Copa America Final 2021: How Argentina used Messi as a decoy to fool Brazil – tactical analysis
The Copa America finally came to an end as Argentina lifted the trophy after beating Brazil by Ángel Di María’s only goal. It might not be the most entertaining game as there were not many for Ederson and Emiliano Martínez to do, the match only had six shots on target in total. However, the final was very intriguing from a tactical perspective as we saw a hardworking, relentless, smart Argentina. Lionel Scaloni might catch Tite a bit of surprise when he tweaked Lionel Messi’s positioning, so the 34-year-old did not get touches in every construction of attack.
Argentina came with a fresh squad as Scaloni decided to make some changes after beating Colombia in the semi-final. Nicolás Tagliafico, Nicolás Gonzalez, Germán Pezzella, Guido Rodríguez were all starting on the bench as Marcos Acuña, Leandro Paredes, Cristian Romero, and Di María came into the lineup.
Brazil had Gabriel Jesus returning from suspension, but Tite did not let him play. Everton continued to start as the right-winger as he solved the width issue against Peru, while Lucas Paquetá also started at the midfield after handling top-class performance in the knockout stages.
Messi as the decoy
As suggested in the title, Messi was a decoy for Argentina, which was a situation we have rarely seen in the past. In this game, he still made a huge impact to help the team, but Scaloni developed other ways to attack, while Messi mainly played on the wide right and away from the centre. As a result, Brazil could not find a way to balance the marking on Messi and pressing the opponents.
The key player in Argentina’s construction of the attacks must be Giovani Lo Celso. Although starting as a left-winger on paper, the Tottenham Hotspur player was a “false-winger” who could have the freedom to roam and help the teammates at the centre.
In the build-up, Argentina did not have big problems structurally as Brazil could not commit more than five players, they kept Casmeiro deep and a narrow back four to restrict spaces between the channels. Tite’s men mainly had Neymar cutting the central passing lane and wingers pressing the centre-backs in the high press, as shown in the above image.
Argentina was clever, with Lo Celso, they had an extra player to overload Brazil. In this case, he invited Paquetá to go wider and Paredes at the centre turned out to be the free player to receive the pass from Nicolás Otamendi. Then, Argentina could utilize spaces behind wingers after Everton was out of position, then, Acuña would be the free player to receive as Danilo was reluctant to join the press in the offensive third.
In the second phase, Lo Celso also took the free role that made Brazil difficult to defend. As the left-winger, he dropped deep to the midfield as an extra option for the team, Danilo would never be following him as Brazil’s priority was to keep a complete backline together. Meanwhile, Argentina had Acuña playing very high in this game and he could fix the position of the opposition right-winger. Tite’s right-winger should always man-mark the full-back so Casemiro would not be pulled out wide too often.
This image shows Brazil’s 4-4-2 defending was missing the right-winger (Paquetá) as he was brought away by Argentina left-back. While using the Paredes and Rodrigo de Paul to keep Casemiro and Fred at the centre, Argentina could capitalize on the low defensive intensity of Brazil strikers to give Lo Celso the ball. The Tottenham midfielder was staying at a position that no one could mark him as the team had a structure to create those spaces. With these positional concepts, Argentina’s first and second phase were quite solid.
At times the Argentines also transformed into a back three to generate a 3v2 superiority at the first line, they would exploit the strikers of the 4-4-2 defence of Brazil, using the wide centre-backs to bring the ball forward. Brazil gave themselves a lot of trouble in the defence as they did not let the full-backs coming out to press.
For example, Argentina dropped Paredes to form the back three in the above scenario, this was vital as he invited Richarlison to press him and bought some time for the left centre-back. In the meantime, Lo Celso also dropped deep to create a 2v2 at the midfield centrally, so Casmeiro and Fred would not jump out to press the defenders. Then, Paquetá would be suffering in a 1v2 as he was defending Acuña when Otamendi was coming up. Hence, the Lyon midfielder was late on Otamendi and failed to block his passing angle.
Very intriguingly, when Lo Celso was at the centre, Acuña was marked by Paquetá, Danilo was marking no one but merely staying tight with Marquinhos. This setup was the reason why Argentina formed overloads very easily in the first two phases.
And here comes Messi’s part, he played very wide on the right flank in this game, so the Brazil defence always oriented to that side and opened more spaces on Otamendi’s side. If Argentina constructed the attack through Messi, they were using his quality to link the team at tight spaces. But more often you see Argentina went to the left side as Lo Celso presented himself to help.
Argentina formed a back three in the above image, but not with Paredes this time. Instead, it was Gonzalo Montiel, who had to stay a bit deeper when Messi was in the wide zone. Even the structure was a bit different, some similar situations still appeared – Argentina had a 3v2 at the first line, Otamendi had more spaces then the other two cetnre-backs; de Paul and Paredes staying at the centre also means there were two midfielders to fix Casemiro and Fred’s positioning.
But Argentina were not constantly creating huge threats in front of the Brazil goal to test Ederson. This was because their final third structure was missing the quality width provider to help Acuña on the left. In this image, after Otamendi carried the ball forward and released Acuña, the attack could not continue as there was no winger running into spaces behind Danilo. When Lo Celso was at the centre, Argentina could gain better control but they missed a man at the front line.
Meanwhile, going on the left also means Messi and Di María were not receiving the ball until the final touches in the penalty box. If they attacked Messi’s side, everyone would be surrounding on that flank and spaces were limited to dribble, it was a bit difficult to play there as well.
But in general, Scaloni gave Messi a good role to help the team finding better spaces in the attack. As mentioned in the analysis, Messi’s presence on the right inevitably invited Brazil to orient themselves towards that flank, so spaces would be opened in the opposite direction and all they need was to use those areas.
That’s also the reason for having the right-back deep in the build-up. In the above scenario, Romero bypassed Richarlison and Brazil’s left-winger was missing in the press. Tite’s troops had Fred to cover but Montiel would be drawing him away from half-spaces, Renan Lodi could not jump out to press as Messi and Di María were occupying the back four. Then, you could see Lo Celso coming inside to receive and no one could mark him when the Brazilians were going to the flank.
Nevertheless, the goal of Argentina was not about the above setups. Instead, it was an occasion after a throw-in which Brazil could not defend. Some pointed the fingers at Neymar as he was too slow to press de Paul, allowing the new recruitment of Atletico Madrid to play the long pass, but this was not the only explanation.
Although Lodi looked poor when he failed to clear the ball with his awkward body positioning, it was still not the real reason. The solution was easy, if Lodi stepped up a little bit, Di María would be offside, but Lodi was caught in the process so it was more an individual error instead of poor defensive setups of Brazil. There were also a few situations in which Argentina hit Lodi’s side with diagonals and Di María’s run, this was a weakness of Brazil that did not expose by the others previously.
Brazil could not break the block
In this tournament, Brazil were extremely cautious in the construction of the attack as they wished to limit the transitions damage. Tite came with two or three regular plans and flexibly shifting between them throughout the competition, but none of them was the right solution to bring them a goal in the final.
In the second phase, Brazil continued to use a 2-3 formation with Danilo staying deeper. Also, they could have Fred moving to the left half-spaces, stretching the defensive shape horizontally and vertically. Meanwhile, the left-back: Lodi would be providing the width on the left as Richarlison usually stayed at the striker position in the attack. We had already seen the use of asymmetrical full-backs in the semi-final against Peru.
This image shows the positional structure of Brazil in the second phase, it was a 2-3 and Danilo was closer to the half-spaces, almost like a defensive midfielder. However, Argentina were also very clever in their 4-4-2 block, they did not let the defensive midfielders come out of position easily, so it was more like a 4-2-2-2 in this scenario. Then, Danilo could not reach the best attacking players such as Neymar between the lines, so he must play the ball down the flank to Everton (closed body), or find Casemiro (not good at ball-playing).
The Argentina defence was very disciplined in the final and they successfully nullified the initial numerical deficit at the midfield. Brazil might have three to four players playing at the centre to overload Argentina’s 4-4-2 midfield at the centre, but Tite’s men rarely used that superiority at the first half.
The above image demonstrates a good defending from Scaloni’s side. Although Brazil used Danilo to stretch the block, Lo Celso was focused on defending the half-spaces and did not give that vertical passing channel to the oppositions. When Brazil used Marquinhos as the wide centre-backs to create a 3v2 and bring the ball out, Paredes did not leave his position as he knew the priority was to protect half-spaces, so they kept Paquetá and Neymar under control.
Also, Lautaro Martínez was very hardworking as he came back to cover Casemiro, so the situation remained as a 3v3 at the central areas, Brazil could not advance the attack through a free player.
But even pulling the Argentina midfielders out of position, Brazil still struggled to connect Neymar and Paquetá at half-spaces. For example, Brazil had what they wanted in the above scenario: Danilo drawing the left-winger wider, a 3v2 overload at the first line to allow wide centre-backs to carry the ball forward, and Paredes stepping up to press.
However, even de Paul shifted to cover Paquetá, Marquinhos could not find Neymar at the opposite half-spaces, the passing angle was too narrow as L. Martínez was disciplined to move deeper. Therefore, the PSG skipper found himself out of the option to pass, and Brazil could not continue their attack.
A huge part of Argentina’s solid defence was de Paul, he mostly got Neymar in his pocket in this game with his exceptional defending sense. When Brazil dropped Fred at the deeper half-spaces, they wanted to drag the opposition midfielder out to create spaces for Neymar to play, but that almost never happened.
Here, de Paul faced Fred receiving at a deep position, but he did not recklessly come out to press him. Instead, he slightly adjusted his position to better shut down the half-spaces, keeping Neymar under his cover shadow, and allowing Messi to press Fred. Hence, Brazil could not attack in the way they wanted as Neymar was trapped between players.
Failing to maximize the half-spaces threat was an issue of Brazil’s attack in the first half. Again, we saw Lodi staying a bit deeper this time to drag the winger out of position in the screenshot above, while Fred and Casemiro also drew the midfielders out, Argentina were stretched vertically in that instant.
But Brazil could never find the free player at the opposite half-spaces (Paquetá), they gave every ball to Neymar and even in suboptimal conditions. For example, Neymar’s closed body hindered the turn and he could not keep the ball in that situation.
Argentina cleverly blocked the half-spaces, Neymar, and Paquetá. They let Brazil to attack the flanks as they knew not much damage could be done in those areas. Lodi and Everton were not receiving behind the full-backs enough (the yellow zone), and Brazil were lacking a striker who could convert the crosses into goals.
In this situation above, although Brazil could use four players to attack the penalty box, but these players were not good at arriving at the right moment, and Lodi was not the best crosser in the world too. Hence, Brazil did not create a lot of chances through these setups and the crosses in the first 45.
Changes did not bring a leveller
But things were different in the second half as we saw Tite and his coaching staff making changes. Brazil came with a very different positional structure and Argentina could not totally eradicate their threat as they did in the first half.
One of the changes was Lodi’s position. In the first half, he went high and wide to attack the left side but that was not effective enough. In the second half, he was deeper in the second phase and Brazil attacked differently. By position, Lodi at deep could attract Di María, so Argentina’s block was stretched horizontally and vertically in the second phase.
This happened in the above instance. Brazil could use the half-spaces more in the second half, finding Neymar in that area as the passing channel was always opened by Lodi when he pulled Di María away.
Sometimes Lodi also dropped to form a back three so Danilo could play wider to attack the flank on the right side. Brazil also used a 3v2 at the first line to overload the oppositions in the following image, allowing Marquinhos to bring the ball forward. It was another way to move the ball forward that they rarely used in the first half.
The idea of Brazil was to open all five vertical channels to attack in the second half. Brazil’s ruled out goal was also attributed to this new setup, when they played more direct into the half-spaces, Argentina could not defend the channels with four defenders only.
Here, Firmino had the ball and Brazil had a 5v4 in the final third. The Liverpool man was not pressured by the defenders as his teammates were also running forward to attack the channels.
And Brazil were more aggressive to play into the half-spaces too! Neymar, Roberto Firmino, and Paquetá could rotate the centre to create the dynamics at the centre, but two of them must be playing at the half-spaces to create a 3v2 overload with Casemiro at the centre.
Hence, Brazil could find the free player at half-spaces such as Firmino on the above occasions, he also pulled the centre-back out to create the gap for Neymar to run behind. However, Brazil were also lacking quality in the final third and they failed to capitalize on good conditions.
Congratulations to Argentina, and players such as Messi, Otamendi, Di María, and Sergio Agüero who experienced several disappointments at the national team. The team was flexible and the performance in this campaign has been steady, and they also solved the defensive issues which entangled the Argentines for a decade. Credits must also go to Scaloni and his coaching staff as they were brave to deploy surprising tactics – distributing the responsibility of Messi.
One game would not make Brazil a terrible team, they were not bad in the tournament in terms of defence. Even they lost the final, they still restricted the offensive threat of Argentina as much as possible. Their main issue throughout the competition was the offensive structure, Tite tried so many combinations but struggle to figure out the best one, it was dismay for the Brazilian as they could not win the game.