Argentine fans looking for their side to rebound following a disappointing 1-1 draw against minnows Iceland faced a disturbing image before kickoff. As the camera panned down the line of Argentina players singing their national anthem, the frame paused on Lionel Messi. The Argentina talisman and captain wasn’t singing proudly; instead he held his head in his hands and looked in serious discomfort, like he was suffering from a headache or a migraine and wanted to be anywhere else other than a soccer field. The optics for Argentina would only get worse. Jorge Sampaoli’s decision to play three at the back and push Messi further up the field backfired in spectacular fashion as his side were picked apart by a balanced and clinical Croatia team. Both sides missed early opportunities when Enzo Perez missed a wide open net and Mario Mandzukic couldn’t get an open header on target; however Croatia’s midfield took over the match in the second half and capitalized off an all-time error by goalkeeper Willy Caballero to take the lead. This humiliating loss sends Croatia into the knockout rounds and leaves Argentina needing a victory against Nigeria in their next fixture to progress. Even that result may not be enough to keep Messi and friends in the competition.
Croatia Complete the Puzzle
In their opening match against Nigeria, it was clear that Croatia have extremely talented individuals but had significant difficulty putting all of their talents together. They created some chances, but their style was stop and start and not easy on the eye. Today they put everything together and then some. Head coach Zlatko Dalic’s decision to play three in midfield and start Marcelo Brozovic, who came off the bench against Nigeria, worked wonders as Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric were able to pull Argentina’s wing backs out of position with incredible precision, passing, and ball movement. When presented with a clear goal scoring opportunity, Ante Rebic capitalized off of Willy Caballero’s shanked lob pass with a clinical volley into the top corner. One-nil up, Modric and Rakitic looked supremely confident and took advantage of the gaps in Sampaoli’s system. Real Madrid’s Modric took aim from distance and fired home from outside the box, while a clinical finish from close range for Ivan Rakitic wrapped up a historic victory for Croatia, who now look like a threat to anyone in the competition. Their physicality and organization in defense was also impressive, as Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida kept their calm against the likes of Aguero and Messi. They will need to be even more clinical in the knockout rounds and finish off chances like the early Mandzukic header, but their dominance today has made them a team to watch.
Sampaoli’s Tactics Doom Argentina
Jorge Sampaoli’s lack of tactical continuity beginning in World Cup Qualifying and carrying on through the group stage has been detrimental to his players. It took a Herculean hattrick from Messi in one of Argentina’s final CONMEBOL qualifiers against Ecuador to even make the World Cup, but rather than trying to solve the team’s problems Sampaoli has allowed them to fester. Like an alchemist who continues to try to turn scrap metal into gold, Sampaoli made a number of dumbfounding decisions in his 3-4-3. For one, playing a 3-4-3 with a flat four in midfield was incredibly dangerous against a Croatia team whose main strength lies in their midfield. Rakitic, Modric, and Brozovic easily outpassed and outmaneuvered the overmatched midfield two of Mascherano and Perez. Secondly, Sampaoli organized a number of players out of position for no apparent reason: he tasked left back Nico Tagliafico with playing centre back even though natural center backs Federico Fazio and Marcos Rojo were on the bench; he placed wide midfielders Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuña at wingback, where they quickly showed that they didn’t have the stamina or defensive prowess to fulfill the role. Perhaps his most egregious error was not employing the star talent he had at his disposal. Maximiliano Meza inexplicably got a start on the right wing over Angel Di Maria, Cristian Pavón, and Paolo Dybala and did nothing to justify his own inclusion. Meanwhile, he overlooked Ever Banega and Giovani Lo Celso in center midfield, both of whom would have provided greater pep and tempo over the trundling Enzo Perez. The net effect of these decisions was complete discomfort that Croatia seized on. Without control or organization, Sampaoli nullified his greatest asset, Messi, who looked isolated on the ball without the requisite movement or understanding from his teammates.
The Pressure Affected Messi
Before the game, Maradona waved a Messi jersey in the stands to signal his support for the under-pressure star. By game’s end, Maradona was openly crying. Rather than cradling the weight of the nation like a beloved child, Messi looked like Atlas being crushed by the weight of the world. Even with Maradona’s blessing, Messi can never live up to the standard of his homeland, and that psychological burden manifested itself in his play. Trying too hard and running in circles, Messi retained the same immaculate technique as ever, but everything felt forced. As much as the Argentinian eleven were out of tune with each other, Messi looked out of sync with himself. Where was that smiling boy leaping into Ronaldinho’s arms after his first La Liga goal? Crushed. And regardless of whether the amount of pressure Argentina heaps on Messi is justified, it will still be there in the game against Nigeria. The question becomes whether he will lead, or walk straight back into the tunnel like he did today after the Croatia game.