MOSCOW – It’s happening again. Argentina, for just about as long as can be remembered, has spent major tournaments toiling away against deep-lying opposition, waiting always for Lionel Messi to produce a moment of genius to unpick the defense. At the last World Cup, Argentina won all three group games by a single goal, and had Messi not missed a second-half penalty it would have done the same here. As it was, though, Hannes Thor Halldorssonsaved Messi’s kick, and so Argentina began Russia 2018 with a 1-1 draw against a nation making its World Cup debut.
And so Messi, whose entire life seems to be mapped out in constant comparison with Cristiano Ronaldo, became once again the center of the story. Ronaldo the previous night had scored a penalty; Messi missed his. In the final minute, Ronaldo had whipped in a free kick to equalize for Portugal against Spain; Messi, presented with a similar set play, his third of the game, scuffed his shot into the wall. It might also be pointed out that when Iceland drew 1-1 with Portugal at Euro 2016, Ronaldo had 10 shots and did not score; here Messi had 11 and also did not score.
“To evaluate and characterize his work is difficult,” said Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli. “It was an uncomfortable match, because Iceland was playing very defensively, blocking all the possible spaces, but we did everything we could for Argentina to win. I know that Leo is very much committed to Argentina to move forward.
“Maybe we needed to be more creative in the first half. The key to the match in the first half was based on their left flank, and we were very slow on the ball. We should have used our numbers on the left side of the pitch. We should have used out greater offensive presence and taken advantage of Maxi [Meza]’s position in the second period. I think this offensive creativity can give Argentina opportunities to move on to the next stage.”
There were signs, though, particularly in the first half, that Sampaoli’s formation–more of a 4-4-1-1 than the much-vaunted 2-3-3-2–might give Argentina a fluency and reduce the notorious Messi-dependencia. With Angel Di Maria and Meza pushing on there were options ahead of Messi when he dropped deep, while the movement of Sergio Aguero meant it was less static than it could often be when Gonzalo Higuain was the front man. It was Aguero’s alertness, seizing on a mishit Marcos Rojo shot, pivoting and lashing a shot past Halldorsson, that brought the first goal.
Iceland sits deep and packs the center, and when there is no space it is very difficult for anybody to play.
“There’s a certain amount of frustration right now,” said Sampaoli. “We really came to win against a team that had a very strong defensive structure with a lot of people in the box, which prevented us from capitalizing on ball possession.”
The problems, rather, were at the other end of the pitch. Birkir Bjarnason had already sidefooted narrowly wide as a deflected cross scooted untended across the box, and the Alfred Finnbogason equalizer came after Argentina had three times failed to clear balls fired across the box.
The defense has been an issue since Sampaoli took over, his desire to play a hard-pressing game and a high line an awkward fit with Argentina’s cumbersome defenders. The theory of stationing Javier Mascherano a few yards in front of Rojo and Nicolas Otamendi may have given the center backs protection down the middle, but Argentina was horribly vulnerable wide, in part because of the attacking nature of Eduardo Salvio and Nicolas Tagliafico.
By the second half, Messi pushed further forward, presumably with the aim of getting him in more dangerous areas, but if anything, that made Argentina more predictable. There were too many attempts to pass the ball through the eye of not just one needle but several at the edge of the box, even after Ever Banega had come on for Lucas Biglia and the shape had become more like the 2-3-3-2 Sampaoli had promised.
By the end there was yet another shape, Higuain added alongside Aguero in a 4-4-2 diamond. But that couldn’t conjure a breakthrough either. Sampaoli spoke of “frustration,” but plenty of sides have found Iceland hard to break down in the past. It wasn’t a good performance, but neither was it particularly dreadful one–and the good news is Argentina won’t face many sides as diligent in packing men around the edge of the box as Iceland.
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