensively their fullbacks were Gabriel Heinze and Jonas Gutierrez who weren’t the most mobile and Mascherano was the only player shielding the defense.  It was fine against Mexico, and a relatively light Group B, but they were thoroughly outclassed by Germany’s direct counter attacks in the quarterfinals.

2014 Differences and Improvements

Alejandro Sabella might get a lot of criticism for some of his selection decisions but his win-rate as a manager is very impressive as this new look Argentina topped CONMEBOL qualification with a well-balanced team.  His starting XI should be fairly predictable. Sabella’s tactics range from a 4-3-3 to a diamond formation (4-3-1-2), but usually involve a vertical counter-attack designed to take advantage of the pace of their attackers.  The one common feature is that Argentina’s attackers are all very dynamic. Here’s what their attack and midfield will look like.

  • Sabella’s first choice forwards will be Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and Lionel Messi.  Messi’s given more of a free role on the right. Aguero and Higuain are clinical finishers but they can both provide width to drag out defenders and link with Messi. Crucially, all three forwards seem to understand each other in addition to causing problems themselves.
  • The midfield trio takes on a destroyer-runner-creator model.  Mascherano breaks up play well, Banega creates and passes well, and di Maria will carry the ball forward and provide support where it’s needed (either wide or central to combine with Messi). Fernando Gago can also play in Banega’s position.
  • Angel di Maria plays tucked in but can stretch play wide and combine effectively. He’s been in excellent form this year.
  • Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi also featured in qualifiers and can provide another system option if Argentina need it.
Same formation as Maradona's team but with more stability
Same formation as Maradona’s team but with more stability

Defensively, Argentina have always been criticized and many point to that as the weakness but they conceded very few goals during qualifying. Zabaleta and Garay are solid defenders who have been in great form. Fernandez and Rojo, less so but the system compensates with Mascherano who can drop in and di Maria willing to track back. Sabella has come under fire for his choice of keeper.  Sergio Romero has been questioned a lot considering he’s a backup at AS Monaco, and because Willy Caballero of Malaga is a much better option.  So far Romero has repaid the faith for the national team, but it remains to be seen whether he can keep it going against some of the best forwards in the world.

World Cup Chances

argentina

Much like Scolari for Brazil, Sabella likes to stick with a fairly fixed starting XI.  Argentina undoubtedly have a talented team, but they were also lucky to get a manageable group and favorable locations to play in. They play mostly in southern Brazil close to the border so they should have plenty of support and their group stage opponents have obvious weaknesses. Bosnia-Herzegovina are tournament debutantes and very suspect defensively, Nigeria has experience but aren’t really an organized side, and Iran might play more defensively but wouldn’t offer much going forward. Argentina are among the favorites for all these reasons, and a semifinal run would be a realistic expectation.  A matchup against Switzerland or France in the round of 16 could prove tricky, but they should see it through.  That being said, if Argentina pick up where they left off in qualifiers, they’ll be devastating.  I predict they’ll finish as runners up to Brazil, separated by home field advantage.

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