Argentina started their FIFA World Cup 2014 campaign with a 2-1 victory over Bosnia & Herzegovina on Sunday, riding Lionel Messi's goalscoring coattails to victory.
A freak own goal by Sead Kolasinac had given the Albiceleste the lead in the third minute, but the first half petered out, and it took a formation change from Alejandro Sabella to find a second goal.
Messi's weaving run and finish sealed the points, though Vedad Ibisevic's late consolation gave the Dragons cause to celebrate.
Formations and XIs
Argentina started with a 3-5-2 formation only seen during away qualifiers at altitude over the last few years. Hugo Campagnaro came into the defence, with Gonzalo Higuain dropped from the attack.
Bosnia-Herzegovina conformed to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Edin Dzeko in attack. Safet Susic would have wanted to field Ibisevic alongside him but resisted the temptation and added an extra man in midfield.
BiH's work ethic in the defensive phase was obvious from the start, with Miralem Pjanic and Muhamed Besic swamping out the central midfield zones and Senad Lulic tracking Pablo Zabaleta all the way back on the flank.
The 4-2-3-1 shape was held very well, dropping into a 4-4-1-1 shape when off the ball, and barring the freak own goal from Kolasinac in the third minute the Albiceleste barely threatened.
Indeed, by the end of the first half the Dragons had managed more attempts on goal than Argentina had.
Argentina's 3-5-2 featured two forwards who like to roam and drop off, with Messi in particular on the right side drifting away from the BiH defensive line and looking for the ball.
Out of the basic template, both forwards would often split wide and leave the centre-forward and No. 10 spaces completely vacant. That was great in link-up play down the flanks for Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo but left the Albiceleste a little toothless through the middle.
What they truly needed were penetrative runners from deep in midfield or a true forward to occupy the defenders, but Maxi Rodriguez and Angel Di Maria were unable to oblige—thanks, partly, to the great job BiH's holding pivot did on the central zones.
After a fluke opening goal, something of a stalemate ensued.
Argentina made two half-time substitutions and changed formation.
Fernando Gago and Higuain came on for Campagnaro and Maxi, signalling a switch to what we thought would be their basic 4-3-3 but instead turned out to be a 4-4-2 diamond.
With Javier Mascherano securing the base, Di Maria and Gago providing defensive ethic and drive, and the full-backs slightly more reserved, Messi, at the tip of the formation, seized his chance to shine.
He began finding swathes of space to run into from deep, and as he skipped challenges here and there, passing lanes began to open. Starting from a deeper position helped him find room to breathe, but having two up front was key too.
Higuain and Sergio Aguero began running aggressively at the centre-backs, stretching the pitch vertically and making room for Messi to run in. Once BiH set their line, the two would fan outward, making room for Messi to pass left or right.
Gago was instrumental in the switch of fortunes, providing purpose and direction in his passing and frequently setting Messi in the right direction with Pass No. 1.
In the end, immense combination play between Higuain and Messi paid off, with the latter scoring a remarkable goal after a mazy, unpredictable dribble.
Bosnia-Herzegovina sent on Ibisevic, who scored, but it wasn't enough and Argentina claimed a 2-1 victory to open their campaign. BIH ended the match with two strikers and two advanced wingers, while the Albiceleste finished in a loose 4-4-2 with Gago bending the edge of the right flank.
It wasn't vintage Messi or Argentina, but the important point is that Sabella proved reactive and positive in changing his team's fortunes in the game.
The 3-5-2, it seems, was forced upon him due to the fact that Higuain and Gago were not fit enough for a full 90. If they can continue to recover and start next game, the Albiceleste won't waste another 45 minutes bedding in.
Tactical Man of the Match: Fernando Gago changed the game as a substitute.