Javier Mascherano may have retired, but the style remains. The Argentina great was a part of a near-miss at winning the World Cup in 2014, and he was a part of the team that went out in the Round of 16 to France in 2018.
While that team came about as close as anyone to eliminating the eventual champions, it must be said that Argentina were often difficult to watch. And while it’s probably irresponsible to place much blame on a then-34-year-old Mascherano, much of the style that came to define that team prodded through him as a holding midfielder.
And if you watch the current rendition of the Argentina national team, Mascherano is absolved of responsibility because, through four matches of CONMEBOL qualifying, some of the limiting issues of 2018 remain.
Argentina won 2-0 over Peru Tuesday to stay unbeaten in qualifying, two points behind Brazil for the lead. From that perspective, Lionel Scaloni’s team is in a comfortable spot. It’s a team that may have the best player in the world, but as usual they lack the creativity to go along with Lionel Messi. The result is Argentina sit second, yet they’ve scored one more goal than bottom-of-the-table and winless Bolivia.
If you watched Argentina in any detail in 2018, you remember an often cringe-worthy build up at a pace that made some of us turn a hand into a spinning wheel while saying “get on with it.” If we compare them to other teams in the tournament, they were in some ways a less-equipped version of Spain:
2018 World Cup
Spain and Argentina had the most possession among teams to reach the knockout phase. Both started their sequences high up the pitch (higher than any team aside from Germany and that’s because Germany were constantly trailing and trying furiously to get out of their group). The problem is Argentina’s didn’t go anywhere.
Spain unsurprisingly had a tournament-high average sequence time of 15.5 seconds, while Argentina were sixth at 10.9. In terms of distance progressed up the pitch, Spain (17.6 metres) were third behind Germany and Brazil, while Argentina were 23rd (12.7) in line with Poland and Saudi Arabia. But Argentina also lost possession 149 times per match, which was fifth-worst per 90 and better than only Colombia, Egypt, Uruguay and Nigeria. Their direct speed was third slowest just behind Spain, so they were deliberate moving the ball up the pitch without a tendency for playing long.
So, to summarise: They had the ball a lot starting in favourable positions.
They hardly went anywhere with it.
And they lost it a lot.
Direct speed being what it is is fine – Messi’s certainly used to playing for teams that build out of the back and move thoughtfully forward – but if you’re going to play that way, you’ve got to have the players and creativity to do so. Meaning if you’re going to move the ball forward deliberately, you need to have longer sequences both in terms of time and distance in order to progress to dangerous locations on the pitch. They didn’t in the World Cup, and the result of that is poor chances. Argentina were 15th in percentage of shots coming from inside the box and 17th in on-target percentage, resulting in a 1.24 xG that ranked 14th.
Let’s now look at the first four matches of 2022 qualifying and compare Argentina to Brazil:
2022 World Cup Qualifying
Brazil and Argentina are unsurprisingly first and second in possession percentage. They’re first and second in sequence start distance advanced from their own goal. They have the two lowest direct speeds. Yet Argentina’s sequence duration and length aren’t where they need to be if they’re going to go forward the way they seem to insist. In qualifying, their sequence length is ahead of only Chile.
Argentina’s touches in their opponents’ box are comparatively terrible. They have nine open-play shots on target in four matches for a total xG of 5.44. That’s really bad considering they’ve played Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru. Their on-target percentage is 25.0, which is last among the 10 CONMEBOL sides. 53.8% of their shots are coming from inside the penalty area, which is seventh ahead of Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia. This is just not a sustainable model for winning against good teams in modern football.
It’s sad to see this because, while yes there are still two years until the tournament, they seem to be practicing bad habits and setting up for more disappointment in what figures to be Messi’s last tournament with his country. If they’re going to insist on having the ball, they’ve got to figure out a way to do something with it. Until then, they may be more effective without it.
Next up? Uruguay and Brazil in March. Without change, some of these deficiencies are about to turn into dropped points.
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