Thoughts on Argentina 4 – 1 Spain

Argentina 4 - 1 Spain
Argentina off the ball as Spain attack during the second half (Xavi on the ball)

Having taken slightly longer than planned to get around to writing this post, here I am with something a bit more analytical (I hope) on the Argentina vs Spain friendly from Tuesday afternoon. It was the world champions’ first defeat since winning the World Cup on the 11th July, and as such Argentina now take on the crown of Unofficial World Champions. It was a match to forget for Spain’s Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina of course, but otherwise the win came about largely through impressive work on Argentina’s part.

Although Argentina’s starting XI was as reported in the Argentine press before the game, the Spanish side differed considerably from the one I’d lifted from Marca.com for my ‘predicted starting XI’ post. Spain used the same 4-2-3-1 formation that did so well for them in the World Cup, with Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets anchoring the midfield, and David Villa up front ahead of, from right to left, David Silva, Cesc Fábregas and Andrés Iniesta. As such Xavi was on the bench at the start, but got onto the pitch in the second half to rapturous applause from the Monumental crowd.

Argentina lined up as Sergio Batista had said they would, a 4-3-3 which mirrored Diego Maradona’s formation in the disastrous World Cup exit to Germany only in terms of numbers of players per line on the pitch. Against Germany, Nicolás Otamendi was an inexperienced choice at right back, whilst Maxi Rodríguez and Ángel Di María were ill-suited to help out Javier Mascherano in the centre of midfield, and the captain was subsequently swamped when Argentina didn’t have the ball, and had no passing options when they did bar Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez, who had to drop so deep to collect it that they weren’t much use at the end of the pitch they should have been playing in.

Messi, for his part, was instructed by Batista not to drop into his own half but to concentrate on attacking the Spanish defenders when he was given the ball. He actually didn’t follow that instruction to the letter – his run past several Spaniards to set up Ángel Di María, who had stupidly strayed offside, in the second half started from well inside Argentina’s half – but Batista didn’t seem to mind that too much. After Messi’s superbly taken opener and Gonzalo Higuaín’s almost instantaneous follow-up, Spain looked shell-shocked.

The world champions were also understandably both a little lethargic – Argentina had flown out much earlier than them, due to Spain’s Euro 2012 qualifying match against Liechtenstein the Friday before – and and enjoying the experience of being in a new city and playing in front of (supposedly) a ‘passionate South American crowd’, as Gerard Piqué had put it before the game, evidently unaware that the noisy fans were priced out. That being said, it was still considerably louder than the Spanish league grounds most of Spain’s team are used to playing in.

The changes from that ill thought-out ‘strategy’ against Germany were plain to see. Javier Zanetti didn’t have a spectacular game at right back, but he is a right back, and as such was an improvement on anything Jonás Gutiérrez or Otamendi – both of whom, I want to emphasise, I like as players in their own rights – were able to offer in an unfamiliar position in South Africa. The area of the pitch where things were simply unrecognisable, though, was in the midfield.

Against Germany, Javier Mascherano was effectively alone in midfield, with Ángel Di María and Maxi Rodríguez nominally playing alongside him after Maradona decided not to bring Seba Verón back into the team. With both players more used to playing as attacking widemen than either box-to-box or more reserved central midfielders, it was easy for Germany to swamp Argentina’s centre, and hard for Argentina to retain possession. With a much more balanced midfield consisting of Ever Banega to the right and Esteban Cambiasso to the left, with captain Mascherano remaining in the centre, it was an entirely different story.

Spain scored fewer goals than any previous World Cup winner, but are nothing if not dominant in possession. In Sergio Batista’s Argentina, though, they finally met a side who could keep the ball as well as they did, and indeed in the opening twenty minutes Argentina had nearly 60% of the ball; over the course of the match possession was 47% to Argentina and 53% to Spain – much closer than nearly all of Spain’s other matches in the last few years. By pressing hard from midfield, and tightening the space between their own defence and midfield lines, Argentina were able to squeeze out Spain’s creative impulse. The value of that pressing was also superbly illustrated by Carlos Tevez’s goal; it’s true that it came from a slip by Pepe Reina, but if it weren’t for Tevez’s seemingly pathological desire to chase down every ball he just might be able to reach, he wouldn’t have been able to score it.

When Xavi was introduced in the second half, the difference he makes to his team was plain to see, but bringing Jesús Navas and Fernando Llorente on for Davids Silva and Villa respectively also served to give Spain much more width. It was a ploy used by Spain throughout the World Cup – Navas gives more penetration down the flanks, and with Llorente providing a target man in the middle, can add a new dimension to Spain’s attack. Ironically, Llorente actually took his goal very well when it came late on – hardly the typical sort of goal we’d expect from him, and far more in keeping with the image of the rest of his team-mates. That was one of the few times Gabriel Milito, on his return to the national side, put a foot wrong, after he’d spent most of the first half in particular mopping up the space behind Martín Demichelis superbly. I’d like to see Milito and Walter Samuel given a chance as a central defensive partnership, if I were Argentine.

Lionel Messi was given a first-ever standing ovation by Argentina fans at a full international, apparently, and thoroughly deserved it for his excellent work throughout. He took his goal well and would have had a truly incredible assist, too, if it weren’t for Ángel Di María’s stupidity in straying offside when he was looking right across the line of the defence as he ran onto the through ball. Andrés D’Alessandro deserves a mention too, for his central role in the counter-attack which led to Sergio Agüero’s goal in the 90th minute – a move D’Alessandro himself had started just seconds after entering the pitch as Messi’s replacement.

Ultimately, Argentina won the game for three reasons: first, because they were more prepared and pumped up for it than a Spanish side with much less to prove, who’d only stepped off a long plane journey two days before; secondly, because by employing three midfielders who are adept at winning the ball they managed the highly impressive task of stifling Spain’s midfield, and thirdly because their forwards took the chances they were presented with (four goals from seven chances). If there was some luck in Villa’s shots which hit the crossbar, it’s worth bearing in mind that they were all from range (and two were deflected) – the Argentine defence was hardly being carved open at will. Cambiasso’s backheel to set up Higuaín for a shot that flashed inches wide also served as a reminder that whilst they may be more ‘defensive’ – I’d prefer to say ‘balanced’ – in the eyes of most Argentines, the midfield we saw on Tuesday can play a bit, too.

This win doesn’t suddenly mean that Argentina are back and destined for a glorious four-year period. But it should make an important point following the mistakes of South Africa 2010: that with competent management, this side might have done a lot more than they managed. Spain didn’t take the game as seriously as they would have done a competitive fixture, but all the same the world champions didn’t come all this way wanting to get thrashed. Argentina can look to the future with hope. And Sergio Batista now has good reason to believe he should be given a chance to carry on his work with the selección.

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