Argentina secured a spot in the 2014 World Cup with a convincing victory against Paraguay.
Alejandro Sabella aligned his side in a 4-3-3 with Lionel Messi, Rodrigo Palacio and Sergio Aguero leading the line. Fernando Gago, Angel Di Maria and Lucas Biglia formed a midfield trio, while Fabricio Coloccini formed a centre back partnership with Hugo Campagnaro.
Victor Genes opted to play in a risky 3-4-1-2 that saw Roque Santa Cruz and Jose Nunez form an attacking duo ahead of Jonathan Fabbro. Miguel Samudio and Victor Ayala played as wingbacks, while Cristian Riveros and Richard Ortiz were instructed to play deeper roles in midfield.
Argentina capitalized on Paraguay’s poor shape without the ball – blitzing the hosts on quick counter attacks – which gifted them a spot in next year’s World Cup, albeit producing a mediocre performance.
The general football fan often overlooks the importance of one’s defensive shape without the ball. Matches are usually blamed on a sole defensive error, or the vast gulf in class of the opposition. But as the modern game continues to evolve, the significance of a team’s shape without the ball becomes vital.
An interesting feat in this match was the naïve approach both sides maintained when they dropped into their shape. Sabella’s men often dropped deep, with the front three roaming higher up the pitch waiting to break on the counter – but despite it being successful, it was an odd decision for Sabella to make. Di Maria and Gago often drifted into wide areas to support the full backs, but it left the centre of the pitch vulnerable. Argentina’s attacking three were instructed to press the three centre backs when they tried to play from the back, but there was still loads of space to penetrate, and if this approach is replicated, a stronger side will do so.
Despite Argentina’s questionable shape, Sabella’s men possessed a competent threat on the counter attack . But Paraguay didn’t have the same luxury in their attack, which meant any attempt to replicate Argentina’s risky approach could open up gaps of space in their third. Paraguay failed to press the Argentinian’s when they were in possession, and they failed to keep a compact shape. The gaps between defence and midfield, along with midfield and attack were large, thus benefitting Sabella’s men on the attack – in particular Messi. Messi constantly dropped into midfield to pull defenders out of position, stamp his authority in central areas and provide Aguero and Palacio with service going forward.
In fairness, neither side looked phenomenal without the ball – the difference being Argentina’s shape had some sort of structure – but Paraguay looked disorganized an unbalanced when Argentina was in possession.
Paraguay’s front three
Although Paraguay’s shape was woeful, their front three did manage to trouble the Argentina backline. Each player was given distinct roles to play, and the balance in the attack was excellent. Santa Cruz drifted into wide areas to combine with the wingbacks, and he also made runs into the channels that offered Paraguay a substantial direct option.
Along with running the channels, Nunez operated around the edge of the box, but he preferred to stay near Coloccini and make runs off his shoulder. It was a compelling battle, and although Coloccini often got the better of the Paraguayan striker, Nunez did beat the Argentinian defender to Samudio’s cross to level the match, early in the first half. Of the three, Fabbro looked threatening in the final third. As the first half continued, the Paraguayan midfielder located pockets of space in midfield to drift into, played several incisive passes in the final third, and was determined to find gaps in the Argentinian defence to play penetrating balls.
Paraguay’s attack was lively in the first half – although they could’ve created more chances – but the midfield’s inability to take control of the match, limited the threat they’re capable of imposing.
Another interesting feat regarding Paraguay’s attack was the importance of Samudio. The Paraguayan wingback was eager to get into advanced positions, prior to the front three having an impact on the match. With Pablo Zabaleta also interested in pushing forward, along with his narrow positioning throughout the match, it was a logical for Samudio to attack the space.
Samudio provided assists for both goals, which highlighted his significance in Paraguay’s attack. Santa Cruz drifted wide and held up the ball, for the advancing wingback, who played in a lovely cross to Nunez for the first goal. Towards the end of the match, Samudio contributed to the second goal by attacking the space behind Zabaleta, to provide a cross for Santa Cruz to nod into the back of the net.
Samudio had a significant impact on the match, and could’ve given Argentina more problems down the left flank, but Paraguay’s inability to sustain possession led to their downfall.
Argentina exploit space
Sabella’s men failed to dictate the match in terms of possession – despite not being pressured, their midfield had trouble retaining possession, playing several misplaced passes. This was the main reason why Messi dropped so deep throughout the match, and when he did, Argentina always made positive moves forward. Their three attackers sat higher up the pitch and the gap between midfield was enormous, which explains why they heavily relied on quick breaks to threaten the Paraguayan back line.
But with Paraguay pushing numbers forward, this left Aguero, Palacio, Messi and Di Maria – who pushed forward swiftly – free to attack the Paraguayan centrebacks. Three of Argentina’s goals stemmed from Paraguay being stretched on the counter attack. Simple balls over the top led to the two penalty calls, whereas Messi combined well with Gago who played a delightful ball to the onrushing Di Maria, for Argentina’s third goal.
Argentina didn’t need to dictate possession – although Sabella and many supporters expected them too – because of Genes’ naïve tactical approach.
Argentina’s performance was far from spectacular, but the threat they posed on the counter attack merited a victory. Paraguay’s reluctance to keep a compact shape and attack cautiously led to their downfall, adding to another disappointing loss in their qualifying campaign.
Genes’ front three were efficient, but they rarely received service, despite having a fair share of possession. With Messi dropping into midfield, Paraguay relied on Samudio’s width – which created two goals – as it was their only source of creativity once Fabbro departed at half time.
Sabella’s approach shouldn’t be overlooked as they took advantage of Paraguay’s deficiencies, but their defensive approach was inexcusable – especially from a team of their calibre. Argentina will head into next year’s World Cup as potential favourites, but performances of this nature will diminish their hopes of rising to the occasion for the third time.