Argentina did just enough to defeat Belgium 1-0 in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals, but coach Alejandro Sabella will need to coax more consistent performances from his attackers if they are to achieve their ultimate goal of a World Cup title.
Lionel Messi hasn't just demolished the argument that he doesn't perform well for his country in this tournament; he's also literally dragged his team through to the semifinals with his creative performances and goalscoring exploits.
Argentina has scored eight goals in this tournament; Messi has been directly involved in five of them (four goals, one assist). One of those eight scores did come courtesy of a Bosnia and Herzegovina own goal as well.
Messi has often dropped deep into midfield to pick up the ball, pulling him away from the final third at times. It's not always the best area for him, yet he still manages to conjure up magical moments like this, via Squawka Football:
The Barcelona star isn't the issue. It's the players around him who have struggled at times to put together well-rounded performances.
ESPN Stats & Info pointed out Angel di Maria's constant involvement in the team's attack when he was substituted off the pitch in the 33rd minute:
Enzo Pérez on for di Maria, who led #ARG with 187 touches in attacking third and 25 shots, 2nd most among all players this WC (Benzema, 32).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 5, 2014
Twenty-five shots—but just one lone goal to show for it in the tournament.
Gonzalo Higuain, scoreless in his last six games for his country, hit the winner in the eighth minute against Belgium. Via ESPNFC:
There was little else for Argentina in this game. Of its 10 shots in the game, just two made it on target, as per WhoScored.com.
English football legend Gary Lineker noted he hadn't been involved too much up to this point in the tournament:
Wonderfully Instinctive finish from Higuain. Glad he's finally decided to take part in this World Cup.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) July 5, 2014
The Washington Post's Michael Caley believes the issue for Argentina lies in coach Alejandro Sabella's emphasis on wide play:
I think the key issue here is tactics. Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella has set up his attack to run down the flanks, despite the excellent inside creativity of Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi and of course, Lionel Messi. Why a team built around Messi would set up its attack to focus on crosses into the box, I have no idea.
If Di Maria isn't fit for the next match, this could force a change in Sabella's strategy. It should also be noted that Sergio Aguero has lacked his creative touch in the middle; he's yet to score in the tournament and was an unused substitute against Belgium.
There is a possibility the attack will continue to be just good enough for La Albiceleste. Argentina's defense has seemed to solidify with two straight shutouts in the knockout rounds.
Squawka Football noted how center back Martin Demichelis has been an absolute stud at the back:
Ezequiel Garay also came up huge in the Belgium match, with six interceptions and 11 clearances as per WhoScored.com.
Then again, the need to protect the back line might be part of the reason Argentina doesn't look quite so fluid going forward at times. Sabella has committed Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago and Lucas Biglia to protecting the defenders in the team's nominal 4-2-3-1 formation.
The number of clearances Garay had to make on his own also shows that opposing teams are still getting plenty of penetration despite the defensive midfield play.
Argentina has won all five of its tournament games by a single goal, leaving the defense very little margin for error. If Sabella can commit another midfielder to move farther up the pitch, Messi might be able to start attacks closer to the opposing team's penalty box and get more quality chances for his side.
If the attackers can show greater consistency maintaining possession and creating solid scoring chances, this could prove to be the best defense for Argentina going forward. Both Netherlands and Costa Rica have used the counterattack to great effect in this tournament and will no doubt make good use of their opportunities.
However, if Messi's individual brilliance is what it takes for Argentina to win this tournament, it's unlikely this nation of passionate football fans will mind.