Welcome to the latest in a B/R series where we will take a tactical dive and explore each and every one of the 32 qualified World Cup teams.
Next up is Argentina, who qualified in first place in the CONMEBOL standings with an impressive 32 points. Alejandro Sabella will take his Albiceleste side to the finals as one of the favourites to win the top prize.
Argentina's qualifying results were odd from the beginning, and for a long time it appeared as though the nation had failed to shake their irritating tendency to slip up against lesser sides.
Wins over Chile, Colombia and Uruguay—three teams who've qualified for the World Cup finals—were joined by a loss to Venezeula, a draw to Bolivia and a stalemate with Peru.
They ended up staying unbeaten vs. Colombia and did the double over Chile and Ecuador, which helped them keep fellow qualifiers at arm's length and win the group.
Sabella's men scored the most goals (35) in qualifying by a distance and conceded the second fewest (15).
Formation and Style
It's early in this series, but trust us when we say Argentina's preferred system is one of the most complex to be on show in Brazil this summer.
Sabella has shown his hand and clearly prefers a 4-3-3 formation, but it's loose, unorthodox and very, very fluid. The manager is pragmatic in comparison to the chaotic Sergio Batista and Diego Maradona reigns, but can still get extremely creative when required.
As is the case in any team he will ever play for, Argentina have worked hard to devise a formation that frees up Lionel Messi to do as much damage as physically possible.
The Barcelona man finished second in the CONMEBOL qualifying scoring list with 10 goals, second only to Luis Suarez, so on paper the strategy worked...but how did Sabella do it?
Rather than forcing a highly taxing adaption to a false-nine system—a decision that would have been questionable on many, many levels—he instead decided to place Messi in a free role on the right side of the 4-3-3.
The little wizard has full license to drift inside and join play—as evidenced by his display against Venezuela at home, in which he was everywhere—and the rest of the team shifts to accommodate such a feature.
There are several other key elements that come in to play to make this work: Pablo Zabaleta's aggressive positioning from right-back; Angel di Maria's driving, bursting central runs from LCM; Fernando Gago clever positioning as an RCM in space and, most importantly, Gonzalo Higuain's traditional No. 9 role occupying the opposing centre-backs.
The team largely dominated possession in home games during qualifying and showed rapier-like ability on the counter in certain circumstances. Sabella also experimented with a three-man defence in La Paz, Bolivia, but it didn't look fantastic and doesn't appear to be a mainstay going forward.
Reasons for Hope
Argentina have always found strength in depth in forward areas, and 2014 is no different. Sergio Aguero, Higuain and Messi is Sabella's first-choice front three, but waiting in the wings are Ezequiel Lavezzi, Jose Sosa, Erik Lamela and Rodrigo Palacio.
Carlos Tevez, due to an untenable political situation within the team, doesn't get a look-in—much to the disgust of some local Argentine media outlets.
Not only are these some prime, world-class forwards, but they're also (largely) happy to get their hands dirty. Di Maria's acceptance of an old, Benfica-esque role in central midfield is typical of the mantra running through this Albiceleste squad: They'll do what they have to get selected and help the team.
For example, Aguero, from a left-sided role alongside Higuain, has the ability to drop into space between defence and midfield when Messi drifts away, but also poses a threat over the top and can beat any defender in a race.
Competition for a midfield spot is also rather intense, and Zabaleta is one of the world's best right-backs. The left side, featuring Jose Sosa, may not be fancy, but it does work rather hard to right the balance of the formation.
Sabella, a disciple of the great Carlos Bilardo, is a trump card often overlooked due to gazes resting almost solely on Messi. He's got Higuain playing the best football of his life as a centre-forward in his side, and he's won the respect of all his players.
Oh, and they have the best player in the world on their team...
Reasons for Concern
Argentina are often fancied as a pre-tournament favourite, and with Messi in his prime and Aguero in the form of his career, 2014 will be no different.
That makes for very few weaknesses, but the age-old problem for La Albiceleste—a suspect defence—has reared its ugly head once again.
Like Colombia, their excellent "goals against" tally in qualifying clouds the story and lets on that all is well, but in reality the back five are a long way from matching the star-studded attacking line.
Federico Fernandez has struck up a nice partnership with Ezequiel Garay, but this is no Dante-Thiago Silva-calibre line—not even close. Marcos Rojo appears to be Sabella's choice at left-back, and Sergio Romero played the entire qualifying campaign in goal. Both leave something to be desired.
Argentina will go far in this competition, and with history against Europe's powerhouses on South American soil, the Albiceleste is a top-three contender to win it.
With Messi on board and fit, a striker to take the load and a well-balanced midfield, Sabella may well have found a system that truly works. If he can mask its defensive deficiencies, this side has as good a chance as any of winning the World Cup.
They drew a favourable group and can gear up as they move through the stages, but can they beat the hosts should they reach the final?
Prediction: Second (finalists, losing to Brazil)