After an opening match against Nigeria that was filled with high-points and low-points, Argentina have now undoubtedly confirmed their status as true competitors, despite a twenty minute lull in the early second half which nearly resulted in a South Korean equalizer.
Diego Maradona has been intensely criticized by many throughout the start of this World Cup, but who can deny that he is the only manager who has brought color to a desperately bleak World Cup? This Argentina side play like a team from another time, free and unconcerned with pragmatism and tactical rigidity.
Sadly, football has become a sport where talent has become subordinate to the cynicism of scheming football managers. We've forgotten that it used to be about more than just tactics, points and statistics; football is an art.
Now, I'm well aware of the fact that playing with such "freedom" and "innocence" is very likely to cost Argentina in future rounds, but at least it will have brought a breath of fresh air into a very dry and stale World Cup.
Against South Korea, Argentina did not manage to entirely erase some of the difficulties they've shown in the past, but they are finding ways to play to their strengths in overwhelming fashion.
So, it would seem that the pattern of play for this Argentine team has been firmly established—Argentina is far more comfortable whilst attacking. And the inevitable side-effect of this is that when the attack does eventually slow, things start to get a bit shaky in the middle and back. That's the price you pay for playing such shameless, attacking football.
I'm going to break this match down into three tactical segments:
1. The First Half
South Korea gave up the ball and the midfield, pulled back their lines, and allowed Argentina to play. Those are the circumstances Argentina has seemed most comfortable in. They were solid on all lines throughout the first half and were able to devote themselves to offensive duties.
Nigeria and South Korea both made the same fundamental tactical mistake against Argentina, of which other teams should take note: With only three midfielders, Argentina are quite weak in the middle and back. So, although it's risky, the only way to play Argentina is blow-for-blow. You have to keep the ball far from their strengths and play to their weaknesses.
Naturally, this defies the conventional approach, where a weaker side will bunker down defensively and hope to avoid being scored upon. But it doesn't seem to work with this Argentina; there's just too much fire-power, and sooner or later they break you down.
2. Second Half (pre-Aguero)
Inspired by a goal scored thanks to a foolish mistake by Demichelis, the South Koreans moved their lines forward and fought for ball possession. Argentina subsequently lost possession and their edge, and the South Koreans came dangerously close to equalizing.
3. Second Half (Aguero Substitution Onward)
This segment began after Aguero was brought on for Tévez. Aguero's fresh legs and his speed helped Argentina take advantage of the open spaces provided by the South Koreans, who had moved their lines forward in search of an equalizer.
This presents a dilemma for Argentina's rivals: Is it worth it to risk moving your lines forward to control midfield, or does that just make you vulnerable to sudden attacks by the speedy Argentine forwards?
Thumbs up vs. S.Korea:
a) Good modifications: Bringing on Maxi Rodríguez for Verón helped patch up the right side of midfield. Moving Tévez to the left side of attack was a good decision as well; "Carlitos" and Di María combined wonderfully throughout much of the first half.
b) Good substitutions: Bringing on Aguero for Tévez in the second half, when "Carlitos" was running out of steam, was an excellent, timely decision. And putting in Bolatti for Higuaín when Argentina needed help in the midfield, was also tactically sound.
c) Sticking with Higuaín while many were crying out for Milito was a decision that paid off. Many had overlooked the fact that Higuaín had played a good match against Nigeria; today he scored the goals he was lacking and put an end to those doubts.
d) Offensive power: Argentina is proving that they have the most lethal group of attackers in the world. By structuring his team around attack, Diego is essentially playing to his strengths and giving his forwards the freedom they need to display their talents to the full.
Thumbs down vs S.Korea
a) Trouble at midfield during the early second half: In essence, by putting Maxi Rodríguez on for Verón, Diego balanced things out and managed to cover his right flank. But when South Korea resolved to take control of midfield, it became quite evident that Argentina is short on players who can break up play and defend. Mascherano was too often left alone to cover large empty spaces.
However, when taken from a philosophical standpoint, you could say that Argentina merely prefers defending by attacking. And inevitably when you have so many players attacking, you're likely to feel the absence elsewhere on the pitch.
b) Defensive trouble during the early second half: When South Korea set out to tie the match and began to test the Argentine defense, it once again became evident that Jonás Gutiérrez is a weakness on the right flank. Likewise, Demichelis, who helps cover that right side, offers no guarantees. On the left side Heinze played an excellent first half, but when Di María's level of play began to drop in the second, Heinze moved further up-field, leaving a significant hole in the back.
c) Messi's position on the field: Although Messi did have an excellent match and played a fundamental role in the victory, he never quite seemed as comfortable so far back. And the expression on his face at the end of the match did reflect a certain amount of frustration. Granted, his sacrificial role was immensely beneficial for the team, but it seems unlikely that Messi will continue to play in a position that doesn't best suit him.
Which reopens a dilemma: If Messi needs Verón behind him in order to play freer and closer to the goal, how do you structure your midfield? Do you revert to 4-4-2, or do you revert to the formation you used against Nigeria? What about playing with three in the back? Is it feasible, or is it too much of a risk?
Argentina will most likely be fielding a "B" team against Greece next Tuesday in order to rest players, and there are still no indications as to what the formation might be in future rounds.
In my opinion Diego's playing it by ear and by instinct. So don't put your money down on anything just yet, we'll have to wait and see how things develop over the next few days.
Sergio Romero: Solid when tested. Had no responsibility in S.Korea's goal.
Gabriel Heinze: Solid in the first half, went up the field too often in the second.
Nicolás Burdisso: Filled in for Samuel perfectly and proved to be the strongest link in the Argentine defense.
Martin Demichelis: Made a foolish mistake which ended in S.Korea's goal. Too much confidence and too few guarantees.
Jonás Gutiérrez: A big presence going forward and participating in the attacks; a bit weak when called on to defend.
Angel Di María: Brilliant first half; disappeared in the second.
Javier Mascherano: Put in another outstanding performance.
Maxi Rodríguez: Wasn't brilliant, but was solid; got the job done.
Lionel Messi: Wasn't as outstanding as in the match against Nigeria, but was instrumental in each of the goals and in most the attacks.
Carlos Tévez: Played his best match ever for an Argentine National Team. He was unstoppable throughout the first half, in the second he lost his edge and was replaced by Aguero.
Gonzalo Higuaín: Man of the match. Mobile, skillful, and lethal.
Sergio Aguero: Burst onto the scene in the second half, combining well with Messi and using his speed to break up what was left of the S.Korean resistance.