Individual Brilliance Needs Support From The Sides

Argentina were woeful for large periods of their last-16 tie against Switzerland, but once again a high-profile team just sneaked through. Must do (much) better...

Last Updated: 01/07/14 at 20:33 Post Comment

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This has been a noticeably peculiar World Cup in that the football on display has been both mesmerising and hugely exhilarating but, with just nine of the 64 matches remaining, Colombia are the only side that have played to their full potential. It has been a knockout stage in which the supposed favourites have stuttered and stalled, but still found a way.

We have had seven last-16 ties so far, and seven group winners have progressed, Germany, Netherlands, France and Brazil all through to the quarter-finals despite concerning under-performance. On Tuesday, Argentina added their name to that list - battered, bruised and distinctly substandard. But through.

In fact, this is perhaps one of the reasons that the tournament has been so enthralling. There is little more turgid than a tournament in which the group stage and early knockout ties are simply a prelude or dress rehearsal for the later matches, a sense that we must all wait for the grown-ups to come out and play.

Whether it be through the deficiencies of the highest-profile teams or an improvement in the supposed 'weaker' sides, the fact that there have been so few one-sided matches has made for quite excellent viewing. Only three sides have lost games by more than three goals - Spain and Portugal accounted for two of these. With the occasional exception, every team has been forced to work for every goal, point and victory.

Against Switzerland, Argentina were no different. Alejandro Sabella's side have wholly failed to impress throughout their four games so far, winning each by a single goal and largely thanks to the wonder of Lionel Messi. The magician scored four and assisted two of his country's six goals in the group stage, but a goal difference of +3 against the likes of Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria has left those at home thoroughly underwhelmed.

It seems bizarre given the depth of quality contained within their attacking unit, but Argentina have lacked any meaningful attacking cohesion during their four games so far. The final ball has often been left wanting, and huge possession and territory has failed to produce enough clear-cut chances. Plenty of shots have been attempted, but far too few chances forcing excellent saves or last-ditch tackles have been created. It's hugely surprising given Argentina's threat in qualifying - they scored six more goals than any other South American side.

There is little wrong with relying on the brilliance of one individual, particularly when he has the quality that Messi holds, but as the tournament progresses, this only gets harder to achieve as the opposition possesses greater quality. Switzerland were able to utilise Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler as a man-marking pair, forcing Messi to drop deeper to pick up the ball. Messi actually touched the ball more often in the 90 minutes than in any of the other three matches, but his possession was permitted at arm's length. Of course such a Swiss ploy should have afforded Argentina's alternative forward options greater space, but unfortunately Sabella's supporting acts fluffed their lines yet again.

The hamstring injury sustained by the entirely underwhelming Sergio Aguero allowed Ezequiel Lavezzi to seize an opportunity for a consistent starting spot in a team aiming for greatness, but the Paris St Germain forward proved himself an excellent mimic of Aguero - he was the epitome of disinterest and mediocrity. Lavezzi attempted to drift off the flank to search for the ball, but was a passenger for almost all of his 74 minutes on the field.

However, whilst Lavezzi's listlessness was disappointing, the performance of Gonzalo Higuain was yet again mystifyingly lacklustre. Higuain was intended to be the spearhead of this potent attack, but has instead looked unfathomably blunt. The Napoli striker has had just three shots on target in the entire tournament - that's a damning statistic for a player with 24 goals for Napoli last season and nine strikes in qualifying, only one fewer than Messi himself.

Like Fred for Brazil, there seems a worrying lack of movement from Argentina's no. 9, who completed just 18 passes in 120 minutes - it isn't as if he can claim to be doing his best work outside of the area.

Even Angel Di Maria, so often Messi's understudy as inspiration-in-chief, was woefully off-kilter. His passing accuracy of 63% was worse than any other outfield player, and so often the Real Madrid midfielder appeared to make the wrong choice when in possession. His goal to win the game deep into extra-time was an accomplished finish, but that served only to act as a contrast of how second-rate his performance had otherwise been.

Until now this has felt like a World Cup in which individuals have performed better than teams, with Neymar, Messi, James Rodriguez, Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben dragging their sides through adversity. Whilst picking a tournament winner still looks hugely difficult, the country that manages to yield more from their supporting acts will be in a favourable position to achieve glory. For Argentina, that means demanding more from some particularly frustrating forwards.

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