Argentina began their World Cup campaign in a rather unique atmosphere at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro Sunday evening with a 2-1 win against Bosnia. The partisan Argentine crowd was mixed with pockets of Bosnian supporters as well as the Brazilians eager for Argentina to fail at every possible opportunity.
Amidst the crescendo of noise, we saw the archetypal game of two halves with Alejandro Sabella’s tactical changes at half-time proving there is yet hope for importance of the dressing-room chalkboard.
Despite taking the lead inside three minutes of the first-half, Argentina were flat. Sabella’s side could create no attacking rhythm with Bosnia-Herzegovina looking the more likely side to score with Miralem Pjanic and Muhamed Bešić pulling the strings in midfield.
If Safet Sušić’s side had just been able to bring Edin Dzeko into play more, it would have been an even tougher period for the Argentine side.
The heavily discussed 5-3-2 system that Sabella employed at the beginning of the match was simply not working. Despite the system’s fluidity when changing into a 5-2-3 when in attack, the wing-backs were simply too far forward and wide to have any impact on the match.
The positioning of wing-backs Zabaleta and Rojo served to stretch the game and thus slow Argentina down when in possession of the ball. It was a rather bizarre situation to watch unfold as Sergio Romero would play a quick pass out to one of the three central defenders from a goal-kick only for all momentum to be lost with a long pass out wide to either of the two wing-backs.
This lack of forward momentum spread to the forward line with Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero all having absolutely no tempo to work with and the Bosnia-Herzegovina defensive policy of double man-marking made it incredibly difficult for the Argentine attackers to build a quick tempo from a standing start.
Another negative side-effect of the 5-3-2/5-2-3 formation was how isolated it made Messi.
Aguero had been positioned on the right hand side with Di Maria on the left whilst Messi was handed his preferred ‘roaming role’ through the middle. The problem came, however, when Messi did just that — roam.
Messi often found himself drifting out to the flanks in search of the ball or even deeper into midfield such was Argentina’s difficulty in playing at a quick tempo. With Aguero and di Maria’s commitment to their respective wide positions, there was often a gap through the middle where in a conventional system Messi would have been.
Now people will argue this is where Messi is most effective for FC Barcelona. The problem for Argentina was that it did not have a player like Andres Iniesta to make a forward run into the penalty area and fill the hole left by Messi.
At halftime — despite still being in the lead — Sabella was very proactive in his management and changed the course of the game with two substitutions and a tactical tweak.
Argentina were now set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with the two wing-backs tucking into the middle and playing rather more as less adventurous fullbacks. Hugo Campagnaro was withdrawn for Fernando Gago who was to partner Javier Mascherano in the double-pivot position, whilst the ineffective Maxi Rodriguez made way for Gonzalo Higuain.
In the 4-2-3-1 Argentina now had a focal point through the middle with Higuain and whilst he didn’t contribute too much to the match, his inclusion tipped the match in Argentina’s favour.
Messi was now free to roam and essentially had a player to play off in Higuain, plus there was no longer a gap through the middle and Messi could really dictate the match and kick-start moves at a higher tempo than in the first period. He fully deserved his goal midway through the second-half.
Changing to a 4-2-3-1 also had an impact on Argentina’s tempo overall. With the fullbacks now closer to the central defenders the game became more narrow. No longer did it take a crossfield pass — which took the entire sting out of an attack — to find Rojo and Zabaleta. As a result Argentina could play out from the back at a quick tempo and consistently put Bosnia’s midfield on the back foot.
This was a marked difference to the first 45 minutes when Bosnia’s midfielders were first to the ball and always pressing the Argentine ball carrier.
Argentina’s increased tempo in their build-up play allowed the ball to be played to Messi in behind the two Bosnian midfielders and he then had the space to run into which he didn’t have earlier in the match. His goal was a perfect example of this development.
With results often meaning money in modern football it is rare that you see a manager make such drastic changes at any stage. What made Sabella’s move even more novel was that his side were in a winning position at the time.
However the former Sheffield United man’s bravery in changing a system that clearly wasn’t working gave Argentina a comfortable 2-1 win in the end. It also gave the team a new system, one which brings out the very best of Messi — something Argentina has failed to do throughout his career — to move forward with for the rest of the tournament.
SEE MORE — Read the Argentina World Cup Preview.