Lionel Messi missed a penalty as Iceland grabbed a deserved 1-1 draw against two-time World Cup winners Argentina.
Sergio Aguero’s opener was cancelled out by Alfred Finnbogason’s predatory finish before half-time as the smallest nation ever to qualify for the tournament made a stirring debut on football’s biggest stage.
And goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson joined Finnbogason in the country’s footballing folklore by thwarting Messi from the penalty spot in the second half to preserve a memorable point.
Here, we examine some of the key talking points from the Group-D clash.
ICE GRIP OF FUNDAMENTALS
Perusing the plethora of team guides in the pre-World Cup build-up there was one common piece of analysis on Iceland – limited.
But the contextual talk of population sizes and their enchanting thunder clap pulls a veil over what is a well-drilled, organised outfit which is capable of punishing and exploiting opponents.
Granted, they play defensively, boss Heimir Hallgrimsson employing a fixed 4-5-1 against Argentina and even switching to five at the back in the latter stages. But there is an art to defending well.
It’s not just about simply having numbers behind the ball and hoping for the best. Iceland are disciplined and they carried out a discernible plan which was to allow Messi possession when he was deep and then suffocate his options to release the ball.
Their bodyshape to limit the sight of goal whenever an Argentine player was within range was superb as, too, their dominance in the air from crosses into the box.
Defending is an acquired taste but when done well deserves appreciation.
If you contrast that to Argentina, Jorge Sampaoli deployed a wealth of attackers but there was no craft or guile from any player not named Messi.
It’s no use having the numbers, whether in attack or defence, if not carried out in the right manner. Essentially, one side defended immensely, the other attacked poorly.
Iceland’s aim is be the most disciplined and organised team at his tournament and to wed those qualities to well-worked counter-attacks and set-piece delivery. Few sides will want to face them in Russia.
MESSI’S MENTAL BLOCK
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to witness Messi missing from the spot.
From 103 penalties taken for both club and country, his latest denial was the 24th time he’s failed to dispatch a penalty. The question is, why?
It is only natural to compare the Argentine to his Portuguese rival Cristiano Ronaldo and when it comes to their ability to step up from 12 yards, the latter is far better, scoring 85 per cent of his 123 spot-kicks – an eight-per-cent rise on Messi.
And it serves to point to the mentality of the two stars. Talking purely in terms of ability, Messi is near supernatural and is arguably the most-talented footballer we’ve ever seen.
But there is a steely determination and focus to Ronaldo which is virtually unrivalled. Simply put, he doesn’t simply shoulder pressure, but he embraces and thrives on it.
For a cerebral player such as Messi, the same force is perhaps a block on his ability because it wasn’t that he played poorly against Iceland, he was the best player on the pitch after all, it’s that he just was not himself.
Messi cannoning a late free-kick against the Iceland wall was a symbolic illustration of his performance – he simply hit a barrier both mentally and physically.
ARGENTINA’S DEFENSIVE ISSUES
This clash provided a clear illumination of virtues like unity, cohesion and solidarity contrasted to vices such as division and detachment.
Iceland’s centre-back partnership consisted of a defender who finished 11th in the Russian Premier League with FC Rostov (Ragnar Sigurdsson) and a 35-year-old recently released by Aberdeen (Kari Arnason).
It hardly speaks to a world-class defensive heart on paper, yet they formed an elite pairing in comparison to the disconnected Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo.
The latter in particular was uncomfortable and looked shattered to pieces against the physicality of the Icemen.
The yawning schism between the two was alarming on occasion. Against more attack-minded sides, it will be exploited.
The same distinction can be drawn from the two goalkeepers. Willy Caballero really struggled and panicked when he failed to collect a sliced effort from Glyfi Sigurdsson which ended with Finnbogason’s historic finish.
His opposite number, Hannes Thor Halldorsson, however, seems molded from the same battered rock of his homeland as he weathered storm after storm, staying calm to produce two excellent saves – one from the spot, the other from substitute Cristian Pavon’s late strike.
Argentina’s World Cup opening fixture ended in disappointment as they could only manage a draw against debutants Iceland on Saturday.
Lionel Messi will no doubt dominate headlines following his missed penalty that could have given his side the lead.
Sergio Aguero opened the scoring in the 19th minute but his effort was cancelled out by Alfred Finnbogason within five minutes.
Here’s a look at the tactical battle between managers Jorge Sampaoli and Heimir Hallgrimsson.
Goals – 1
Shots – 25
Possession – 78%
Tackles – 13
Dribbles – 17
Goals – 1
Shots – 8
Possession – 22%
Tackles – 20
Dribbles – 8
Argentina set up in a 4-4-2 formation with Sergio Aguero partnering Messi up front. The Barcelona star was afforded a free role in the final third and tried to pull the strings in attack. Sampaoli’s side unsurprisingly dominated possession with Javier Mascherano in particular recycling possession well but they did lack creativity and penetration through the middle.
La Albiceleste have consistently struggled in their attempts to play out from the back though and saw that ploy backfire yet again as Iceland pounced on a familiar mistake.
There isn’t much to dissect when you analyse Iceland’s strategy under Hallgrimsson. Operating in a 5-4-1 formation, you more or less get what you expect from them. They sit deep, are well organised and defend for their lives.
However, sitting too deep up to a point that you’re forcing your keeper back onto his own line can be a concern and Iceland did well not to fall into that trap. That part is just as tricky as retaining a threat going forward as well which the underdogs did and with only 22 per cent of the ball as well.
TACTICAL TALKING POINTS
Sampaoli – Too much asked of Messi
Sampaoli may have afforded Messi the luxury of a free role, but it often looked more like a burden. Virtually every attack went through him and he regularly dropped far too deep to get on the ball. Even when he did manage to find space and drive into the final third, there was little to work with.
A number of one-twos on the edge of the area looked promising but Iceland were alert to that threat and coped with it well. Ever Banega’s introduction for Lucas Biglia did help speed things up for Argentina and it was the Sevilla midfielder who created the opportunity from which Messi earned the penalty he’ll now probably wish he hadn’t.
Hallrgimsson – Sigurdsson’s role
While Messi was overburdened by his central role in Argentina’s set-up, Gylfi Sigurdsson thrived. He dropped into the flat midfield four without the ball but was the first to break forward at every opportunity. He supported Alfred Finnbogason well and it was his drilled ball across the six-yard box that eventually saw the striker score.
Despite largely coming to life only in the final third, Sigurdsson had more touches (54) than any other Iceland player and threatened the goal as well with a couple of dangerous strikes.
Should’ve acted to force the issue earlier on. Argentina had a lot of meaningless possession for much of the encounter. While Angel Di Maria was below par, bringing on Cristian Pavon in his stead late on was questionable as it forced Argentina to play even narrower when Iceland needed to be stretched.
Rating – 5/10
His team was will-drilled and showed great discipline. Hours on the training ground and a singular focus came to the fore but it must be said that Argentina didn’t throw any curve balls their way.
Rating – 6/10
The South American supremos were ahead early on when Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero swiveled and rifled a rocket into the top corner, but the lead didn’t last long as Iceland’s Alfred Finnbogason achieved iconic status as the scorer of their maiden World Cup goal.
The mercurial Messi had the chance to give his side a 2-1 advantage but tamely struck a 64th minute penalty which goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson palmed away.
Here we rate the Iceland players:
Hannes Halldorsson – 9:
Middle name is Thor and he had a thunderous day between the Iceland sticks, palming away Messi’s tame spot-kick and getting a fine hand to Pavon’s teasing effort.
Birkir Saevarsson – 8:
The fact he plays in his homeland and was up against Angel Di Maria may have filled him with dread. Had a busy day but coped manfully.
Kari Arnason – 7:
It’s helpful for Iceland that their two centre-backs are beyond 30 and vastly experienced. He and colleague Sigurdsson leaned on one another.
Ragnar Sigurdsson – 8:
In the face of a dangerous attacking threat, Iceland needed composure at the back. Led his side like a warrior, typified by a brilliant sliding block to deny Banega.
Hordur Magnusson – 8:
Survived a first-half handball appeal but not a second, for a clumsy foul on Aguero. Was otherwise excellent. Forced the save from Caballero that led to the equaliser.
Johann Berg Gudmundsson – 6:
Gave his all for the cause and only left the field when injury forced him to do so just after the hour mark.
Aron Gunnarsson – 6:
Many may have worried about his stamina dealing with a dangerous Argentina attack, but stood up to the task well.
Emil Hallfredsson – 6:
A fearsome sight with the strking bald head. Kept his head in a focused and calm performance.
Birkir Bjarnason – 7:
Sports the flowing locks of a Norse god and flowed forward at every opportunity as well as being focused, linking well with Sigurdsson.
Gylfi Sigurdsson – 7:
The creative spark for a side lacking much of it. Worked well with Bjarnason as Iceland perhaps saw more of the Argentina half than they thought they would.
Alfred Finnbogason – 8:
Enjoyed the distinction of netting Iceland’s first goal at a World Cup, a moment he’ll not soon forget. Worked tirelessly.
Rurik Gislason – 6:
Replaced the injured Gudmundsson and slotted straight in as a cog in the industrious Iceland machine.
Ari Skulason – 6:
Replaced the tiring captain as the ranks were replenished.
Bjorn Sigurdsson N/A:
Late legs for a tiring Iceland that had worked so hard.