Sabella's tactics need a rethink
RIO DE JANEIRO -- In a competition that thus far has been Space Mountain in terms of entertainment and skill level, the clash between Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- save for the delightful run and finish that put Lionel Messi back on the World Cup score sheet after eight years -- was more like one of those spinning teacup rides.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella's much talked about 5-3-2 experiment blew up right in his face for a number of reasons: wrong personnel, wrong execution and wrong opponent. That's right -- if tactics are about move and reaction, feint and deception, he was thoroughly out-thought by his counterpart, Safet Susic.
And to think that Argentina enjoyed the gift of an early goal -- and it was just that, a colossal slice of luck -- courtesy of Sead Kolasinac, who felt Marcos Rojo's header bounce off him and past Asmir Begovic after a flighted Messi free kick.
For a minute, you wondered if there was some kind of hex in the works, given that the previous meaningful act by a Bosnian in a World Cup came in 1990, when Faruk Hadzibegic -- playing for Yugoslavia -- missed the final penalty of a quarterfinal shootout against -- who else? -- Diego Maradona's Argentina.
Would this be another Balkan beatdown like the 6-0 Argentina inflicted on Serbia and Montenegro in 2006, the very game in which Messi scored his very first and, until Sunday, last World Cup goal?
Not quite, because Susic's side simply shrugged and executed their game plan. Sabella's 5-3-2 -- dreamed up for a number of reasons, including the fear of Bosnia's twin giants, Vedad Ibisevic and Edin Dzeko -- was rendered obsolete by the fact that Ibisevic was kept on the bench.
"It was all planned beforehand -- I told you I wouldn't play Ibisevic [who played alongside Dzeko in qualifying and, with eight goals, was prolific]," Susic said postmatch. "It would have been too risky against Argentina, given the number of attack-minded midfielders we have."
Indeed, that's what he'd said. Plus, that's what he'd done in pre-World Cup friendlies. Evidently, either Sabella didn't pay much attention or he thought it was some kind of giant misdirection from his opposite number.
As it happened, Dzeko is a large man, but he doesn't warrant a posse of three guys corralling him. The alignment had all sorts of knock-on effects in midfield, where Argentina were overrun centrally. Maxi Rodriguez and Angel Di Maria had to continually come inside to help Javier Mascherano, who had his hands full with Zvjezdan Misimovic and Miralem Pjanic, not to mention Senad Lulic cutting in from wide areas.
"The idea was to protect the defence while having two wings [Maxi and Di Maria] who could offer width," Sabella said afterward. "It didn't work."
That's an understatement. Wingers can offer width when they play wide. When they're sucked inside to help the lone genuine midfielder, they don't offer much width. And the issue was compounded by the fact that full-backs Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta were a lot less proactive than usual.
Up front, the idea was that Sergio Aguero and Messi, freed from defensive responsibility, could pierce the soft underbelly represented by defenders Emir Spahic and Ermin Bicakcic. But Messi, perhaps annoyed by the lack of service, dropped deeper and deeper in pursuit of the ball, while Aguero got lost among the big centre-backs. When Messi did see the ball, he also saw the hyperactive Muhamed Besic in his way.
"I thought of man-marking Messi [with Besic]," Susic said. "But frankly, you can't man-mark him for 90 minutes because you'll just have players get booked and sent off. So we simply decided that whoever was closest would come and contain him. We got enough guys there, and it worked."
He makes it seem so simple, doesn't he?
Of course, it helps when the opposition don't give Messi any targets or anyone to dialogue with, and he himself takes up positions too far away from the opposing goal.
Messi wasn't shy about expressing his displeasure afterward.
"As strikers, we like it better when we have more possibilities of attacking and scoring," he said. "When we don't do that, it's more difficult. We strikers struggle when we don't have support. I was alone, and it was very difficult in the first half."
Well, not exactly alone -- Aguero might be small, but he's not invisible -- but you get the point. Argentina needed another front man to draw defenders away and create space and another passer to deliver the ball.
Sabella delivered both at halftime -- Gonzalo Higuain up front and Fernando Gago in the middle of the park -- and ditched one of his redundant centre-backs (Hugo Campagnaro) and the ineffective Rodriguez.
With a more rational lineup, the game was won, though not before, early in the half in a startling moment of pointless risk-taking, a clearly out-of-sorts Rojo executed a clumsy "rabona" in his own box.
Still, Argentina were more incisive and less prone to panic. Messi warmed up with a trademark east-west run to set up Aguero, whose effort was well saved by Begovic. It was a dress rehearsal for the photo negative, which came in the 65th minute. Messi seized the ball on the center-right, cut left with Besic in hot pursuits, skipped past Bicakcic (while basically tricking him into upending Besic) and then unleashed a low left-footed strike reminiscent of Diego Maradona against Greece 20 years ago. He celebrated like a man who had waited eight years for this moment.
Susic looked to the heavens. Countermeasures? Apart from Ibisevic, he had none. That's what happens when you coach a small nation. You can get your tactics right at the start, but short of moving your men like chess pieces around the board, you know that if you call upon your reserves, there will be a considerable gap in quality.
Argentina had a few more chances and at least looked like the Albiceleste. However, just as things seemed to settle down, they engaged in another round of self-harm when Lulic brilliantly released Ibisevic, whose tame shot should have been saved by Sergio Romero. Instead, it somehow trickled under (through?) him and slowly, cruelly oozed over the goal line.
Romero is, supposedly, Argentina's weak spot. He hardly saw minutes this year as Monaco's reserve keeper, yet he had earlier pulled off a stunning save from a Lulic header. But this is a low-scoring sport, and that was what you call a howler. Of the kind that can cost you dearly. As a result, the finale was a lot nervier than it should have been for Argentina.
The takeaway for Sabella? There's plenty to work on. The three-man defence isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it becomes a wretched one when you're playing against just one striker, there's no Gago (or equivalent) to spread the ball in midfield and Messi decides to wander back and congest the middle.
This Argentina side is simply too talented, and even when they play poorly and with the wrong setup (as they did for most of this game), they can still beat most opponents. But just as he knows that, Sabella knows that once he's out of the group stage, he won't get away with stuff like this.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.