After another slow start in the major tournament, Argentina came into the final group game of the 2019 Copa America under an enormous amount of pressure. A loss against Colombia and a fortunate draw against Paraguay has left Lionel Scaloni’s team on the brink of elimination.
In contrast, La Abiceleste’s opponent Qatar arrived at Porto Alegre after two impressive displays against Paraguay and Colombia. The 2022 World Cup hosts were still in contention to qualify for the next round and pull one of the biggest upsets in world football by eliminating Lionel Messi’s side.
This was only the second meeting between the two sides. In 2005, Argentina proved to be the stronger of the two by beating Qatar 3-0 in a friendly.
With Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero back in the starting eleven and firing, the 14 times Copa America champions displayed the best performance of the tournament so far and secured their place in the last eight. This tactical analysis will give you an insight into Argentina’s 2-0 victory.
As it has been the case so far in the tournament, Argentina’s boss Lionel Scaloni made a bunch of changes with regards to the starting line-up for this crucial game. He chose a 4-3-3 formation instead of 4-4-2 that was used in the first two games. Franco Armani remained in goal for the third game running, whereas German Pezzella was dropped for Tottenham’s Juan Foyth who partnered Nicolas Otamendi at the heart of the defence.
Renzo Saravia started at right-back in place of Milton Casco while Nicolas Tagliafico kept his place at left-back. A midfield trio consisted of Rodrigo de Paul, Real Betis’ Giovani Lo Celso and Leandro Paredes who acted as a single pivot. The front three of Lautaro Martinez, Lionel Messi and a returning Sergio Agüero possessed Argentina’s biggest goal threat.
On the contrary, Qatar’s head coach Felix Sanchez stayed to his principles after a loss against Colombia and fielded a 3-5-2 formation. Saad Al Sheeb started between the sticks and was protected by Bassam Alrawi, Boualem Khoukhi and Salem Al Hajri who formed a back three. Wing-backs Pedro Miguel and Tarek Salman were the only wide players in Qatar’s side. Abdelaziz Hatem, Karim Boudiaf and team’s captain Hasan Al Haydos comprised a midfield unit. Akram Afif and Almoez Ali were the two strikers up front.
Qatar’s defensive shape
Argentina had Agüero and Martinez as their true number 9’s, thus, Qatar responded correspondingly by setting up in a 5-3-2 shape without the ball. It meant that by fielding three central defenders, Felix Sanchez’s side created a 3 v 2 numerical superiority at the heart of the defence. The midfield trio stayed quite narrow to congest the middle of the park and force Argentina out wide. There Qatar’s wing-backs also positioned themselves fairly closely to the centre-backs to prevent the La Abiceleste even more from playing through the middle. Both strikers were set to pressurise Argentina’s centre-halves.
Argentina’s offensive set-up
In theory what looked 4-3-3 on the ball, in practice was more of a 2-1-4-3 tactical formation for Argentina. As it has been prominent in most teams that play with a midfield three, the single pivot, in this case Paredes, drops deep to form a triangle with both centre-backs. It facilitated the process of bringing the ball out from the back by having a 3 v 2 numerical advantage.
Both full-backs were positioned higher up the pitch and wide trying to stretch the opposition. De Paul and Lo Celso were the two number 8’s who had the job to supply Agüero and Fernandez with Messi often dropping deeper and acting as a deep-lying playmaker.
For the past years, Argentina have been notorious for their struggles to make the best use of their attacking talent. The midfield unit has been predominantly under the scrutiny lacking talent and quality. Consequently, all Argentina’s managers wanted Messi to drop deep and act as a deep-lying playmaker. Lionel Scaloni is no exception to this. Frequently in the first half, five-time Ballon d’Or winner dropped near the half-way line on the right side to collect the ball.
There four Argentinians repeatedly created a box-shape in a tight space inviting Qatari players to press. Qatar’s midfielders would shift across to congested that area and try to regain the ball. However, most La Abiceleste’s players are technically astute, therefore, they managed to play out from tight areas fairly comfortably.
Due to Qatar’s heavy ball orientation on the right side near the half-way line, Argentina’s left-back Tagliafico had acres of space to push forward. On occasions, one of Qatar’s centre-backs would step out into midfield, therefore, making a back four where both full-backs stayed tucked in. It meant Argentina had even more space to exploit on the left side.
Once again, the same situation on the right side near the half-way line involving the same four players. Messi is the main target for ball collection, thus, attracting Qatar’s midfielders to tightly congest that area. Tagliafico all alone on the left side with plenty of space to run into.
Here the body position of Qatar’s right-back Pedro Miguel signals how he is more concerned with Lo Celso who is carrying the ball than the Argentine left-back. We can see a gap between the right-back and the right-sided centre-half which could have been exploited with a well-executed pass.
At times, when Messi linked-up with his team-mates very close to the opposition box, Qatar had eight players around the penalty arc.
Firing start from the Argentines
As outlined above, Argentina immediately took the game by the scruff of the neck. For the first four minutes, Qatar struggled to get out of their own half and were punished. Argentina positioned themselves in a high block trying to apply a combination of zonal and man-to-man pressing. Both Tagliafico and Agüero were well positioned to press Qatar’s right-back if he had received the ball with the former already making the run.
On the other side, Martinez stayed in between the left-sided centre-half and the “Libero” who acted as a single pivot when playing out from the back. With Messi also pressurising Qatar’s “sweeper”, it left Hisham with only one option – to make a diagonal pass to Salman at left-back. This was a wise choice by the centre-back since Argentina’s right-back Saravia closely marked Qatar’s forward Afif. Sadly for Qatar, Hisham did not connect with the ball properly and played it into the feet of Martinez who coolly slotted it home.
After the goal, Lionel Scaloni’s side did not sit deep and continued to apply pressure on the opposition. This tactic proved to be extremely successful in the second half that forced Qatar to make a lot of mistakes in their own half.
Argentina’s offensive alterations
At times, when Qatar kept a higher defensive line and pushed higher up the pitch as a unit, Argentina switched to a 4-1-2-2-1 offensive shape. The White and Sky Blue wanted to keep hold of the ball for longer, having more players within closer proximity to each other that enabled to form little triangles. In this formation, Messi acted as a number 8, whereas De Paul moved further up to the right side.
Once Qatar retrieved to their own half and shaped in a low/mid-block, both Argentina’s full-backs pushed higher up the pitch with Messi positioned between the lines. Martinez and Agüero stayed tight to Qatar’s centre-backs waiting for the service from the midfield. When Messi dropped in between the lines, De Paul moved over to the right side occupying the space vacated by Barcelona’s forward.
Dinked balls over the top
In moments when Qatar sat a bit deeper in their own half, Argentina decided to play more direct. The 2022 World Cup hosts did not press the opposition until Argentina’s players reached their midfield line. Once the midfield line stepped out to press, one of Lo Celso, Messi or De Paul tried to find Agüero and Martinez with a dinked ball over the top. The decision not to play through the middle using short intricate passes might have been influenced by the fact that Argentina greatly lack good passers in their midfield area. This statement can be further backed up with the fact that Messi has to drop deep to collect the ball.
Nevertheless, Qatar are not the most defensively sound team, therefore, a more direct approach from the Argentines also seemed justifiable. Both Agüero and Martinez played on the shoulder of the defender a lot in this game.
Argentina’s defensive shape
Out of possession, Argentina lined-up in a 4-3-3 formation. The forward and the midfield units stayed compact and narrow which meant Qatar’s wing-backs could exploit the space out wide.
In the figure below we can see how tightly positioned was Argentina’s midfield trio. In a case of regained ball possession, Argentina would have been able to counter in numbers with both Qatar’s wing-backs being left high up the pitch.
In possession, Qatar tried to play out from the back in a similar fashion to Argentina. The “Libero” would step out to act as a holding midfielder and support the other two centre-halves who split wide.
Qatar running down the wing
As it has been mentioned already, the 2018 Asian Cup winners played with two strikers up top. One of them tended to stay close to one of the full-backs, thus, dragging the full-back with himself. Consequently, one of Qatar’s wing-backs was often able to exploit the space on the wing.
Qatar’s striker (highlighted in red above) created an opportunity for his team-mate at right wing-back (highlighted in red below) to exploit the right flank by dragging out Argentina’s left-back.
Aggressive Argentina kill off Qatar
In the second half, Argentina truly showed that they are not ready to go home just yet. From the 55th to the 80th minute, the 14 times Copa América champions completely dominated the game. The catalyst for success was their active press resulting in swift attacking transitions. With all three team units positioned higher up the pitch, Argentina intimidated the 2018 Asian Cup champions who started to play long. This allowed Argentina to win the ball back around the half-way line and then quickly counter-attack. After 60 minutes Qatar began to lose their shape without the ball that opened up the gaps to be exploited.
Funnily enough, the second goal came when Qatar refused to play long. Argentina pulled them into the pressing trap that Qatar could not escape. It resulted in lost ball possession and Qatar players being out of shape.
One important thing to note is the difference in the players’ decision making speed. In the figure above, the Argentines were very rapid in congesting the space where the ball was. On the other hand, Qatar’s players were a lot slower to react that resulted in a poor pressing trap. Even though half of the goal should be dedicated to Agüero’s individual quality, the notion is that Qatar’s player’s slow reaction time and decision making contributed heavily to the conceding of the second goal.
Sergio Agüero’s magnificent goal in the 82nd minute secured Lionel Scaloni’s side a vital victory. Argentina’ positive display certainly gives hope to their supporters that a 26-year trophy drought might finally be over. However, Lionel Messi and co will have to raise their game even more with the potential clash against an old enemy Brazil waiting in the semi-final.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the May issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.