Lionel Scaloni – Argentina – Tactical Analysis – World Cup 2022

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Without a big job in management under his belt, many might have been skeptical of Lionel Scaloni’s ability to manage big-game players like Lionel Messi, Lautaro Martinez and Angel di Maria. But Scaloni has demonstrated an incredible ability to manage all the moving parts of this Argentina team throughout the 2022 World Cup – arguably as the most flexible and adaptable coach at the tournament. Here is our analysis of Lionel Scaloni’s team ahead of the 2022 World Cup Final.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2

Part of being adaptable and experimentational at the tournament, Argentina haven’t quite nailed down a singular formation. The 4-4-2 has suited them well in a few games, but in practice it turns out to be more 4-4-1-1, with Lionel Messi as more of that ‘Creative Ten’ operating in between the lines and dropping to pick up possession. The striker in the system does not necessarily play through the middle though, so a 4-4-2 feels like a natural fit for quantifying their average positioning as a unit.

My favourite of Scaloni’s innovations so far came in the semi-final triumph against Croatia, in which he started four central midfielders across his midfield four. The shape became quite narrow both in and out of possession as Mac Allister switched over to the left and Rodrigo de Paul slotted into the right-half-spaces. De Paul’s defensive presence brought so much grit and determination to the team, giving the overall feel of the side a better balance.

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The fullbacks could then operate at a fairly similar height to the two truer central midfielders in the unit in the form of the effervescent Enzo Fernández and Leandro Paredes. Fernández has earned immense credit for his role at the tournament and has been brilliant as a ‘6’, but the one player who has really stood out for me in the midfield has been Alexis Mac Allister. The Brighton man completely reinvented himself as a ‘6’ himself this season, but has been back to the basics as an up-and-down ‘8’ for Scaloni, dominating those left-half-spaces and operating as that key force to drive possession forward and arrive late into the box.

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The quality of Mac Allister, de Paul and Fernandez has meant that even standouts like Angel di Maria haven’t seen as many minutes this tournament. Going forward, Paulo Dybala and Lautaro Martinez have also needed to bide their team from the bench, as the dynamic running in behind of Julian Alvarez has made for the perfect partner for the on-the-ball remarkabilities of Messi.

At the back, Emi Martinez has continued his fine form once more, coming up with three clean sheets at the tournament. I would have loved to see more of Lisandro Martinez at the back for Scaloni’s team, but he’s gone instead for the brute-force pairing of Nicolás Otamendi and Cristian Romero – enough to strike fear in any opposition forward. Nahuel Molina and Marcos Acuna have been regulars at fullback, with Nicolás Tagliafico and Gonzalo Montiel also challenging for a place.

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Despite the dominance of Messi as the key figurehead within the side, the depth of Scaloni’s team is quite underrated, and it plays into how flexible he’s been with jhis system and style of play.

Argentina have operated not only in a 4-4-2 but in a 4-3-3 at the tournament, and even matched Netherlands stride for stride in a 3-5-2 for the Quarter Finals. Establishing consistency can often be key for building chemistry and player understanding, but adapting to the opposition can also bear fruit if the players have a clear comprehension of their individual roles, and all play collectively for the same cause. This is where Scaloni deserves immense credit at the tournament, ensuring his team never just become entirely centered around Lionel Messi.

ATTACKING PRINCIPLES

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Part of the adaptability in shape and formation also means that establishing clear-cut principles across the phases may be more difficult to find.

But in scanning for the consistencies, the shape out from the back often involves the two centre-backs and a single pivot dropping in to create something of a 2+1. The fullbacks usually remain relatively reserved in initial phases to then make that what we call the ‘bowl build-up’ of 4+1. It’s a common occurrence for you to then find the central midfielders also operating in close proximity to the defensive midfielder, and for Lionel Messi to drift toward the ball as the other striker pushes the defense back. The close proximity connections have remained consistent, even if variations in formation mean the initial shapes take on varying forms.

Against Mexico for example, Guido Rodriguez often dropped into the back-line in more of a 3+1, as Lisandro Martinez shifted to his left and showcased his excellent ability to carry the ball out from the back under pressure. This kind of shape nicely benefits Argentina’s desire to compact central areas, as the fullbacks can then push on and be the ones to maintain out-and-out width.

Heading into the final, we can expect Fernandez to play at the base of the midfield instead, and he will likely be key to breaking lines and dictating some level of possession against France’s stern mid-block. He’s just as likely to switch play, and drop the shoulder to evade an opposition ’10’, and massively important to the other forms of variety Scaloni’s team can inject out from the back.

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One particularly fun innovation that allows Messi more space to receive occurs where the right-fullback pushes high, and de Paul shifts wide to open the gate for Messi to have that space.

Speaking of Lionel Messi, it would be wrong to go any further without discussing the team captain’s overarching importance to the attack. His understanding of how and when to float into space, and where those spaces should be sought, has been immaculate at the tournament. His first touch and close-touch ball control have just been on another level, and he never takes the option you expect of him. Put him in a situation like a World Cup, where he remains so incredibly poised amidst the chaos of others who can’t bare to stay calm, and his game really just skyrockets to the highest of levels.

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5 goals and 3 assists in 6 matches is simply unreal, and many of those have come from moments of brilliance, rather than simplicity. This is part of taking the option you least expect, as the 35-year-old masterfully disguises his endeavours and shifts the ball from left to right with complete and utter ease.

Julian Alvarez has made for a nice partner to his meticulous dribbling, ensuring that Messi has a man to finish off the chances. But beyond the simplicity of that nice sounding sentence, Alvarez is a formidable ‘Channel Runner’, who offers something completely different to the creative power of Messi. He’s been an incredibly energetic force in the system, and like Messi, has remained cool under the pressure when it matters most. With his speed more than aerial strength, Emi Martinez has also attempted to use the City forward as a mechanism for releasing pressure on long thrusts into the attack.

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As the likes of Messi and Alvarez then attract the attention, it’s a common occurrence to see the likes of Mac Allister and Fernandez floating up unnoticed, and even having a pop at goal from distance. As the fullbacks maintain true width, the rest of the team will take up positions across the width of the eighteen, allowing Scaloni’s team to throw bodies forward into the attack.

They want to maximize the opportunity for a shot at goal at every waking moment, and know that Messi has the ability to find his way around even the toughest of crowds. It then becomes even more imperative that they counter-press effectively if they lose possession with all these numbers forward, ensuring they can limit opposition counter-attacks. Argentina have done that well throughout the tournament, and have rarely allowed the opposition a route into the match.

DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES

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Before getting into shapes and structure, it has to be said that Argentina have a team of battering rams willing to put their bodies in the way. Otamendi and Romero are not the flashiest of players, and that’s exactly the opposite of what Scaloni would ask of them anyway. What they offer is an undeniable presence at the back, never willing to step down from a tackle.

In helping those eccentric defenders remain composed, Argentina typically defend in the shape they start the match in, such as through a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. In either shape, you can expect the midfield to become incredibly narrow and compact, and a relatively rigid man to man approach against players who need extra attention. De Paul for example matched up for size against Mateo Kovacic in the semi-final, forcing the Chelsea man into probably his least impressive display of the tournament. Perhaps even more impressively, the Atletico man held double responsibilities on the day, as he was still required to shift wide the moment the ball travelled into the path of Croatia’s left-back, Borna Sosa.

To little fanfare, De Paul’s played an incredibly understated role at the tournament, and he’s shifted and shuttled excellently well in defensive phases to allow others to continue to strut their stuff in attack. Mac Allister for example is just a more dynamic and innovative player, and he’s massively benefited from the grit and determination of De Paul and Fernandez to sure up the defensive structures around him.

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At the front end of the pitch, Argentina will show glimpses of collective efforts to apply pressure, but the forwards usually don’t have much care for winning the ball high up the pitch. Messi in particular will prefer to conserve his energy for attacking phases, putting the onus on the midfield to hold strong. This is where Scaloni’s been brilliant in adopting that stern four-man unit. The compact shape of the midfield four might be enough in and of itself to either delay opposition attacks, or force them into riskier, longer passes.

If they want to amplify their pressure, one central midfielder may step up in more of a 4-1-3-2. The aim of this shape is then to limit central penetration, particularly into an opposition ‘6’, forcing the opposition closer to the touchline.

In addition to amplifying their pressure when the moment is right, Argentina are usually quite kick to counter-press, where they can immediately release the pace of Julian Alvarez upon regains. This quick counter-press is aided by the sheer numbers they throw forward into the attack, often ensuring that even their defensive midfielders hold a rest position higher up the pitch.

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All and all, Argentina haven’t always been brilliant from a defensive perspective, but they do have sound structures in place, and a team of combative warriors. The match against Croatia illustrated this to a tee, completely nullifying the Croatian midfield that has caused even the best teams complete chaos. They will need to continue to be on top of their game against France, with the margin for error now incredibly small.

Conclusion

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After a torrid time on Matchday 1 against Saudi Arabia, Argentina have rebounded excellently well to come back out on top, and make it all the way to the final against the odds. While Lionel Messi deserves tremendous praise for his work to end off this year, it’s not as though it has been a single-player effort. Messi is backed up by an underrated cast and crew supporting him, full of fun surprises with the likes of Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernandez and Julian Alvarez playing key roles at the tournament. Along the way, Scaloni’s adaptability toward experimentation and adjusting to the opposition have allowed Argentina to break down each opposition they play. Scaloni’s done a brilliant job managing all the moving pieces despite this being his first big job in management, and if everything goes according to plan on Sunday, could even be the man in charge of a World Cup winning team.


So there it is! Our analysis of Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina at the 2022 World Cup. Be sure to check out more of our Team AnalysesWorld Cup articles, and don’t forget to follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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