Group leaders Argentina stole a point in a difficult encounter against Ecuador at the Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa.
Reinaldo Rueda made one change to the side that fell to Peru last week. Star striker Felipe Caicedo returned to the line up to form a strike partnership with Joao Rojas. Rueda’s side played in a 4-4-2 with Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero on the flanks, while Segundo Castillo and Cristian Fernando Noboa formed a midfield two.
Alejandro Sabella was forced to play without his two main goalscoring threats – Lionel Messi wasn’t fit to play the full 90 and Gonzalo Higuain was serving a suspension, as was Pablo Zabaleta. Rodrigo Palacio started up front with Sergio Aguero, and Ever Banega returned to the starting lineup to form a midfield three with Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano. Gino Peruzzi and Jose Basanta were also included in Sabella’s line up as Argentina lined up in a 5-3-2.
This match failed to live up to its expectations – Ecuador started slow, but eventually grew into the match, yet their quality in the final third prevented them from claiming all three points.
Sabella’s team selection was interesting, yet nothing out of the ordinary. He chose to play with wingbacks based on the threat of Ecuador’s direct wingers, and three centrebacks to not only give Argentina a spare defender, but also double up on Caicedo.
Rueda’s men were lined up in two banks of four when they didn’t have the ball, and Rojas occasionally dropped deep, leaving them in a 4-5-1. Argentina struggled to retain possession, and Rojas getting close to Mascherano throughout the game was key. Sabella’s men repeatedly conceded possession all over the field, allowing Ecuador to have more of the ball and penetrate in wide areas.
It was a surprise to see Argentina take the lead in the opening three minutes, considering Ecuador had only conceded two goals at home in qualifying prior to this match. Aguero scored from the spot – but the main issue was the manner in which the penalty was conceded. Ecuador’s defensive shape was rarely tested prior to Messi’s introduction, yet it was exposed in the opening minutes.
The gap between the midfield and the back four was spacious, and Di Maria was able to receive the ball unmarked and run at defenders. Also, Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez, should have held onto the ball, opposed to leaking a huge rebound for Palacio to pounce on.
Lastly, Palacio ran into the box freely, and Rueda’s back four looked vulnerable when Argentina played direct balls to their strikers. Aguero and Palacio received opportunities from nothing, but were unable to find the back of the net.
Sabella assembled his side to nullify Ecuador’s strengths in wide positions, but his plan failed – luckily for the Argentinian coach, Rueda’s men struggled to create legitimate chances in front of goal.
Montero and Valencia terrorized Rojo and Peruzzi throughout the game and were Ecuador’s danger men going forward. The Ecuadorian wingers thrived in 1v1 situations and played venomous balls into the six-yard box. Ecuador settled into the match once they started supplying service to their wide men – One of many Montero take-on’s led to Ecuador’s equalizing goal. Montero won the free-kick, that Ayovi delivered to Castillo – once again Argentina’s defensive inadequacies were exposed. Montero and Valencia kept Rojo and Peruzzi from surging forward when Argentina had the ball, which explains why Sabella’s side had limited options going forward.
Walter Ayovi and Juan Carlos Paredes also contributed to Ecuador’s width because Argentina played with no significant wide men – meaning there was no Argentine player tracking their runs. Di Maria and Banega were forced to drift out wide to help prevent overloads – but they struggled to help their wingbacks, who were struggling with Ecuador’s pace and strength in wide areas. Also, Ayovi was able to play cross field passes to Valencia, which stretched the play, due to his freedom in wide areas.
Sabella reacted to Ecuador’s dominance in wide areas by instructing Palacio to drop into the midfield to form a 5-4-1 without the ball. It eased pressure off the Argentine defence, as they found themselves dropping deep into their final third. Ecuador’s threat out wide declined, and they suddenly became quite predictable. Rueda’s men had no other source of attack – this allowed Federico Fernandez and Ezequiel Garay to cope with Caicedo’s aerial threat.
Ecuador created a few half chances throughout the match, but their high dependence on balls from wide areas left their attack predictable and was the main reason why they rarely tested Sergio Romero.
Argentina found it difficult to get forward in the opening half. Most of their chances were constructed from breaks on the counter and several audacious Di Maria shots from distance. The midfield had minimal passing options going forward – the wingbacks were pegged in their third, while the midfield couldn’t hold onto the ball, because Rojos dropped deep to create a 3v3 battle – that was significant because Argentina no longer had a spare man in midfield.
Aguero created havoc in the opening minutes of the match, when Sabella’s men had possession of the ball – the Manchester City forward made runs into the channels, got into good positions between the lines and he attempted to latch onto long balls behind the defence.
Sabella’s side didn’t have a link between midfield and attack – the forwards were isolated, especially when Palacio had to drop into the midfield to help prevent overloads. Aguero was more than 20 yards away from his midfield as they dropped deeper to cope with Ecuador’s pressure throughout the match – with Ecuador closing down Argentina’s midfield, Sabella’s men were unable to settle.
Messi replaced Aguero with 30 minutes to play, and the four-time Ballon D’Or made an immediate impact.
Messi was the link in midfield that Sabella’s side lacked, and he dropped into pockets of space between the lines and deep in midfield to receive the ball and dictate the tempo of the match.
His overall presence gave his teammates a lift and they began to pass the ball with a bit more confidence. Messi began to combine with his teammates and play incisive passes in the final third – Di Maria and Messi both had great chances to win the game, but they fired their shots wide of the post.
Once again we witnessed how pivotal Messi is to Sabella’s system – he exposed the space between the lines and found pockets of space in midfield to receive the ball, which helped Argentina create numerous chances.
Both sides will have to wait until September to secure a spot in next year’s World Cup – despite Ecuador’s superiority throughout the match, they failed to create enough clear-cut chances and always looked vulnerable at the back.
Despite their poor performance, Sabella will be content with a point that they arguably didn’t deserve. Argentina still have a few issues to sort out at the back, but with many key players unavailable, a point in Ecuador is a positive. Messi’s fitness is vital if Argentina intend on succeeding next year – however, it may be time for Sabella to focus on forming a balanced XI that can compete in case Messi is unavailable at some point next season.
Ecuador need a few points to secure qualification, but Rueda’s men face a daunting task as three of their final four games are on the road. Ecuador have only earned two of their 21 points on the road in qualifying and Rueda will need to make a few adjustments tactically as his job is certainly on the line. If Ecuador intend on reaching their third World Cup, they will need to find a plan B, adjust their shape off the ball and become ruthless in front of goal.