Messi or Mascherano: Who is more important to Argentina?

Argentina takes on Germany in Rio’s Estadio do Maracana in the final of the World Cup later tonight. A lot of the talks surround Argentina’s captain and star player Lionel Messi and the role played by him in Argentina’s progress to the title clash. But equally important in Argentina’s superlative World Cup has been midfield lynchpin Javier Mascherano. Here is a terse, short tactical analysis on which of the two is more important to Argentina against a Germany side that is not lacking in confidence, and goals too.

Messi has been Argentina’s chief goalscorer as well as creative threat in the World Cup so far. A feature of all Argentina matches has been the heavy man-marking of captain Messi. Group stage games involving Argentina had an almost recurring theme: teams sat deep, overloaded Messi’s zone in the hole and denied space to Messi. While the knockout rounds have seen Messi being a bit more closely attended (the reason being his outrageous ability to provide a spark even at his worst). The games against Switzerland and Netherlands saw two players employed to crowd Messi in option-pressing setups.

Argentina has so far failed to take advantage of having a numbers’ advantage in other parts of the pitch primarily due to a lack of a proper ball-playing, deep-lying playmaker. Javier Mascherano has carried the burden to some extent, while Fernando Gago’s lack of form sees him not even being included in the starting XI’s of the last two games.Mascherano has been an inspired presence, and like Messi, will be equally key to Argentina’s chances against a free-scoring Germany.

What to do against Germany?

Germany switched to a conventional, textbook 4-2-3-1 after the R16 match against Algeria exposed their need to be defensively more sound. Germany’s 4-2-3-1 has a nice balance about it, and perfectly fits in coach Joachim Loew’s proactive style. Toni Kroos leads the aggressive pressing from the front as the highest of the three midfielders, while Sami Khedira’s high energy has provided Thomas Mueller with little to do in the way of pressing and more with making those runs behind the defence. Mueller’s work-rate means that he also makes lateral runs to cover the space freed up by Miroslav Klose’s frequent movement into deep areas.

MASCHERANO V NETHERLANDS: COVERING THE CENTRAL ZONE BETWEEN THE TWO CENTER BACKS.

MASCHERANO V NETHERLANDS: COVERING THE CENTRAL ZONE BETWEEN THE TWO CENTER BACKS.

Argentina’s concern should be more about holding their lines against Germany’s right flank. Marcos Rojo is not the most attack-minded left-back, but plays in an area where Germany could create maximum overloads. Khedira has often been seen playing box-to-box unlike Schweinsteiger on the left side who is a more measured influence. Khedira’s positioning could mean Argentina could be in a 1 vs 3 on their left (if Angel di Maria starts), if the left center back Garay is occupied by Klose. That’s where Mascherano could be a key for Argentina, although he could also be run ragged.

MASCHERANO V BELGIUM: ACTION AREAS TOWARDS THE LEFT FLANK.

MASCHERANO V BELGIUM: ACTION AREAS TOWARDS THE LEFT FLANK.

Mascherano’s influence on the pitch has mostly been around the Argentine right and center. The only time he had more action around the left was against Belgium, where he had to cover against the threat of Eden Hazard after Argentina went ahead early. Hazard was kept quiet all game (although he switched flanks often).

Messi

MESSI AGAINST NETHERLANDS: HEAVY MARKING MEANT THAT HE HAD ZERO (0) TOUCHES IN THE NETHERLANDS BOX.

MESSI AGAINST NETHERLANDS: HEAVY MARKING MEANT THAT HE HAD ZERO (0) TOUCHES IN THE NETHERLANDS BOX.

Messi is unlikely to find a direct rival tonight. Germany normally do not play man marking, although we could see Schweinsteiger in a more cynical, defensive role than what we have seen till now. Messi has been the key man for Argentina, and the significance of his influence has increased even more after Angel di Maria’s early injury-induced departure against Belgium. He had Nigel de Jong acting as a man-marker against Netherlands, and Georginio Wijnaldum as the ball-recycler. His influence was negated, and Argentina failed to create clear goalscoring chances.

MASCHERANO'S PASSING AGAINST SWITZERLAND: 94% ACCURACY.

MASCHERANO’S PASSING AGAINST SWITZERLAND: 94% ACCURACY.

If Germany decide on putting a man against Messi, Argentina will sense an advantage. Javier Mascherano has profited from teams sitting back and not committing players forward as seen by his brilliant passing stats. He was always known for his anticipation and tackling efficiency, and has so far delivered on his reputation. A man on Messi will mean Germany will need one more player to recycle the ball and stay within distance of Messi’s marker. The obvious options for the two roles are Schweinsteiger and Khedira, which makes it easier for Mascherano. This limits Khedira to a dirtier role, and subsequently decreases his overall presence in the attacking third.

Conclusion

Germany are in an obvious dilemma whether to go for stopping Messi or use their area of strength against Argentina. Going for the first means that Javier Mascherano could use histtime and space on the ball to release the quick wide men, while going for the other means that Germany are left short of men whenever Messi receives the ball in quick transitions.

Mascherano and Messi are the most important cogs in the Argentina machine. None is more important than the other, but Messi’s elusivity means that he remains the greater threat to Germany. Both will have to perform at their absolute best if Argentina are to have any chance of lifting their third World Cup.

*Stats and maps courtesy of Squawka.

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