As Argentina aim to book their place in Sunday's World Cup final against Germany, Michael Cox suggests why losing Angel di Maria might not be the worst thing...
Argentina’s run to the World Cup semi-finals has been rather understated. Despite being drawn in a weak group, and playing relatively average opposition so far in the knockout stage, they’ve yet to put on a real show or even produce a vaguely convincing performance. In five games, Argentina have won by a single goal five times: 2-1, 1-0, 3-2, 1-0, 1-0. It’s not been the free-flowing, attacking team many were hoping for.
There have been many factors at play: injuries, formation problems, individuals not performing well and opponents playing extremely defensively. But the outcome is simple: Argentina have squeezed through every match without impressing, and it’s difficult to know whether they’re an average side riding their luck, or a ruthlessly efficient one getting the job done.
In the last two matches, Argentina have felt like a one-man team based entirely around the guile, skill and creativity of Lionel Messi, who has orchestrated play from a classic No.10 position. Opponents seem determined to stop him, presumably in the belief that if you stop Messi, you stop Argentina. With no Angel di Maria, and Sergio Aguero unlikely to start another match in this tournament, the creativity is all on Messi.
Behind him, however, there’s been another star performer in the Argentina ranks – a different Barcelona player. Javier Mascherano might not receive the plaudits of Messi, but there’s little doubt he’s Argentina’s second-most important player for tonight’s semi-final against the Netherlands. Messi is responsible for everything going forward, but it’s difficult to believe Argentina can progress without Mascherano excelling.
The funny thing about him is that he’s playing a completely different role at international level to his one at Barcelona. Since making his Camp Nou switch in 2011, he’s become a regular at centre-back, which has worked out very nicely – he might not be the tallest but his positional play is excellent, he reads the game well and his tackling is fierce.
For Argentina he’s reverted to his traditional position as the holding midfielder: the ‘No.5’ in Argentine terms. From there, he’s arguably been the best defensive midfielder in the competition, breaking up play with his steady, reliable but aggressive tackling, and distributing the ball smartly to more creative players. It’s been the classic holding midfielder display.
Mascherano’s performances throughout this competition can be used to summarise Argentina’s displays as a whole. In the nervous opening victory against Bosnia, for example, Mascherano kept the ball well but was forced to remain in extremely deep positions because Argentina were struggling to break into the final third. His tackles were often in the left-back zone, assisting Marcos Rojo.
Against Iran, Argentina were in control of the game, so Mascherano positioned himself higher up and won tackles inside the opposition half. His passes, too, were played from a more advanced position and were hit over a longer distance.
Against Nigeria, Mascherano had his first real test of the competition. He was pressed more in possession and gave the ball away more frequently – although he did play a wonderful ball out to Di Maria in the build-up to Messi’s opener. Surprisingly, he also had a rare attempt at goal.
But he had more defensive work to get through – more tackles, more interceptions.
His performances in the knockout stage are interesting. Against Switzerland, he was playing against a side happy to leave the Argentine full-backs unmarked, so Mascherano hit long, straight passes out towards them, encouraging Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta to attack. But this left Argentina vulnerable to quick counter-attacks down the flanks, so Mascherano often had to mop up in the full-back positions.
Against Belgium, meanwhile, Argentina took an early lead so were under pressure throughout the second half – so Mascherano made fewer passes than ever before, and made more clearances than tackles.
An interesting difference between Mascherano’s last two games is the recipients of his passes. Against Switzerland, Mascherano’s usual pass was looking for Di Maria to his left, but after the Real Madrid midfielder limped off in the victory over Belgium, he instead looked for Messi most regularly.
The absence of Di Maria, of course, is a huge loss. But if it means Mascherano, and Argentina, look to Messi more directly then it might not be a disaster.