All eyes and pressure were on Lionel Messi and his Argentina team during their second group stage match against Croatia. Unfortunately for the little magician, it was his Barcelona team mate Ivan Rakitić and club rival Luka Modrić who stole the show.
Up against a very talented, hard working and organized Croatian side, Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli was naïve enough to completely give up the midfield and put the emphasis on wing play which cost his team dearly. For a country (which historically speaking) has produced world class midfielders such as Juan Román Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Fernando Redondo and Juan Sebastián Verón (to name but a few), it was frustrating to watch the team pull away from tradition and completely give away the middle of the pitch.
The midfield duo of Rakitić and Modrić gave Argentina a footballing lesson in how to control, press and dominate the game from midfield as if the Albiceleste were a country with no footballing past.
Six Croatian shots against Argentina’s five
Coach Sampaoli went away from what made Argentina a great footballing nation; that is to say he neglected putting in a controlling midfielder or a creative midfielder. The likes of Éver Banega and Giovani Lo Celso, two players who are very comfortable on the ball were left on the bench for the entire 90 minutes.
The two Croatian midfielders alone combined for a total of six shots, two of which went in and one hit the woodwork. In comparison, Argentina’s entire five man midfield had amassed five shots. Three by Maxi Meza, one by Enzo Pérez and the other by Marcos Acuña.
One touch inside the penalty area for Lionel Messi
The initial set-up saw Lionel Messi up front in attack (alongside Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero) with the hope that the midfield could drive forward and provide service for the two strikers. It was anything but that. As shown in the map below, Messi had one touch inside the penalty area and even that was a failed dribble. Most of his touches on the ball came in the midfield area.
It was an embarrassing night for Messi. As someone who has watched his entire Argentina career, I’m hard pressed to think of a previous match of his where he looked as uninterested as he did against Croatia. Whether it was down to formation or frustration, in this case, the statistics do not lie.
Per Opta, Lionel Messi was the second Argentine player with the least amount of touches in the first half with 20 touches. The other was Sergio Agüero with seven touches.
Looking at Twelve’s scale, it’s no surprise that the top two players are Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić. You’d have to go all the way to the fifth spot to see an Argentine representative on the list and even that was left back Nicolás Tagliafico. Drop down to 13th spot and you’ll find Lionel Messi, which is way too low in the rankings for any Argentine fan’s liking.