Five Points: Argentina searches for identity, France relies on diversity
JUN 15, 2014 8:35p ET
Everything on Sunday felt like preamble for the moment when Lionel Messi stepped onto the field at the Maracana. Switzerland produced a stunning late goal to defeat Ecuador and France revealed flashes of its potential as it waved away Honduras, but the main event unfolded in Rio de Janeiro.
Messi did not disappoint. Neither did Bosnia-Herzegovina, for that matter. The marquee match in Group F provides a natural starting point for the latest edition of Five Points.
Argentina improves in second half by providing space for Messi
Alejandro Sabella sprang a modest surprise with his team selection for the date with Bosnia-Herzegovina by including Hugo Campagnaro and plumping for a 5-3-2 setup from the outset. The gamble didn’t work as Argentina submitted a strangely subdued first-half display. Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta did not venture forward enough to provide width. The midfield three bogged down amid the congestion through the center of the park. And Lionel Messi struggled to find the game within a system that forced him too high and funneled him into areas where Bosnia could reduce his time and space.
Messi benefited directly from Sabella’s decision to make two halftime changes – Fernando Gago and Gonzalo Higuaín replaced Campagnaro and Maxi Rodriguez – and switch to a 4-3-3 formation. The revamped team shape allotted Messi the freedom required to drop off the line to combine with players ahead of him and move into threatening areas without leaving Sergio Aguero isolated.
The benefits appeared on Messi’s magical winner. Messi peeled off toward the right side to collect and then whirred forward. A couple of quick passes and a scintillating horizontal run across the top of the penalty area provided the opening to curl home the winner. It constituted vintage Messi, the sort of play worthy of deciding this 2-1 victory.
Messi’s heroics highlighted the two paths ahead for Argentina: Sabella can reinforce his suspect defense by adding an extra center back and sacrifice some potency in the process or he can place Messi in the best possible position to thrive and suffer the defensive consequences. Based on this performance, it seems like the latter course of action makes the most sense for now.
France distributes its creative responsibility in Ribery’s absence
There are no direct replacements for a player like Franck Ribery. The Bayern Munich winger ranks among the best players in the world, a singular force capable of lifting France with his ingenuity and his rapier-sharp runs into the final third. Ribery will miss this tournament with a back injury, but France must soldier on without him.
France manager Didier Deschamps wisely spread out the burden created by Ribery’s absence ahead of the perfunctory 3-0 victory over 10-man Honduras. Antoine Griezmann impressed as he took Ribery’s place in the side, but the supply toward Karim Benzema came from a variety of places. Mathieu Valbuena operated as the primary protagonist with his license to roam into intelligent areas with Yohan Cabaye and Paul Pogba in support centrally. Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra (four of France’s 11 chances resulted from his service, per Opta statistics) pushed forward into good areas to provide crosses, too.
Other teams will find a way to limit the effectiveness in some areas. The fullbacks, in particular, may need to moderate their ambitions against a stronger side like Switzerland. But the diversity of the approach play bodes well for an outfit in need of workable solutions in the absence of their talisman.
Goal line technology proves its worth
The introduction for the spiffy new innovation arrived when Benzema hit the far post in the buildup to the second goal. The ball skimmed along the line – and the system grasped the evident fact that it never crossed – and then hit Honduran goalkeeper Noel Valladares. It trickled just over the goal line before Valladares – desperately unfortunate on the deflection, particularly given his overall work on the day – rescued it.
Valladares’ touch presented the ideal opportunity – a quick play where the assistant referee may or may not have spotted the ball crossing the line – to test the new technology. It passed. The assistant referee glanced at his watch to check on the verdict and raced up his line. The Hondurans were puzzlingly furious at the decision, but the goal stood as it should have and the benefits were there for all to see in the aftermath.
Switzerland resumes normal service to shock Ecuador
Wide play always features prominently in the Swiss attack. Fullbacks Stefan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez join the attack frequently to provide crosses on the overlap. Xherdan Shaqiri delivers time after time from his nominal position on the right, though he also drifts inside to combine, too. It is how this Swiss side – a group without a top-class central conduit – threatens the opposition.
Lichtsteiner’s early forays on the right hinted at the potential profit for the Swiss out wide, but the resulting deliveries squandered any potential advantage. Switzerland completed just two of its 16 crosses in the first half, per Opta statistics, and wasted several promising opportunities with poor end product.
The improvement in the second half eventually made the difference in the game. Rodriguez curled his corner kick early in the second half into the perfect area for Admir Mehmedi to punish Ecuador’s poor marking for the equalizer. The Wolfsburg left back then completed a sweeping move for the winner – one sparked by Valon Behrami’s inch-perfect tackle on Michael Arroyo and rampaging run – with a final ball Haris Seferovic simply couldn’t miss. Seferovic’s decisive goal gave the Swiss a precious 2-1 victory and underscored the need to find the proper range on the flanks more quickly to avoid such dramatics in the future.
There are few certainties in Group G, but Germany and Portugal will likely feel their meeting in Salvador (12:00p.m. ET) could do more harm than good. A draw isn’t particularly crippling given the fixture list, but a defeat reduces the margin for error considerably with the United States and Ghana still to come. Both teams will have to contemplate how and whether the reality of the situation should influence their team selection and their aggressiveness in the affair.
Iran and Nigeria need to display more urgency in their Group F meeting (3:00p.m.). The encounter offers an intriguing contrast: Iran leans on its well-drilled team shape, while Nigeria relies on individual talent to compensate for a lack of cohesion in the ranks. This game could turn in several directions given the factors in play, though the presence of Emmanuel Emenike up front (if selected) could prove too much for Iran to handle. Both teams certainly grasp the need to obtain a result in the wake of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s impressive display against Argentina, though.