Pele, Beckenbauer, Maradona, Charlton, Ronaldo: These players are unquestionably all-time greats – and share the distinction of having driven their country to glory at a World Cup. Does Lionel Messi have what it takes to join football’s ‘Untouchables’?
Playing in their home continent, Argentina will be expected to make an early impression in a group containing Bosnia-Hercegovina, Nigeria and Iran. By the end of the round robin stage we should have an idea of whether Alejandro Sabella’s men are primed to challenge for the trophy and if this will be Messi’s tournament.
Argentina are likely to favour a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Messi sitting in behind Gonzalo Higuan and Sergio Aguero in a formidable frontline – but with such attacking abundance to accommodate, questions have been raised as to the defensive stability of their midfield.
Real Madrid’s Angel Di Maria played a major part in his club’s Champions League success this season, but is he defensively-orientated enough to form part of a midfield three? The data suggests this could be Argentina’s weak link.
During qualifying, Di Maria had by far the lowest average for defensive actions per game in both ‘medium risk’ (1.4) and ‘high risk’ (0.1) situations of any first choice Argentina midfielder – Fernando Gago averaged 3.5 and 0.4 with Javier Mascherano 6.1 and 0.6. Of the three, Di Maria spent the smallest amount of time in possession of the ball when under pressure, and has the lowest average of interceptions and steals (1.6) of anyone in the squad behind the attack.
There is evidence that this apparent shirking of responsibility puts pressure on holding midfielder Mascherano – he recorded the highest average of ‘severe’ lost possessions (1.7) in Argentina’s first choice XI.
Argentina face arguably their toughest test first. Bosnia-Hercegovina are 2014′s only World Cup debutants after winning their qualifying group. Their most notable player is Manchester City Edin Dzeko, an imposing centre forward, but the eastern Europeans don’t typically use him as a pivot – they like to play through the middle with a diamond midfield and recorded the joint-lowest percentage of long balls (3%) of any Group F team.
Roma playmaker Miralem Pjanic was one of Serie A’s leading lights this season, and will be the hub of Bosnia-Hercegovina’s attacking activity – he is the top pass receiver (57.9) in the squad and also has the highest average of chances created in the final third (2.2.).
Nigeria lost to Argentina in group games at both USA 1994 and South Africa 2010. The Super Eagles, who have appeared at four of the last five World Cups, are the reigning African champions and will be dreaming of becoming the first from their continent to win a World Cup.
On-loan Chelsea winger Victor Moses may not have fulfilled his potential in the Premier League yet, but he is key to Nigeria’s attacking ambition. He has a squad-high average of passes in the final third (3.5) and a 21% of his corners result in chances – the highest of any regular corner taker in Group F.
Iran are 3000/1 outsiders to win the tournament, so any damage they are able to inflict on their opponents will be measured as a success. In the face of some slick passing teams, Iran are likely to focus on dispatching balls into the box – a tactic they employed during a successful Asian qualifying campaign. Iran have the highest percentage of chances created from crosses (34%) in the group, and attempts on goal from headers (23%).
Charlton Athletic forward Reza Ghoochanejhad, raised in Holland, is Iran’s go-to man. He burst onto the international scene with six goals in as many games, and crucially, has by far the highest conversion rate of any Iran striker with 29% of his 3.3 average chances per game ending up in the back of the net.
Argentina are Group F’s only superpower, but if the rest play to their strengths and avoid getting frustrated with chasing the ball – Argentina have the highest Group F possession percentages in any time period or game scenario (winning, drawing or losing) – there could be chinks in the armour to exploit.