Lionel Messi holds the keys to Argentina’s success at the 2014 World Cup, but the dynamic playmaker will need a change in tactics and a stronger display from his fellow attackers if the Albiceleste are to make a deep run in world football’s most prestigious tournament.
Messi and his Argentinian teammates survived an anemic first-half performance and a late strike from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Vedad Ibisevic to secure a 2-1 victory in their opening World Cup match. Their offensive output consisted of an early own goal from Bosnia-Herzegovina and a second-half strike from Messi.
Argentina’s inability to create a consistent attacking threat over the course of the match proved that Messi needs plenty of support if he is to build upon his strong second-half performance.
Messi’s first 45 minutes of play were decidedly disappointing; he often had to drop deep to pick up the ball and was often unable to maneuver into threatening positions.
When Messi did receive the ball in attacking positions, he was immediately met with two or three Bosnian defenders. The diminutive dribbler struggled to find his teammates in the attacking third, leading him to commit a few costly turnovers.
ESPN Stats & Info noted Messi’s early struggles against the Bosnian defense:
Fortunately, Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella was clued in to Messi’s need for support. Gonzalo Higuain came on for Maxi Rodriguez, and his strong sense of positioning created a noticeable effect on the fluidity of Argentina’s attack.
New York Times editor Andrew Das noted the need for this substitution:
Higuain on for Maxi Rodriguez at HT. Seems an admission Messi needs better options in front of him to tie up defenders.— Andrew Das (@AndrewDasNYT) June 15, 2014
Higuain and Sergio Aguero provided Messi with two top-tier targets up front, and their combined presence gave Messi more space to operate against the Bosnian defense. It also created more room on the wing for Angel di Maria, who had a very quiet first half. Giving Higuain a full 90 minutes to work with would help Argentina find their rhythm right from the opening whistle.
Bosnia-Herzegovina struggled to contain the myriad attacking threats, and the combination play was on full display during Messi’s excellent strike in the 65th minute. Via ESPN FC’s Twitter account:
Messi is often criticized for his relatively poor displays for Argentina as compared to his worldbeating exploits for his club team, Barcelona. Opta Sports’ Twitter account pointed out his barren goalscoring record at the World Cup:
623 - Lionel Messi had played 623 minutes of #WorldCup football since scoring his other WC goal (v Serbia in 2006). Wait.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 15, 2014
However, as BBC Scotland’s Alasdair Lamont points out, even the legendary Diego Maradona benefited from his talented teammates in international play.
Maybe as crucial to the 'is Messi as good as Maradona' debate is whether Aguero and Higuain are as good as Valdano and Burrachaga.— Alasdair Lamont (@BBCAlLamont) June 15, 2014
Just as Messi thrives when linking up with Andres Iniesta and Xavi for Barcelona, he is at his best when he is able to combine with the likes of Aguero and di Maria.
Argentina would also do well to change its formation from the beginning of the match. Sabella’s side began the match with five nominal defenders and Javier Mascherano, a defensive midfielder whose main responsibility is to shield the back line.
The six defensive-oriented players on the pitch contributed to Messi’s need to pick up the ball deep in midfield. A halftime substitution of midfielder Fernando Gago for defender Hugo Campagnaro went a long way toward rectifying this situation. Messi was able to receive the ball farther up the pitch and threaten the defense without having to spend too much time dribbling and probing the defense on his own.
How far will Argentina advance in the 2014 World Cup?
If Messi is to continue in his fluid playmaker role, he will need more players committed to the attack from the beginning. Argentina’s weakness in defense could undo this strategy, as Bosnia-Herzegovina outshot Argentina 16 to 12 in the match, as per The New York Times. However, the boost to the attack should be enough to overcome the deficient defense.
Messi’s goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina likely brought a sigh of relief from Argentina’s fans across the globe. Argentina is one of the favorites to win the World Cup, and it will need plenty of goals from Messi and the rest of the attacking front if it is to make a run at the final.
Argentina can continue to work out the kinks in its attack against Iran and Nigeria, its remaining group-stage opponents. Messi and company will be heavy favorites in those matches and should be able to create plenty of goalscoring opportunities as they prepare for the knockout stages.