Argentina are through to the semifinals after a cagey 1-0 win over Belgium. They continued on the trend of not thoroughly dominating their opponents but rather keeping them at arms length throughout.
In our preview of the quarterfinals, we figured it would take one moment of magic or something intangible to separate these two very similar teams (in terms of style, performance, strengths, and weaknesses) and that’s precisely what we got.
Not Higuain’s first-time finish past Courtois (which was excellent by the way) but rather Messi’s ability to drag 4 players out of position, skip past them, and play Angel di Maria into space who then played it into Higuain’s feet, albeit with a lucky deflection.
The problem is Argentina really didn’t do much more in the match to kill the game off. Once di Maria went off injured, Sabella put in a defensive midfielder (Enzo Perez) in his place and all of the (rather rare) subsequent attacks went exclusively through Messi.
Many people have been referring to this as Messidependencia. This isn’t the first time it’s come up since Barcelona also have had the same thing come up at club level for the past two to three years. When you have a player as gifted and as decisive as Lionel Messi, you can’t help but build around him.
The main issue I have with Messidependencia is that it has a negative connotation attached to it. Have Argentina been relatively unimpressive? Yes. Slightly disappointing? Maybe. But is this team really as ordinary as Belgian manager Marc Wilmots claims? The one shot on target by Belgium says otherwise. Seriously, I can’t take someone who brings on Nacer Chadli for Eden Hazard seriously.
So what if Messi has to create almost everything (he doesn’t), it’s not as if teams have found a good way to nullify him without nullifying themselves. Just because Iran and Switzerland put 10 players behind the ball, does not make Messi or his teammates ineffective. Most teams struggle against parked buses. Germany and Brazil are also in the semifinals despite facing similar teams in that regard. Tactics and formations don’t matter as much when the other team retreats into a defensive shell. Belgium, however, didn’t mark Messi as tightly and paid the price as he found a lot of good spaces to attack or play his teammates in. A healthy di Maria on the pitch showed a massive difference in Argentina’s possession play and chance creation. In the first 30 minutes, Argentina dominated possession and were regularly asking questions of Belgium’s back 4. di Maria’s injury afterward changed things and as a result if Argentina weren’t already going through Messi, they were going to have to. It’s a pretty natural reaction when you think about it.
Messidependencia is not exclusive to Argentina either. The other teams who are in the semifinals have relied on one creative player to channel their attacks. Germany repeatedly go through Toni Kroos in their attacks and for set piece delivery. Brazil obviously relies heavily on Neymar and his set pieces too. The Netherlands are less about set pieces but their counter-attacks mostly go through Robben and he either creates chances by beating defenders, or diving.
So this Argentina side might not be the most spectacular side remaining, but they’re consistently stepping up when it’s needed and doing enough to win, much like the other teams that have gotten this far. If that requires the best player in the world to do ‘best player in the world’ things to win matches, what’s wrong with that?