Lionel Messi's stoppage-time heroics saw Argentina narrowly beat a very impressive Iran side 1-0, claiming a place in the knockout round as a result. The albiceleste, less than impressive against Bosnia and Herzegovina in their first game, would have been looking to come straight out at Team Melli, who showed little against Nigeria on Monday. They did, but it very nearly went horribly wrong, and Iran didn't just play well enough to get a point out of the match -- they could easily have won it outright.
Argentina lineup (4-3-3): Sergio Romero; Marcos Rojo, Ezekiel Garay, Federico Fernandez, Pablo Zabaleta; Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago, Angel Di Maria; Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero.
Iran lineup (4-5-1): Alireza Haghighi; Mehrdad Pooladi, Amir Hossein Sadeghi, Jalal Hosseini, Pejman Montazeri; Jevad Nekounam, Andranik Teymourian, Ashkan Dejagah, Ehsan Hajsafi, Masoud Shojaei; Reza Ghoochannejhad.
After using a bizarre, ineffective 3-5-2 against Bosnia, Alejandro Sabella returned to the shape that had served him so well in qualifying. Hugo Campagnaro and Maxi Rodriguez were dropped for Gonzalo Higuain and Fernando Gago -- the halftime switch Argentina had used in the win against BiH -- and the albiceleste ran out in a narrow 4-3-3, with Sergio Aguero and Higuain flanking Messi.
Iran, meanwhile, fielded a metric bumload of defenders, because they are Iran, coached by Carlos Queiroz and were about to face Lionel Messi And His Awesome Friends. What was anyone expecting here?
Here's how this match was supposed to go: Iran try to defend, Argentina slowly pick them apart, Argentina win without breaking a sweat. Here's how the match actually went: Argentina try to attack, Iran defend well, rely on their goalkeeper to bail them out of any trouble, and laugh when they realise that the albiceleste basically have no plan to break them down. And then start counterattacking.
The first half was, charitably, boring. Argentina couldn't get going, while Iran refused to go at all, calmly holding the favourites at bay without expending any effort going forward. But in the second half, as Argentina started getting more and more desperate, Iran suddenly emerged as a real attacking force, forcing the ball through the middle and creating several great chances.
Sergio Romero had to make three key saves, while Ashkan Dejagah could easily have won a penalty after a challenge by Pablo Zabaleta. Meanwhile, Argentina were creating nothing and being outplayed through the centre of the pitch. By Iran! That Messi bailed them out with a moment of magic int he 91st minute doesn't take away that for much of the game, Team Melli were the better side.
How did this happen? There are two important factors, both related.
Argentina's attacking movement
... or lack thereof. Argentina are a team of stars. Even if they didn't have Lionel Messi at their disposal, they'd still have enough firepower to be pants-wettingly frightening. Gonzalo Higauin and Sergio Aguero will both lead the line for Champions League sides next season, while Angel di Maria was the best attacking player in Real Madrid's triumphant European Cup win last May. This is a team that can probably rely on individual brilliance to break the opposition down.
And that's exactly what they did. The attack was incoherent -- rather than using clever passes, which they didn't seem to have the ability to connect with, Argentina's forwards seemed content to blindly charge towards the Iranian defence, and although they were perfectly able to beat the first player they faced, they were always crowded off the ball before things got too dangerous.
Dribbling is a powerful tool for taking the opposition out of the game, but Argentina kept losing the ball on the run before they got into shooting positions. Iran's midfield recorded 15 tackles -- they were more than happy to lure the albiceleste stars into a thicket of bodies and dispossess them. Without having any clues as to Sabella's gameplan, Argentina's attack seemed to hint at a certain arrogance, that Iran would simply crumble when faced with such an awesome array of talent.
Instead they stayed compact (easy against a team with zero attacking width) and deep and held Argentina off for 90 minutes: Iran's discipline very nearly saw them snatch a draw. But another factor very nearly saw Team Melli win outright.
Javier Mascherano and the disaster in midfield
Argentina's positioning was very different in the second half. Angel di Maria, barely a central midfielder at the best of times, was pushed high and wide left. Gago, for reasons not entirely clear at the moment but probably having something to do with desperation, copied his manoeuvre on the right. This meant that Argentina's 4-3-3 had metamorphosed into a 4-1-5, leaving Javier Mascherano the only player in the centre of the pitch.
This would have been fine if Iran had been content to sit back, but after the break they became far more aggressive with the counterattack, surging into space whenever they won the ball. There was a twenty-minute period when Team Melli had complete control over central midfield, and but for better finishing (and perhaps friendlier refereeing), they would have scored at least once in that spell.
Much of the blame for this has to fall on Mascherano. As the most defensive midfielder in a very aggressive system, his role is to slow down counterattacks to allow the more advanced players to get back and support the rest of the team. But whenever Iran had the ball in the midfield, the Barcelona man tried to win the ball back.
This was catastrophic, because Mascherano's tackling wasn't great. He did manage to win the ball in that area several times, which speaks to how much work he had to do, but he was bypassed just as often as not, lured out to make a challenge and then avoided. When that happened, Argentina had no presence in the middle at all. Iran had all the time and space they needed to counter, with the albiceleste looking like a completely broken team.
Had Mascherano held back rather than rushing out, we would have seen far fewer dangerous situations from the Iranians -- instead he created a huge problem for his own team. If this is how Argentina react when the get frustrated, they're in enormous trouble against better (and more clinical) opposition. Perhaps this will serve as an important learning experience.
Iran, meanwhile, can hold their heads up high. They'd have known that frustrating Argentina for an extended period would have led to chances, and they came very close to seizing them.