Lionel Messi and Co go up against a tiny island playing in its first World Cup, but the mismatch is not as seismic it may seem to be.
Two-time winners Argentina had their struggles during qualification and Iceland, England’s conquerors at Euro 2016, rode the crest of a golden wave to earn their rightful place at the game’s greatest competition.
Here’s a tactical breakdown ahead of the Group D opener on Saturday:
MESSI MEETS MEZA
Sergio Aguero’s inclusion isn’t the only big news to be emanating out of Argentina. Maximiliano Meza, little-known outside of South America but a star for Independiente, will be keeping Juventus dynamo Paulo Dybala moping on the bench.
La Albiceleste are crying out for versatility, they’ve got about 10 No10s in Russia or in front of the sofa, and while Meza can and will nominally start there, his ability to play almost anywhere in midfield and attack is a huge boon for Sampaoli.
It means the 25-year-old will be comfortable flitting in and out of any position that a free-roaming Messi vacates. At 5ft11 he may not be built like a mountain, but he also has an aerial presence about him – important in one of the tiniest teams of the tournament.
ICELAND SET TO DELIVER
Iceland don’t play hoofball – far from it. But they maximise all aspects of the game, however ugly they may be, and that includes asserting dominance at set-pieces.
The average height of the Iceland squad is more than 6ft and they quite literally tower over everyone else in the competition.
With Gylfi Sigurdsson pinging in some laser-pointer set-pieces with skipper Aron Gunnarsson in tow, he of the massive throw-ins, a diminutive Argentina will be sorely tested.
Sampaoli is expected to combat this with a zonal defensive system, and it’s a good job they’ve had extra practice time as one shred of miscommunication could prove fatal.
DECONSTRUCTING SAMPAOLI’S 2-3-3-2
It’s a formation that Diego Maradona branded ‘ridiculous’. Unorthodox as it may seem, Diego, we’ll trust Sampaoli on this one.
With Nicolas Otamendi, Marcos Rojo and Federico Fazio the only realistic options in central defence, entrusting them to press high and aggressively would be tantamount to pressing self-destruct.
Instead the former Chile coach has come up with this new-fangled formation to explain how he wants Argentina to ‘control every level of the pitch’.
It’s essentially a 4-4-2 diamond. Those slow centre-backs the first level, then Javier Mascherano flanked by his wing-backs, Angel Di Maria, Maximiliano Meza and either Lucas Biglia or Giovanni Lo Celso controlling the next rung up before we get to Messi and Aguero. Messi, presumably, can appear on any level he well pleases.
Sampaoli, then, is desperate for players to have options in every sector of the pitch – as he plainly doesn’t trust them without the ball.
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