In what was arguably Argentina's first true test at this World Cup, the 3-1 victory over Mexico proved good enough for a spot at the quarterfinals but did little to settle many unresolved tactical and formational issues that have troubled Argentina throughout.
Despite the relatively lopsided score line, this was a fairly weak team performance for Argentina. Granted, there were moments of individual flair that proved sufficient, but Argentina was quite collectively dysfunctional.
The good news for them is that, despite playing perhaps their worst match in this World Cup, Argentina did manage to get a 3-1 victory. In a World Cup you have to be able to win matches, even when you don't manage to play them well.
But make no mistake of it—another performance like this one will not likely get Argentina any further than the quarterfinals.
It seems almost ironic to speak of this as a "tactical analysis," since Argentina has proven to be nothing but the complete absence of tactics. In fact, it's almost surprising to see a match played this way at a World Cup, with players running up and down the field wildly and showing little respect for order or tactical structure.
But the greatest irony is that Argentina forces its opponents to accompany them in this disorderly, chaotic, blow-for-blow kind of play.
Argentina's greatest strengths are in the attack, there's no doubting that. But in order to get into that attacking position, the ball has to cross the midfield, and this is where Argentina had most of its trouble yesterday; they left the midfield totally vacant.
With an offensive 4-3-3, this team is lopsided; it goes from attack to defense to attack, and it completely overlooks the midfield, which has become somewhat of a transitory space to be passed over as quickly as possible.
Once Argentina gets past two-thirds of the field, they can score almost at will. But if the opponent manages to grab hold of the ball and choke them at midfield, they have enormous difficulties building play, and the attack remains essentially disconnected and useless.
This has been Diego Maradona's gamble throughout the World Cup. Let's not forget that he came into this World Cup set to play a 4-4-2, but Carlos Tévez's excellent form forced him to reconsider. The result has been a lethal attacking force but a dysfunctional midfield.
The subbing on of Juan Verón in the second half yesterday was almost inevitable; Argentina desperately needed someone to "sit" on the ball in the midfield before things went crazy.
Mexico played a very intelligent match but were unfortunate enough to be on the wrong end of an officiating mistake, followed by a gross defensive error. Those were perhaps the two biggest determining factors in the match.
a) Carlos Tévez has historically underperformed in the Argentine national team, but this has certainly proven to be his World Cup. He's shown an enormous amount of personality, focus, and resolve. Today he also managed to score one of the more beautiful goals of this tournament.
b) Gonzalo Higuaín continues to prove why he is on the starting lineup over Diego Milito. He now sits atop this World Cup's scoring table.
a) All three midfielders (Maxi Rodríguez, Javier Mascherano, Angel Di María). Mascherano's performance may have been poor due to his fear of a second yellow card, which would leave him out of the quarterfinals. Di María, however, has played poorly all throughout this World Cup. Today he and Rodríguez were imprecise in their passing and did little to help Mascherano break up play in midfield.
b) Martín Demichelis continues to make decisive mistakes in each match. Today he was partially to blame for Javier Hernández's goal in the second half.
c) Argentina's defensive positioning throughout the second half stood too far back. The back line allowed itself to be literally pushed into its own box, which may have also been partially a result of the absence of defensive duties taking place at midfield.
d) Lionel Messi is running out of steam. Maradona keeps giving him a job he's not comfortable with. When Messi drops so far back into the midfield, he loses his edge. He's not finding a partner who can create play for him, and you can tell that his frustration is beginning to mount.
Unfortunately Messi has been the main casualty of Carlos Tévez's inclusion. As unlikely as this might seem given Tévez's excellent performances, one could argue that if Maradona were to swap Tévez for Javier Pastore, Messi would almost instantly reappear. Although it may sound simplistic, Lionel Messi needs a companion like Pastore if he is to truly "explode" at this World Cup.
Despite the victory, it may very well be time for Maradona to ask himself some serious questions. Is it time for a change of formation? The attacking 4-3-3 worked well during the first matches, but doesn't the next encounter call for a bit more equilibrium? Is it perhaps time for 4-4-2? Or would that be like changing horses in the middle of the stream?
If Maradona is going to stick with the three up front, how can he better structure the midfield? Verón may not be at his finest, but he is a great tactician and organizer on the pitch. Shouldn't he start? Why aren't talented young midfielders Mario Bolatti and Pastore being given more minutes?
Those are all good questions, and fortunately for Diego Maradona, he'll have a full six days to answer them—six days which could prove absolutely decisive for the future of Argentina in this World Cup.
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