Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Jorge Sampaoli had lost his nerve. Before this World Cup, Argentina’s manager spoke extensively of the need to share Lionel Messi’s burden. A novel 2-3-3-2 system was mooted, in which Ever Banega would dictate from deep, freeing Messi to finish moves; rather than simply commence them.
But, when push came to shove, Sampaoli opted instead for the huevos of Lucas Biglia and Enzo Perez. Iceland and Croatia, therefore, had but one job: stop Messi. Not so Nigeria.
For the Super Eagles did have to contend with Sevilla’s cultured playmaker, as Sampaoli plumped for his third different system in as many games. The ex-Chile coach fielded a lopsided 4-3-3 — open, also, to interpretation as a lopsided 4-4-2 — with Banega situated to Javier Mascherano’s left. Finally, the former Barcelona ball-winner had guile by his side.
And, although Gernot Rohr’s 5-3-2 shape remained compact throughout, Banega nonetheless proved a first-half through-ball machine. Varying his position cleverly, to escape the clutches of Wilfried Ndidi, the 29-year-old completely ran the show. The Leicester City midfielder’s reluctance to press his man was somewhat understandable; minimising space between the lines, Messi’s heart’s desire, was Rohr’s clear priority.
Nigeria duly endured three Banega-instigated near misses in the opening 10 minutes, before Messi finished the midfielder’s lofted through-ball. Di Maria, always minded to run in behind Victor Moses, was usually Banega’s target-of-choice. One link-up earned Leon Balogun a well-deserved yellow-card for cynically tripping the PSG winger; Messi, dramatically, hit the post from the resultant free-kick.
Meanwhile, while Banega intelligently found space on the left, Messi performed the same feat in his customary inside-right pocket. Starting from a wide position, the Albiceleste talisman drifted into half-space to thread the first of two big Gonzalo Higuain chances. The striker, without an international goal in 11 games now, will be fortunate to retain his starting berth in the second round.
Nigeria, on the other hand, created no chances of note whatsoever. Oghenekaro Etebo’s ball-carrying did win them territory. But, with Messi and Di Maria curbing the wing-backs’ enthuasiasm, the Super Eagles were reliant on their strikers to win their one-on-one battles with Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo.
They didn’t: Otamendi prevented Ahmed Musa from turning, while Rojo beasted Kelechi Iheanacho in the air. Iheanacho also slipped — either mentally or literally — on more than one occasion, when misplaced passes from Javier Mascherano presented opportunities. No-one was surprised when the Leicester City striker was hooked in favour of Odion Ighalo at half-time. Neither he, nor Musa, offered his side anything before the break.
Through-passes, however, were Nigeria’s biggest first-half problem; by a country mile. The Super Eagles’ relatively high defensive-line, designed to ensure maximum compactness, didn’t help by offering space in-behind. But the big issue, again, was those gaps either side of the Africans’ central-midfield three; which Nigeria consistently failed to close down.
Rohr, however, did finally address that glaring deficiency after Nigeria’s early second-half equaliser. Following Moses’ spot-kick, the German instructed his strikeforce to help form a bank-of-five in front of their defence. Previously, throughout the first-half, Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho had simply dropped goal-side of Mascherano.
If passage to the next phase was to be secured, Sampaoli’s side would have to break down the lesser-spotted two banks of five. Cristian Pavon’s introduction, wide on the right, was the first move toward that end; Perez’s replacement coinciding with what looked like a reinstated 4-4-1-1. Messi was back at 10, the position in which he floundered against Iceland.
Mascherano’s penalty concession, and the three-defender mix-up that preceded it, was not an aberration. As time ticked down, Argentina began to ramp up the headlessness also seen in the latter stages of their defeat to Croatia. Both shape and composure again flew out the window, as the South Americans willingly threw open the door to Nigerian counterattacks. Musa repeated the left-channel torment he inflicted upon Iceland. But Ighalo twice fluffed the finish.
By the time of Ighalo’s second big miss, on 83, Sampaoli was two minutes into his latest crazy tactical gambit. Nicolas Tagliafico, left-back, was hooked in favour of striker Sergio Aguero. Argentina then appeared to be configured in a kamikaze 3-2-1-4 shape, with Messi playing behind (from left to right): Maxi Meza, Higuain, Aguero, and Pavon.
Both outside centre-backs, Rojo and Gabriel Mercado, basically played like wing-backs, too. Hence Ighalo’s second-chance: the striker skipping the weak challenge of Nicolas Otamendi, the one man left minding the house.
But it was that very gung-ho setup that earned Sampaoli his unlikely redemption. Mercado crossed, and Rojo arrived in the box ahead of Moses to finish. Aguero’s clever run dragged Balogun away, creating space for his fellow Manchester habitant. Another nail in the coffin of Higuain, who spurned a Meza cutback just moments earlier.
Football is full of contradictions: the same shapeless overload that turned 0-1 into 0-3 against Croatia saved Sampaoli’s bacon here. But don’t be fooled by the seemingly redemptive result: when you throw enough excrement at a wall, some is bound to stick eventually. And it’s difficult to resist the distinct impression that Sampaoli ain’t finished flinging yet.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112