How Argentina outsmarted Croatia’s magical midfield to reach the World Cup final

    (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

For the third time in as many knockout matches, Lionel Scaloni shook his system, changed his defensive approach and ensured Argentina had the means to win a match at the 2022 World Cup.

Given his relative inexperience as a decision-maker in coaching line-ups, the attacking talent available in the side and the immense pressure on him to bring overdue success to the country, Scaloni has shown admirable acumen and earned a very important buy-in.

It’s not even necessarily tactical genius on the part of the head coach, but rather an innate appreciation for which of his players can play the roles he wants against any opponent – and, clearly, the ability on the training field to convey that effectively.

From the 4-3-3 against Australia to the 3-5-2 against the Orange, here it was a four-man midfield that was chosen to thwart, frustrate and eventually pass Croatia’s dominant midfield. Argentina’s game plan was never to prevent the Modric-Brozovic-Kovacia axis from having the ball. Indeed, when the third and final goal went in, the Vatreni had enjoyed – contextually, completely wrong word – 62 per cent possession.

Instead, Scaloni’s selections and game plan were predicated on them having absolutely nothing to do with it. In that respect, perfection was almost achieved.

Replacing was Leandro Paredes, a starter when the World Cup started for Argentina but since removed, sitting next to the breakaway star who effectively took his place: Enzo Fernandez. On either side of them were Alexis Mac Allister and Rodrigo De Paul; not wide, but wider; not fixed, but mobile parts of a system designed to prevent a deluge of dark blue shirts from flowing into the striped blue and white.

Of the quartet, only Paredes really had a single position when Argentina had possession.

Mac Allister drifted from the left into a more advanced and often central role, the link between midfield and attack, with Enzo always happy to partner with him in turn. De Paul, in probably his best performance of the tournament, alternated between raiding the channel and shuttling the center to ensure that turnovers were not detrimental, that there was always an instant instance if a particular No. losses.

And then of course you have a Lionel Messi in the team.

If the patience and timing were right to pass numbers – and it often was – then the attack could be reasonably confident that it will take care of itself.

But first, the platform had to be set up defensively.

Here the four against three helped Argentina. It soon became clear that the overall plan was not particularly difficult in details, but certainly in terms of concentration and diligence. Whenever Croatia’s middle three took possession, an immediate shuttle run was required by one of Argentina’s four: make it a two-for-one every time. Cut the passing lane, force a back spin or sideways ball.

    (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The Croatian trio’s close proximity to each other meant that those passes were over relatively short distances, allowing Fernandez and De Paul in particular to keep up the close-range covering sprints, advancing one at a time to ensure they hit the target time. doubled at times. . It wasn’t outright aggressive pressure, not even an attempt to directly challenge the ball every time, but rather to control the space in which the game was played.

Paredes may have been rudimentary in possession, but tenacious in combat. De Paul’s energy and industry continued to play within the field, in areas Argentina felt comfortable with. And Mac Allister realized more and more that even in those defensive phases he could take up space between the lines, ready to turn the game around, send Brozovic off again… or make a quick pass as soon as it came his way .

The forwards also did their part: Messi who had no possession was in his usual walking mode, but narrowly, just stopping the easy ball. Julian Alvarez was much more non-stop motion, overly exuberant with occasional yet helpful.

Only Mateo Kovacic, several times in the first half, really proved capable of breaking through the Argentine midfield line: his ability to accept challenges, take two or three and carry the ball 20 yards or more at pace proved to be the only real way to the final. third for Croatia while the game was still tied. He’s had a really good World Cup overall; here was his best performance, but with the least reward.

    (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

For Argentina, their reward is a chance at immortality. A second final in eight years beckons, a second and perhaps last chance for Messi in particular to add something to his legacy.

Scaloni showed extra managerial knowledge to give minutes to some who had not yet played: Juan Foyth, Paulo Dybala, Angel Correa. It all comes back to the buy-in of those who started, those who have been in and out with systematic changes: rewarding effort, keeping players ready to contribute, trusting them to perform specific tasks.

The next one will be the biggest task of all, and so Scaloni’s decisions will become correspondingly more important – but based on the evidence so far in Qatar there is every reason to believe that there will be a final right decision to be party the best chance of success. . If you get it right defensively, the platform might be ready to end that attack after waiting 36 years.

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