- Moses (51 pen)
- Messi (14)
- Rojo (86)
Argentina made very, very hard work of it, but Jorge Sampaoli’s team secured their place in the knockout stage of the 2018 World Cup tournament with a dramatic victory over Nigeria in Saint Petersburg. Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo volleyed in the winner in the 86th minute, after a cool penalty from Chelsea’s Victor Moses in the early stages of the second half had cancelled out Lionel Messi’s sublime opening goal. Following the defeat to Croatia in their previous game, there had been calls for Sampaoli’s time as manager to come to an end – but his position looks safe, for one more game at least.
Nigeria manager Salisu Yusuf stayed loyal to the team that started the 2-0 win against Iceland on Friday, and organised his players into the same formation. In possession, this would look like a 3-5-2 – but they were rarely on the ball long enough to form this positional structure.
Wing-backs Victor Moses and Brian Idowu provided the width and moved into the midfield or occasionally the attacking third, allowing Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho to focus on central attacking. The main idea was to try and send direct passes in behind for Iheanacho and Musa to run on to. The problem, however, was that the passes into the two forwards took too long to be executed, which gave the Argentina defenders time to drop and protect the space in behind.
This plan continued in the second half but with more of a focus on the wide areas, where Moses and Idowu would get forward more frequently. Chasing the game following Lionel Messi’s 14th-minute opener, Nigeria increased the number of deliveries into the box from crosses and throw-ins aimed towards Musa and Iheanacho.
But Argentina were, for the most part, comfortable in defending these balls into the box. Nigeria were more threatening when forcing their opponents into mistakes, running at their defence and utilising the counter-attack.
Out of possession, Nigeria were organised in their usual 5-3-2, with Moses and Idowu tucking in to join the three centre-backs. John Obi Mikel, Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo formed the midfield three, with Musa and substitute Odion Ighalo ahead of them.
Nigeria struggled initially with the movement of Argentina’s front three, unsure whether to track when they dropped deep or whether to hold their position and protect the space in behind. Their defence found it difficult when the ball was played in behind and faced several occasions in the first half where they were running back towards their own goal, chasing the Argentina forwards.
After equalising, they became extremely compact, often with six defenders across the back line – not an uncommon trend in this tournament. Their emergency defending in the box was excellent, as they crowded Argentina’s key players out whenever they had possession in and around the penalty box – particularly in central areas. However, they were a little more vulnerable when the ball went wide and could be crossed in behind low or cut back. The unlikely figure of Marcos Rojo capitalised on this to score the winner in the closing stages of the match, as Nigeria crashed out in a devastating manner.
Nigeria set up in a 3-5-2 in possession – an easy transition from their defensive shape – and would look to get Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho in behind the Argentina defence where possible.
The Super Eagles set up in a 5-3-2 out of possession, matching exactly how they set up in their 2-0 win over Iceland.
Towards the latter stages of the match, Nigeria often had six players in their last line of defence – a common theme in this World Cup for teams trying to hold on.
Argentina set up in a 4-3-3, with Enzo Perez and Ever Banega ahead of Javier Mascherano in the middle. Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria formed the front line.
Argentina operated a high-intensity, man-oriented press out of possession, looking to force mistakes from the Nigerian players.
In the final stages of the game, Argentina had to make use of wide areas because of Nigeria’s compactness in the middle. This is where their winning goal came from, however.
Argentina set up in a 4-3-3, with Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega and Enzo Perez forming the midfield triangle and Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria as a front three. It was not uncommon for Perez to be found wide on the right, as Messi would regularly come inside and deep to get on the ball more frequently.
Argentina’s key threat in the first half was the ball in behind, and their movement was well co-ordinated. They regularly had one forward coming deep and one going long, or one forward who would come deep and then go long – as seen for Messi’s superbly taken goal.
This strategy was possible whenever Argentina had possession due to the excellent distribution of Banega in the centre of the park. The Sevilla midfielder played like an American football quarterback, where he would receive the ball from the centre-backs and play it with outstanding precision for the runs of the attackers.
Cristian Pavon replaced Perez in the second half, as a more attacking threat. This tactical move made sense, because it allowed Messi to play more as an interior forward who could drop deep – and he very often did, increasingly so as the game progressed. Pavon was important in maintaining the attacking capability of his side out wide as Messi’s positioning changed.
In the final stages of the match, where central penetration was impossible due to Nigeria’s extremely compact and highly motivated defensive block, the wide areas became the only plausible route to a winning goal.
Full-back Gabriel Mercado became more involved, as Argentina tended to move the ball out wide quickly and either cross early in behind or take a few extra touches inside and then cut back. With Nigeria rushing back to protect the goal, they occasionally left space on the edge of the box. It was an early ball in behind from Mercado that caused the damage for Nigeria, providing the assist for Marcos Rojo’s well-struck but dramatic winner.
Argentina rarely organised into a formation out of possession, instead looking to operate a high-intensity, man-oriented press to force Nigeria into mistakes that resulted in wayward passes and immediate turnovers of possession. As Nigeria tended to play direct from goal-kicks, there were very few instances of a high press in these situations – so the out-of-possession structure took on more of a counter-press.
Argentina were much better at recovering to win the ball back than they were in their previous game against Croatia – even when Nigeria evaded the initial counter-press, they were still under intense pressure both from behind and in the next line of the press.