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FIFA World Cup 2022: A hard-fought battle between Argentina and Mexico – tactical analysis

Although it was only the second match of the group stage, Argentina faced Mexico in a decisive battle at the Lusail Iconic Stadium. With anything less than a win, Argentina would have entered the final matchday in the last place of the group. In Lionel Messi’s last dance at the FIFA World Cup, winning was the only option against Mexico.

This proved difficult from the first minute. Similar to what Saudi Arabia did in the first match, Mexico were not going to let Argentina enjoy the game. Tactically, the North American side were excellent at dictating the tempo without the ball and turning the game into absolute chaos. Emotionally, they took advantage of the pressure on their opponents and kept the tensions extremely high. The consequence was an ugly game, without multiple opportunities for either side.

 

Throughout the full 90 minutes, Argentina were unable to impose themselves and cause danger to Guillermo Ochoa’s goal. Without being able to effectively carry out their tactical style, their star Lionel Messi was unable to work his magic. Nonetheless, all it took was a lapse in concentration amongst the Mexican players and the PSG star finished a beautiful shot from outside of the box. With three minutes to go, Benfica’s Enzo Fernández finished another beautiful shot into Ochoa’s top corner to settle the game. Although it was far from pretty, Argentina have got their first win of the tournament.

While credit must be given to Mexico and their successful tactics to frustrate La Albiceleste, Lionel Scaloni’s men played far from their usual standard. Tactically, technically, and mentally. In this tactical analysis, we will examine how Mexico were able to frustrate Argentina for so long, and what was going wrong for La Albiceleste. Finally, this analysis will also look at how the decisive second half developed.

Lineups

After an extremely disappointing performance against Saudi Arabia, Lionel Scaloni decided to make some changes for this second match of the group stage. Against Saudi, Argentina looked far from their usual selves, especially tactically. The central overloads and socio-affective football in the middle of the park they were so admired for were no longer there. In an attempt to regain that, Scaloni introduced a few new faces to the starting XI.

Emiliano Martínez was still in goal, but the back four looked completely different. Gonzalo Montiel replaced Nahuel Molina on the right, Lisandro Martínez became Nicolás Otamendi’s new centre-back partner, and finally, Marcos Acuña came on for Nicolás Tagliafico on the left. In the midfield, Guido Rodríguez replaced Leandro Paredes and Alexis Mac Allister came on for Papu Gómez. For the rest, Atlético Madrid’s Rodrigo De Paul was still there, as well as Juventus’ Ángel Di María, Lionel Messi, and Lautaro Martínez.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

For Mexico, Gerardo Martino changed the system entirely. The North Americans played in a 4-3-3 against Poland, but for this match, Martino went for three at the back. With Ochoa in goal, the three centre-backs were Néstor Araujo, César Montes, and Héctor Moreno. Kevin Álvarez was the right wing-back while Jesús Gallardo played on the left. In the midfield, Héctor Herrera was flanked by Luis Chávez and Andrés Guardado. Up top, Hirving Lozano played alongside Alexis Vega.

Mexico’s aggressive mid-block

Mexico were looking to disrupt Argentina’s possession from its roots. Although their 5-3-2 suggested a more defensive approach, they were still looking to press high and intensively. This was carried out through their mid-to-high defensive block. Credit must be given to Martino and his players, as from the very beginning, El Tri was constantly disrupting and challenging Argentina’s possession-based game. La Albiceleste did have a lot of possession, but it was rarely ever productive.

The structure of this defensive block was fairly simple, and it can be illustrated in the image below. In a 5-3-2 shape, Mexico remained compact and coordinated in their collective movement. With such characteristics, their defensive system was often able to minimise the pitch and nullify Argentina’s numerical superiority.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

It was essential for their structure to remain compact, or else they could have been easily played through. With incredible intensity, however, this was far from an issue. Mexico were shifting from side to side as Argentina looked to build up. In the image below, for instance, we are able to see how they shift their entire defensive block over to match Argentina’s numbers on that section of the pitch. Scaloni’s men are able to cause extreme damage through numerical superiority, and Mexico’s main objective was to keep that from happening.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

Their midfield trio, more specifically the advanced duo, did an incredible job of jumping to the wide areas and marking Scaloni’s fullbacks. Playing without wingers, Mexico’s wide areas were naturally quite vulnerable in this first phase of possession. Consequently, their lateral movement was crucial to the success of their pressing. On the right, as seen below, Guardado was in charge of stepping up to Montiel.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

In addition to the midfield’s movement, the centre-forwards also played an important role in this stage out of possession. Rather than intensively pressing the centre-backs, the centre-forward duo would rather stay a bit deeper and more compact with the midfield. When the ball was played to either side, they were responsible for shifting over and staying compact with the midfield. In the instance below, Vega’s movement to support Guardado and Gallardo is key to stopping Argentina from progressing inside.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

With all of these movements, Mexico were constantly able to achieve superiority around the ball. By remaining compact and having players support each other, they always kept numbers around the ball and congested the playing area. As Argentina attempt to progress through the right, for example, Mexico have five players in the small section alone. This was a huge factor in stopping Argentina’s collective approach.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

In another example, now as Argentina build out of the back, a similar scenario can be seen. With the midfield supporting the centre-forward and the left wing-back, they create a 4v3 in that area and keep Argentina from advancing forward.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

El Tri were extremely happy in their strategy to frustrate La Albiceleste’s possession. For the majority of the first half, Argentina struggled to be productive with the ball and create any chances. The intensity was extremely high, and as a consequence, so were the nerves.

While they were extremely productive defensively, only keeping Argentina to 0.51 xG, Mexico did not offer anything in possession. Martino’s side only had three total shots, and with the ball, they rarely attempted anything. If anything, they seemed quite content with a draw.

Argentina’s issues

Mexico’s defensive system was a significant factor in the lack of productivity from Argentina in possession, but it did not help that Scaloni’s men were playing far from their usual standard. After an unrecognisable tactical performance against Saudi Arabia, Scaloni returned to his usual ways in this match. However, while the structure was there, they were unable to carry out their principles and ideas with effectiveness. There were numerous tactical shortcomings that made life easier for Mexico, in addition to the emotional effect the occasion seemed to have on a few players.

It is important to first understand how Argentina were structured in possession. Mac Allister was instructed to significantly drift inside and participate in the midfield. On the other side, Di María performed as more of a traditional winger, providing width and depth. While on paper Messi was a centre-forward alongside Lautaro, he often dropped deep into the midfield as well. As far as fullbacks, Acuña pushed up extremely high on the left while Montiel supported Di María on the right. This formed an asymmetric structure with central overloads. In other words, Scaloni’s tactics were back.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

The structure seemed to be the only positive thing though. Scaloni’s tactics depend on approximation and constant movement off the ball. Without it, this system becomes easily defendable and extremely one-dimensional. This was certainly the case tonight, as Mexico simply overloaded the ball and kept them from effectively combining. There was a significant lack of movement off the ball from Scaloni’s men, and effective passing lanes within Mexico’s organisation were rarely created. This resulted in predictable passing patterns and little space created.

Additionally, Argentina failed to explore the depth. Mexico kept a high defensive line for long periods of time, but Scaloni’s men rarely attacked the space left behind. This movement in behind often tends to lower the backline and create space to advance. It can also disorganise the defensive structure and create further space to be attacked. Obviously, if available, playing balls in behind is another effective solution. However, La Albiceleste failed to explore this path completely.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

As the first half went on, Argentina attempted a few alternatives, but none with success. The first was Guido Rodríguez dropping to become a third centre-back with the ball. This was an attempt to create numerical superiority over Mexico’s first line of pressure, but it did not prove much effective. They still struggled to progress forward, especially as there was now a 2v3 in the middle.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

Around the 20th minute, Di María began roaming much more freely throughout the pitch. This was a good attempt at disrupting Mexico’s organisation and creating overloads with the Juventus winger. Montiel began pushing higher and Argentina became more attacking. Once again, though, not much came from it.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

Decisive second half

As has been the trend throughout this World Cup, the game went into halftime still 0-0 with neither team having found much success. In the second half, Mexico’s defensive block naturally lowered, and Argentina began enjoying more possession in the opposition’s half. While there was more danger in their possession, being closer to the goal, there was still a lack of chance creation.

As El Tri reverted to a low block, their centre-forwards dropped to form a midfield five. This made it even more difficult for Argentina to create, and for long periods of time, they settled for passive lateral possession without much productivity.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

They also struggled to create through the central lanes, which is where their system naturally thrives. This was a mixture of Mexico overloading the area and not enough movement from the forwards. In the instance below, we can see how the three players stand in front of the backline as Messi looks for an option.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

The goal was a result of a lapse in concentration by Héctor Herrera outside the box. The Houston Dynamo player gave Messi far too much space, and after Di María played it inside, it was too late. The PSG star perfectly placed a long shot into Ochoa’s bottom corner and scored the opener.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

After the goal, Scaloni surprisingly used the rest of his subs and introduced a line of five at the back. Argentina then reverted to a 5-3-1-1, with Messi being relieved of defensive duties. Mexico did not pose any threat in this time period, and not long after, Enzo scored the second goal to settle the match. A special mention must be given to the 21-year-old midfielder as he introduced a sense of order and organisation into Argentina’s midfield after coming on. Being very press-resistant, he was able to retain possession much more effectively than Guido or Paredes have so far.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Argentina vs Mexico - tactical analysis tactics

Conclusion

Mexico frustrated Argentina in a hard-fought battle between the two nations. Although Argentina came away with the win, they were still unable to answer most of Mexico’s questions. Their xG of just 0.51 despite having 58% possession of the ball clearly represents that. Mexico, on the other hand, did not put up much of a fight offensively. With only three total shots, their xG of 0.09 was shockingly low.

It was far from pretty, but Argentina fought their way to a much-needed victory as they head into the last matchday of the group stage. Their fate is now in their hands, but they need to show much more improvement if they wish to go far in this World Cup.