T he 2014 World Cup Final did not provide Messi with the legacy of ‘heroic failure’ that the likes of Puskas and Cruyff acquired on the back of their respective campaigns with Holland and Hungary in 1954 and 1974. Neither did that World Cup capture the nation's imagination quite like their memorable campaign in 2006 which ended in glorious failure yet elevated Riquelme to cult status.
This is partly due to the fact that the football played by Argentina during that fateful summer did not rewrite the history books. Furthermore the spectre of Maradona weighed heavily on anything Messi attempts to achieve in an Albiceleste shirt. Messi’s reluctance that night to collect the runners up medal betrayed his acceptance that anything less than the gold medal around his neck would prove to be a heavy cross he would bear for the rest of his life.
After a series of failed attempts to use the Copa America as a coping mechanism, 2021 proved to be a turning point. Argentina had been transitioning away from its 2010s "golden generation" in favour of a younger core, which was reflected in manager Lionel Scaloni's call-ups for La Albiceleste. The team remained led by captain Lionel Messi, along with veterans Ángel Di María and Sergio Agüero, as the last three remaining members of the 2014 World Cup team that finished as runners-up to Germany.
Despite Messi starting the tournament well, Argentina would make a slow start in the opening fixture against bogey side Chile earning a draw. Eventually they would catch fire with Messi scoring a brace against Bolivia in their final group stage game before Messi was involved in all three of Argentina's goals in their 3–0 victory against Ecuador in the Quarter Finals, with assists for Rodrigo De Paul in the 40th minute and Lautaro Martínez in the 84th minute before scoring a curling free kick of his own in stoppage time.
In the semi final, Messi can be excused for feeling Deja Vu - another dreaded penalty shoot-out; Argentina with Messi had been knocked out on penalties in Copa America 2011, 2015 and 2016. The semi-final fixture against Colombia began with an early goal for Martínez in the seventh minute, but finished 1–1 in regulation time after an equaliser from Luis Díaz in the 61st minute. However this time, God decided to bless Messi with the assistance of an angel in the form of Arsenal reject Emiliano Martínez who would brilliantly save three shots to give the team a 3–2 win in the shootout.
In the final, another guardian angel of Messi's, Angel Di Maria who has always been injured whenever Messi desperately needed him came through and took the sword to Brazil, winning them their first international trophy since 1993. The celebrations after were wildly emotional, to the point that one feels Messi could die content he at least managed to win a Copa. That makes him and this side a dangerous animal for this tournament as you feel they 'don't' need to win it with the same anxious desperation as previous Argentina squads but 'know' they can.
Scaloni has utilised a variety of formations during his reign in charge. During 2021, 4-4-2 was the default formation, utilised 58% of the time - whereas in 2022, the 4-3-3 seems to be the preferred formation. Having said that, during the Finalissimo, a 4-2-3-1 was utilised (itself a variation of the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3). With Lo Celso's injury, it is even harder to predict exactly what Scaloni will go with but what we do know is that a back 4 will be utilised, Paredes and De Paul will form a double pivot of sorts, Di Maria will occupy a flank and Messi will roam behind Lauturo Martinez.
Intensity of Press/Shape
Argentina boast a PPDA of 9.97 over the past calendar year. This tells us that Argentina still deploy a very aggressive press which for a side that contains an elder statesman in Messi is pretty impressive. So how are they pulling it off? Well Scaloni no longer has to use a player like Aguero who unfortunately retired due to heart issues and he no longer starts Dybala which has allowed the likes of Lautaro Martinez to assume prominence - the prototype modern forward who happily chases down opposition goalkeepers - dragging the team forward with him.
Lautaro is ably supported by naturally efficacious players in the midfield line such as Di Maria, Lo Celso (who is a key absence due to injury) and aggressive midfielders such as Rodrigo de Paul. Behind them are all typically aggressive blood and thunder Argentine defenders who proactively look to win the ball, such as Cristian Romero, Otamendi and even the full backs such as Ajax-schooled Tagliafico and Atletico Madrid's Molina.
Messi is basically surrounded by runners, and that negates the need for him to do the dirty work and there is such an abundance of energy around him, he is not in any way a hindrance to their defensive structure. The 10 are basically able to do the running of 11 and they are absolutely committed to doing that, in the hope that Messi will return the favour by winning the game when they are in possession.
In the Copa America and the qualification for the World Cup, Argentina were consistently hovering around 53% aerial success rate, establishing themselves as the strongest 'aerial' side on the South American continent. It is impressive when you consider that they only have 2 players out of their outfield players who is over 6ft - Cristian Romero, standing at 6ft 1 and Otamendi, a rather squat looking 6ft. The desire and courage of this side stands out and no one exemplifies this better than Lisandro Martinez.
Much has been spoken about Lisandro Martinez' lack of girth - sorry 'height', and the so called troubles he has supposedly faced in the Premier League. For Argentina it has been less of an issue as he is usually third choice behind Cristian Romero and Otamendi. But such has been his form in confronting those accusations, it is arguable that he should be the first name on the team sheet from a defensive perspective and in addition to his superior play from the back, he has a better aerial success rate in comparison to Romero who hasn't exactly set the world alight at Spurs.
What is to be said about Emi Martinez that hasn't been said already. Former Arsenal reject turned into the one who got away - Martínez memorably saved three spot kicks in a 3–2 penalty shootout victory for Argentina over Colombia in the semi-final of the 2021 Copa America, and followed it up with a with a clean sheet in the 1–0 victory over Brazil in the final. As a result Martínez was also awarded the 2021 Copa América's Golden Glove award as the best keeper of the tournament for his performances.
His form for a rather ramshackle Villa this season has been less than inspired. Whilst he is far from the root cause for their malaise, he has seen his Superman reputation take a knock as the team's struggles have begun to seep away at his confidence - there is only so much a man can do to hold back a flood of chances being conceded. Messi will hope that back amongst a side that is used to winning, Emi Martinez will demonstrate the stellar big match mentality which has cemented him as a cult figure within the dressing room.
Expect to see... Romero and Otamendi to secure the starting berth in a back 4, flanked by Molina and Tagliafico, with Martinez in goal. Alternatives are Lisandro Martinez for Romero and Foyth for Molina.
Copa Win Impacted The Possession Narrative
In the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers, Argentina averaged 58.6% possession, with 480.07 passes per 90. Only Spain, Germany and Belgium have a superior possession % over the past calendar year. The fetish for possession truly started after the Copa America win against Brazil. In that game, Argentina had around 42% of the ball. It is not clear why the directive changed after such a big victory (Paredes and De Paul were the pair in the final) but since then perhaps the confidence boost gained from the victory has given the Albiceleste a bigger spring in their step and henceforth they have utterly dominated Brazil in the possession stakes in every game since as well as their other South American rivals.
Losing Lo Celso
With Lo Celso out, Argentina have lost the third lung of their engine room and a vital tactical weapon. Lo Celso provided a Luis-Enriquesque wide box to box type threat, which would prevent the Argentine midfield being outnumbered but also allow it to cover the width of the pitch and stretch the game out once they had won the ball back. It also helped provide protection to Tagliafico from facing a 2 v 1 situation. Quite how Scaloni resolves this issue is up for debate but let us look in depth at the duo who are arguably even more important.
Paredes The Pariah
When Leandro Paredes left for Juventus, it was to find more playing time and to solidify his role on the Argentina national team ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. However, the move has yet to go as planned. Despite an excellent start against his old side PSG where he made 77/80 passes (a whopping 96% success rate), Paredes instantly went off the boil - drawing intense criticism from the Italian media who recently mocked Paredes following Juventus’ embarrassing UEFA Champions League loss to Maccabi Haifa, which puts them on the verge of either dropping to the Europa League or out of European competitions altogether.
Paolo Di Canio, stated that “Paredes has a clean pass, but then the rest have to take care of the rest”. Simple, blunt and perfectly put - this captures exactly why Paredes ultimately failed to make a regular first team impact at PSG and now Juventus. He's literally a 'passer' - with very little ball carrying ability and although he compensates for this lack of 'travel' with a solid defensive brain and willingness to throw himself into a challenge, it is a very difficult player to build a team around.
What compounded the issue at PSG was that he had a generational DLP/Regista type player ahead of him in the pecking order, Marco Verratti. At times they could dovetail well together but ultimately it was never going to be a relationship that would last the distance and Paredes often found himself on the outside staring in. At Juve, Paredes just finds himself surrounded by a lack of quality and an absence of 'elite battlers' around him to provide him with the right settings to focus on running the game. Another poor career move after which Paredes will soon find himself aged 29 and back at PSG.
Superman De Paul
Under Scaloni however, Paredes has a manager who understands his weaknesses and appreciates his strengths. More importantly Scalono has paired Paredes with a player who complements him perfectly. Just like Redondo needed Simeone, Paredes needs Rodrigo De Paul. De Paul is an Argentine Action Man - a man who throws himself into tackles and can carry the ball over large distances and hit blockbuster passes as well as show-stopping goals. Paredes provides the calm and De Paul bringeth the storm.
Weirdly just like Paredes, De Paul is also struggling at club level. Despite stiff competition from the likes of Liverpool, Atletico Madrid secured the capture of De Paul from Udinese in a €35m deal on a five-year contract last summer. Despite making 43 appearances for the club in all competitions De Paul only got two goals and two assists - in stark contrast to his numbers at Udinese the previous season where he grabbed nine goals and earned 11 assists in 38 games.
Something has not clicked with De Paul at Atleti. De Paul has been deployed as a deep-lying midfielder for much of the season. Simeone has come under fire for using the Argentina playmaker in such a role. He has been much more effective for the national side as a No 10, but Simeone sees it differently. Instead he has been given more defensive duties. While off the pitch Marca have previously reported that De Paul has failed to integrate in the dressing room. Fortunately none of these are relevant or recurring issues when he puts on the shirt of the national team.
Best Of The Rest
Enzo Fernández is the most valuable U25 player from outside Europe's top 5 leagues, as per CIES Football. The 21-year-old has played a stellar role for Benfica, who are unbeaten in the domestic league. Plus, Benfica finished top of a vaunted Champions League group that included PSG and Juventus. Can he fit into the side? In our opinion no, he is too similar to Paredes and is more of an alternative to him rather than a player that fits nicely inbetween Paredes and De Paul.
Another player who could rightfully claim a place in the starting eleven would Alexis Mac Allister. Like Enzo, Mac Alliser is having a great season at Brighton. The 23-year-old played second fiddle to Pascal Gross at times. Yet, this season, he has been a real revelation for Roberto de Zerbi. Mac Allister has been the anchor for the Premier League side and rarely makes a poor pass. He also has an eye for the goal, scoring 5 goals from midfield and is adept at taking set pieces. Whilst he can be that third man in midfield, he still isn't that direct replacement for Lo Celso
Expect… De Paul and Paredes to definitely feature in midfield but there is question marks about where Scaloni goes from there in the absence of Lo Celso. He may go for an extra wide player instead.
With Alejandro Garnacho rumoured to be a late replacement at the time of writing, what could be a perceived weakness of this Argentina squad might have turned into a strength against all odds. Alas it wasn't to be and Argentina are heavily reliant on a national stalwart as their main source of width... a certain Angel Di Maria.
The Man For The Big Occassion
Di Maria's goal against Brazil in the Copa America 2021 final sealed the deal on Argentina's first international triumph since the 1993 edition of the same tournament. What is often forgotten is that Messi's main sidekick has often got injured at key moments during various tournament campaigns... During the quarter-final match against Belgium, Di María suffered a muscle tear in the thigh and was later taken off the field. It was later announced after the match that Di María would miss the rest of the tournament due to the injury. He had previously helped to create Gonzalo Higuaín's only goal of the match, which sent Argentina into the semi-finals.
During the 2015 Copa America, Di Maria was substituted with a hamstring injury within the first half-hour of the final against hosts Chile, which his team lost in a penalty shootout after a goalless draw. During the 2016 Copa America edition, Di Maria was injured in the second group game and once again missed the remainder of the tournament, including the final. Whilst Argentina got to the final without him, Di Maria is such a vibrant presence in the business end of big games - you can see why Argentina have often failed to cross the final hurdle without him.
The Full Backs
With genuine top quality wingers thin on the ground, the full backs will be very important in providing width. Tagliafico will be especially important in possession as it is likely Di Maria will feature down the right putting extra emphasis on the former Ajax man to bomb forward. Tagliafico was one of the finds of the last World Cup and performed admirably, until that fateful game against France where he was tasked with keeping Mbappe quiet. It ended up being a mismatch of epic proportions.
Marcos Acuna is a potential alternative to Tagliafico but whilst he has more 'oomph' - he lacks the culture of Tagliafico and is more raw in tight spaces and less disciplined defensively. There has been much debate about who should get the nod, but we prefer Tagliafico as there isn't really a bona fide superior option.
At right back, theres a number of options including Juan Foyth but we believe the man to get the nod will be Nahuel Molina. He is a proper box to box full back who is tenacious in the tackle, adept on the ball and with that annoying personality that means he will be a thorn in the side for many wingers at this years World Cup - Argentina's answer to Kyle Walker.
Expect…Molina and Tagliafico to start with Di Maria as the teams only natural source of width - preferably down the right flank.
Argentina possess the best creative player in the competition and that isn't just based on a reference to Messi's former glories...statistically he trumps even Neymar whose been in sizzling form this season. 9.3 progressive passes per game, 4.16 through balls per game, 3.89 smart passes per game - world leading metrics. When you consider Messi is not in his prime, these are pretty incredible numbers and bode well for his swansong campaign.
In addition to the usual threat of Messi, what makes this 2022 vintage so different to previous versions of Argentina is that Messi isn't being treated as the Messiah who will carry the entire central creative burden and be the face of a broken side in terms of system and quality. Argentina have players like De Paul, Lautaro (who can drop off into space) and Paredes who can all break defences with smart passes which means Messi can pick and choose his moments of when to go for the kill.
If Argentina are wanting to introduce even more bodies into the central attacking areas, one other option is Dybala who can perform a Messi-Lite type of role, as he too is blessed with a lovely left foot and with the vision to unlock tight defences. However if the great man does pick up an injury, Dybala will struggle to handle the creative burden and it would prove to be a huge blow to Argentina's chances.
Expect… Messi to enjoy his football in this side whether or not they go on to win the trophy. Messi is for once surrounded by like-minded players who can carry the creative burden at times although he will still be required to do the heavy lifting for the most part.
The Ideal Modern Forward...
Lautaro Martinez has scored 21 goals in 40 appearances for Argentina, which on the face of it looks fairly solid but what is more impressive is that in 2022 he has scored 4 goals in 5 games, and for Inter he scored 25 goals in 49 appearances last season - a career best. Martinez is entering his prime and with a 25 year old world class striker leading the line... you can see why Argentina are spoken about as one of the favourites as that is an incredibly rare commodity.
Furthermore it is the sheer range of goals that Martinez can score which makes him so difficult to defend against. Headers, left foot, right foot, inside the box, audacious shots outside the box - it is very hard to predict what he will do next. Outside of Martinez, Argentina also possess the sharp-shooting Julian Alvarez who has already shown glimpses of his eerily efficient finishing technique in a City shirt.
The only way I see Alvarez featuring is if Messi or Lautaro is injured, or if they go with a 4-3-3 with Alvarez coming in off the left and Messi off the right (neither of which is ideal in my opinion). But a brilliant option to have as a back up with his dynamism, goal-getting attitude and solid link up pay. Dybala is another option off the bench but not a serious one. He has flattered to deceive for many years for both club and country and I do not think the team can carry both a Messi and a Dybala in the same set up - it simply lacks legs.
Expect… Lautaro to lead the line with Messi playing in behind him. Depending on the game, Alvarez might grab the odd start but he will play a key role off the bench.
This is a highly motivated and 'together' Argentina squad where all the pieces seem to want to fit together to play a brand of football which is better suited to exploiting Messi's strengths. They also have a global title under their belt and an unbeaten streak which gives them an air of confidence that allows them to dominate the opposition from the off.
Having said that, winning the Copa America is one thing - where they are used to winning and playing against the same set of rivals, handling the pressure of a World Cup is quite another and I would argue that the Champions League and success in that trophy is a better gauge of the standing of some of these players and their mettle. If we look closer at that aspect, no Argentina player has come remotely close to making an impact at the elite end of the spectrum of club football and thus one has to question just how battle-hardened this team is the further we dive into the tournament.
Tactically, the two Martinez's, Lautaro and Lisandro provide a lot of hope - futuristic footballers who give these Argentina side a fresh look... I am also a huge fan of De Paul and believe rather like Felix, it is the manager and the club that is a poor fit rather than the player being below par. But the full backs - well Tagliafico, is a cause for concern the further we go into the tournament and can Otamendi really hold it together during the entire tournament? Very difficult to predict where this team ends up because the draw it will face is so so tough.
Verdict: Potential winners but could easily lose to a big side in Round of 16 onwards.