Author - Richard Bredice
Todays tactical review is by Ex-Manchester City and current Burnley FC 1st Team Analyst Richard Bredice.
Just nine minutes into the game and this had a feeling of any other David v Goliath World Cup group match. Huge favourites Argentina went 1-0 ahead curtesy of a Lionel Messi penalty. Argentina then go on to dominate the game, have all of the ball and score two or three more goals; the Saudi’s hadn’t read that particular script….. What transpired next, was the biggest shock in World Cup history. We are going to look a little deeper into how Saudi Arabia toppled the mighty Argentina through a mixture of tactics, intensity and of course a small amount of good fortune. The key areas we are going to focus on from Saudi Arabia are their high backline, pressing triggers and intensity in wide & central areas. For Argentina, we will focus on their lack of options to feet and their general inability to punish Saudi’s high backline.
Argentina set up in a 4.4.2 out of possession which often looked like a 4.1.5 in possession. Saudi Arabia were in a 22.214.171.124 out of possession and 4.3.3 on the occasions when they had the ball. Far from the norm in these huge underdog matches, Saudi Arabia didn’t just sit deep on the edge of their own box and wait for Argentina in a low block with 10 players behind the ball. Their manager Herve Renard found the perfect balance of pressing from a mid shape. At times (when the moment was right) Saudi jumped higher onto some back passes to the Argentina goalkeeper but generally remained disciplined, and only pressed on triggers when the ball went wide or frontally between lines. A big part of their pressing success came from holding a very high back line, this was a tactic that for the most part Argentina failed to get to grips with.
The Saudi high line and Argentina’s lack of options to feet
Argentina were caught offside a staggering 10 times during the match; including having threegoals dis allowed for said reason (I told you there was an element of good fortune involved inthe Saudi victory). As much as the tactic worked for Saudi Arabia, it actually proved theirundoing in going 1-0 down. The key to the tactic of holding a high line was based around allowing Argentina’s defenders to have the ball. Whenever they played into a midfielder or forward, Saudi Arabia would jump and apply real pressure. During the build up toconceding the corner that led to the Argentina penalty, Argentine midfielder Paredes had dropped into the backline. Unlike for most of the match, the Saudi forwards or midfielders weren’t able to get pressure on Paredes who was allowed a free pass into the vast space behind the Saudi backline. Gomez raced into the space and although Abdulhamid defended the 1v1well, he gave away the corner that ultimately led to the first goal.
This was one of the very few occasions during the whole game the Saudi’s got it wrong. Generally their high line was able to work due to them always having pressure on the ball, being super aggressive onto central forward passes and being very disciplined in their pressing triggers. It also worked due to Argentina’s build up shape and poor timing of their forwards runs.
As previously mentioned Argentina often ended up in a 4.1.5 build up shape. Whenever theytried to play centrally to feet, Saudi would press with full intensity. Some of the 5 players on thefrontline would make runs behind but they were often miss timed or when an Argentine defender didn’t have his head up ready to play the pass. The likes of Messi and Di Maria attimes would drop deeper, searching to get on the ball. Saudi ensured they maintained pressureon them and could be even stricter with their high line (knowing Argentina had 1 less player to attack the space behind). The build up shape of Argentina meant they often lacked a passing option into midfield which forced them to play wide – exactlywhere Saudi wanted them to play.
The Pressing triggers
Saudi Arabia pressed really well from their 126.96.36.199 shape and the press was built around 2 key concepts. The first concept was being very aggressive on frontal passes. Whenever Argentina looked to play into feet / between the Saudi lines, the Saudi defenders were happy to jump aggressively and follow the Argentinian forwards all the way. This kept Messi et al generally with their backs to goal and further away from where they wanted to play. If there was a threat of a turn, of course tactical fouls were required at times. The best example of this tactic actually led to the equalizer. In the 47th minute Saudi centre back Tambakti pressed tightly into a frontal pass to Messi’s feet. Tireless midfielder Al Malki created the 2v1 and Messi was swiftly dis possessed. Three touches later and the ball was in Argentina’s net.
The 2nd concept was based around how the Saudi’s pressed in wide areas. Their midfield and forward line did a really good job of protecting the middle and stopping passes centrally.
Once the ball went wide, 1 of the 3 midfielders was quick to release and put pressure on any Argentina midfielder dropping wide. Saudi’s full backs were also happy to get tight whenever Di Maria or Gomez looked to drop. The disciplined work of the midfielders in front(protecting central passes to feet) also meant that Saudi’s full backs were generally in greatpositions to defend the runs behind (either by playing offside or matching the runs of Argentina’sforwards).
A win of this nature simply cannot happen without a sprinkling of luck (the marginal offsides and three dis allowed goals of Argentina). Then again, they say you make your own luck. The workrate, discipline and intensity of pressing from Saudi Arabia made it very difficult for some ofthe most talented players on the planet to play. When Argentina were able to get through, Saudi put everything on the line to block shots, make tackles and play as if this was the final itself.Saying that, this result might feel to Saudi like they’ve already won their tournament by shockingthe world and defeating Argentina. Their performance was summarised aptly by creating a 2v1 vs Messi with the clock showing 90+13 and winning the ball back to see the victory overthe line.