Lionel Messi nonetheless has not received a senior worldwide match.1 His Argentina was defeated by Germany within the final World Cup and misplaced on penalty kicks to Chile within the closing of the Copa America in each 2015 and 2016. La Albiceleste will probably be seeking to win Messi the trophy he deserves, and for step one on that journey, the staff has been drawn into a wholly winnable group with Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria.
Legit contender or paper tiger?
Like its neighbor Uruguay, Argentina’s power resides primarily in its ahead line. Supervisor Jorge Sampaoli should reply the query perennially requested of the particular person on the helm of Messi’s nationwide staff: Which wonderful striker ought to play with Messi? On a purely statistical stage, the reply must be Manchester Metropolis’s Sergio Aguero, whose zero.67 anticipated objectives per 90 minutes within the final two seasons locations him within the high 10 on the earth.
However Sampaoli’s most well-liked techniques make the lineup query extra sophisticated. Sampaoli is a disciple of the revolutionary Argentine supervisor Marcelo Bielsa, known as “El Loco,” who popularized a harum-scarum pressing style. And Sampaoli has Argentina taking part in this fashion, for higher or for worse.
Among the many South American groups that made the world cup, Argentina depends essentially the most closely on an aggressive excessive press, breaking apart new opposition possessions greater than 56 p.c of the time earlier than the opponent can string three passes collectively. Solely Chile, which each Bielsa and Sampaoli had managed beforehand, has related numbers, and Chile didn’t make it out of the qualifying spherical. Argentina struggled as properly and solely certified on the final day. The press can create attacking possibilities, however it could additionally depart a protection uncovered if an opponent can go by it. To successfully play such an aggressive, hard-running model, Sampaoli might go for neither Aguero nor longtime Argentine starter Gonzalo Higuain, however relatively Higuain’s membership teammate Paulo Dybala, who has scored 38 non-penalty objectives for Juventus within the final two seasons, taking part in primarily behind the striker. Dybala affords much less pure goal-scoring means than Aguero and Higuain, however he’s youthful and gives vitality and creativity for a supervisor whose staff should run all day lengthy. Messi at 30 is already unable to press as he used to, and pairing him with one other previous striker dangers blowing up Sampaoli’s plan earlier than it will get began.
The Soccer Energy Index, FiveThirtyEight’s staff score system, provides Argentina a greater than 75 p.c likelihood of creating it out of the group, however solely a few 7 p.c likelihood to win the World Cup. It might take a chance like benching Aguero and Higuain to carry Argentina again to the extent of true World Cup contender.
Croatia, like Argentina, is seeking to get essentially the most out of a golden era at one place, however the Balkan facet is flush with midfielders, not forwards. Actual Madrid’s Luka Modric is the celebrity of the group, however Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan) and Mateo Kovacic (Actual Madrid once more) all play for Champions League sides.
What’s uncommon about Croatia, statistically, is that regardless of all this nice expertise within the heart of the pitch, the staff is sort of depending on crossing from vast areas to assault the penalty space — of all of the groups on the World Cup, solely underpowered Saudi Arabia depends on crosses for penalty space entries greater than Croatia. Supervisor Zlatko Dalic likes to play two wingers, often Ivan Perisic and one different, on both facet of Modric within the attacking band. The passing choices for Modric and the central midfielders are then closely constrained to the vast areas. Croatia’s expertise might be sufficient to see it by, however this mismatch between expertise and techniques implies that Croatia could also be primed for upset.
Underdog or also-ran?
If there may be to be an upset on this group, who higher than Iceland to tug it off? The tiny Scandinavian nation goes to its first World Cup after a Cinderella run within the 2016 Euros and a surprisingly assured European qualifying season. Iceland is not going to be making an attempt something uncommon or fairly, however what it does is efficient. Iceland will search for quick-hitting counterattacks and set play conditions. If neither of Croatia or Argentina can kind out an answer to their tactical issues, Iceland’s clear understanding of its personal model ought to give them an actual shot at an upset.
Nigeria might make an underdog run right here by the identical logic. Its assault is poised to hit shortly relatively than play in possession, and SPI charges Nigeria’s protection as 14th-best on the World Cup. Don’t count on a substantial amount of pleasure from the Tremendous Eagles, however Salisu Yusuf has drilled his staff to play a structured protection that would give Argentina and Croatia hassle.
Participant to observe
Nigeria’s defensive techniques don’t work with out maintaining numbers again, and that locations many of the duty for getting photographs on the striker. Fortunately for Tremendous Eagles followers, their staff has a participant with celebrity expertise — if they are going to simply let him get off the bench, the place he has been caught in current warm-up friendlies. On the membership stage, Kelechi Iheanacho has had the misfortune to play behind Aguero at Manchester Metropolis and Jamie Vardy at Leicester Metropolis the previous two years, which has restricted his minutes, however the manufacturing is there. With about 10 anticipated objectives and 5 anticipated assists in 1431 minutes performed, Iheanacho’s price stats evaluate properly to younger superstars like France’s Kylian Mbappe and Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus.
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Whereas the Nigerian teenager can’t be anticipated to keep up these charges over a full beginning season, it’s exhausting to flee the conclusion that he may very well be a high striker if he bought the possibility. Nigeria will want just a little luck and lot of labor from its striker to make it out of a troublesome Group D. Taking a wager on a participant with unbelievable potential at exactly the place the place it’s wanted most might propel the underdogs to the knockouts.