Soccer Down Here
Thoughts ahead of Argentina vs Croatia
by Jason Longshore
As you all know if you've ever listened to my content, I got hooked on this game because of Argentina and their World Cup win in 1986. It was the semifinal in that tournament that made me love this sport forever, and it was the performance of Diego Maradona in that match.
Whenever we talk about 1986 and Diego, generally the England game comes up. I didn't see it live, so maybe that's why it doesn't have the same power to me. It was this game against Belgium that I'll always remember. Two completely different goals, two that showed different sides to Maradona's abilities.
The passion of the Argentine team is also something that stuck with me. Maybe it's why I lose my mind sometimes talking about this sport, it's stuck with me. Maybe it's why cynicism frustrates me so much when talking about soccer in the US, the unbridled passion of the Argentine team and their supporters in the stands just felt right to me and has always remained with me.
So it's back to another semifinal tomorrow and Croatia is the opponent. Argentina is not as much of a one-man team as they were in 1986 (and that's still not even fair to incredible talents like Valdano, Burruchaga, Ruggeri, etc.), but Croatia is a more dangerous opponent than Belgium in that match. The Croatian midfield is immense, led by Luka Modric who is more than supported by Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic. I'm curious to see if Lionel Scaloni makes tweaks to the Argentine setup to deal with them. Ivan Perisic coming off the left wing is an attacking threat, probably the most dangerous for Croatia in the final third.
Croatia's defense, led by goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, is stingy and as we've seen throughout this tournament, they're more than comfortable taking this match into extra time and waiting on the opponent to make a mistake. And this Argentine team in 2022 has had their share of errors, sometimes losing their heads in matches, sometimes playing too quickly, other times too slowly. It's been a team that at times feels like it hasn't hit on all cylinders.
But back to another parallel to 1986, this team has a transcendent star in Lionel Messi. He's not in 2022 what Diego was in 1986, but his presence might be. For all of this misguided comments from some opposing managers in this competition, Messi is incredibly influential in this tournament.
Messi is second in the tournament in goal contributions behind Kylian Mbappe, 1st in chances created, 1st in passes into the penalty area, 1st in xG, and tied for 1st in shots. If positional gravity had a metric, he'd be leading that as well. Watch the reaction from teams when Messi is in the vicinity of the play. It affects everyone. He is maximizing what he is able to do at 35 years old and leading by example with his squad.
He has to get some help in this one because space will be at a premium centrally. Will Scaloni use him out wide to try to create some 1v1 opportunities and tilt the field? Will he be in a #10 role in a diamond or box midfield? Will he be a second forward in a 4-4-2 free to roam to find the game? All of these are possible and we might see multiple variants in the semifinal to maximize his impact.
Other keys for Argentina in my opinion are getting Enzo Fernandez further forward if possible. He has played the #6 role to great effect at the World Cup, but he is so dangerous in the final third. Can Leandro Paredes not lose his mind like he did against the Netherlands and sit in as a #6? Does Lisandro Martinez play that sort of role in this match? Interesting midfield questions for Scaloni ahead of this match.
The other question for me is how to use Lautaro Martinez. It's been a rough tournament for El Toro, who hasn't been at 100% and hasn't played all that well. But coming off his conversion in the penalty shootout, his confidence should be at a high. Julian Alvarez will obviously play a role, but could they play together up top? Alvarez has the movement off the ball to make it work, especially if you want to go 4-4-2 with a diamond/box midfield and Messi behind the forwards. Most likely is Lautaro and Alvarez splitting time as a #9, but it feels like a game where Martinez might have a big say.
Can't wait to see how all of it plays out! If you'd like to come out and join us for the match, the SDH crew will be watching at Elsewhere Brewing in Grant Park.