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Tom Robinson provides detailed tactical insight on the Copa America quarter-final that finished Argentina 4-1 Venezuela.
As the centenary edition of the Copa America reaches its knock-out phases, the competition has really begun to hot up. High-profile casualties Brazil and Uruguay have already fallen by the wayside, while Chile destroyed the fancied Mexico 7-0 in what has been a tournament of shocks so far.
Venezuela were hoping to spring another surprise when they took on Argentina in the quarter final at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts but were ultimately unable to find a way of stopping Messi and co.
Argentina (4-3-3): Romero; Rojo, Funes Mori, Otamendi, Mercado; Mascherano, Fernandez, Banega; Gaitan, Higuain, Messi
Venezuela (4-5-1): Hernandez; Feltscher, Vizcarrondo, Angel, Gonzalez; Martinez, Seijas, Figuera, Rincon, Guerra; Rondon
Venezuela manager Rafael Dudamel switched from his usual 4-2-2-2 into a 4-5-1 to begin with in order to try and pack the midfield and limit the space available for Messi. Luis Seijas came into the midfield and Josef Martinez moved from his usual centre forward position onto the left of midfield. However, Dudamel reverted to his 4-4-2, with two deep holding midfielders and Martinez returning to partner Rondon up front.
Meanwhile, Argentina remained in a nominal 4-3-3 line up with Higuain as the central focal point up front. However, the aforementioned change to the Venezuela line up saw Messi drift further right in order to find more space – as he often did successfully under Alejandro Sabella – and the Albiceleste’s shape could easily morph into a 4-2-3-1 with Banega coming forward into more of a number 10 position, leaving Augusto Fernandez as the shuttler alongside the more defensively-minded Mascherano at the base of the midfield. Meanwhile, the selection of two conservative full-backs in Rojo and Mercado – both of whom can fill in at centre-back – attempted to add greater solidity against the risk of counter attacks.
On the same night that Cristiano Ronaldo was missing a penalty for Portugal against Austria, Messi was in imperious form for Argentina, guiding them to a 4-1 victory and equalling Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 54 goals for the national team.
As mentioned above, Venezuela’s packed midfield in their initial 4-5-1 saw Messi drift out wide on the right in order to find more space. This was displayed in emphatic fashion after 8 minutes when Messi produced a sublime left-footed delivery for Gonzalo Higuain to half volley across the goal for Argentina’s opener. The fact that Venezuela had two compact, deep-lying banks proved to be no problem as Messi circumvented them all thanks to his brilliant vision, immediately putting paid to Dudamel’s attempt to nullify him and quickly giving Argentina the perfect platform in which to take the game to the Vinotinto.
Undoubtedly, the fact Messi played few minutes of the group stage has meant that he is still fresh and not suffering from the same burn-out that could be seen at the last World Cup. And even though much of the focus was on his new beard, Messi was popping up everywhere and was unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty when he was clearly fouled in the box midway through the first half.
Nevertheless, Messi did eventually get his record-equalling goal in the 60th minute. Some high-pressing from Nico Gaitan robbed Rincon and the new Atletico Madrid signing played a one-two with Messi, who was on hand to tap in and make it 3-0. The pressing from the front three will have greatly pleased Tata Martino as he attempts to imitate the same way Barcelona get the best out of Messi; by getting him the ball as far forward as possible where he can do most damage.
And Messi once again turned provider for Argentina’s fourth, cushioning a perfectly weighed pass for Erik Lamela to sweep in and put any hopes of a Venezuela come back to bed. It might sound obvious but a fit and fresh Messi is key to any hopes of Argentina of breaking their 23-year trophy drought and his performance of one goal and two assists was the perfect indicator that this could be the year.
It’s fair to say that it was a night to forget for Luis Seijas. Returning to the starting line-up, he was unable to cut off the supply to Messi as the extra man in midfield and, once this tactical change was scrapped, things didn’t get much better for him.
Nevertheless, the switch to a counter-attacking 4-4-2 once Venezuela were 2-0 down did bring an immediate upturn in their fortunes as Rondon forced a good save from Romero and then hit the post shortly after. The little-and-large combination of Rondon and Martinez were proving to be a handful for Argentina’s still shaky defence and Venezuela were able to make their pressure count when Martinez was felled in the box by Romero just before half-time.
Seijas stepped up but his attempted panenka was lofted into the grateful arms of Romero, who had stood tall in the centre of the goal for the easiest of saves. Romero and his goalkeeping coach Gustavo Piñero had done their homework and had seen Seijas do the same thing on a few occasions for Independiente Santa Fe, leaving the Venezuelan midfielder red-faced.
The fact that Alexis Sanchez’s winning penalty in the Copa America final last year was also a panenka was not lost on the Argentinian media, some of whom pointed to it as a superstitious sign that it was to be Argentina’s year. For Venezuela, a goal just before half-time would have made it 2-1 and could have made it an entirely different game.
After a brilliant season for Napoli in which he broke Gunnar Nordahl’s long-standing Serie A record, Higuain translated this club form to the national team and scored two well-taken goals in the first 30 minutes. Although Messi will get plenty of praise for his excellent assist for Higuain’s first, Pipita still had a lot to do but made no mistake with a sublime steered finish on the slide.
His second was a lot simpler and opportunistic as he latched onto a terrible back-pass and rounded a stranded Dani Hernandez to slot into an empty net. He looks sharper and leaner than ever before and the brace will do wonders for his confidence, justifying his selection ahead of Sergio Aguero. After a lot of criticism for his misses at the World Cup and last Copa America, this could be redemption for a man who was almost out of the team less than twelve months ago.
Ever Banega is another who has really stepped up to become a key player in Martino’s side during the Copa. In the same way that the Gago-Messi axis was so important in qualification for the last World Cup, Banega is able to dictate the tempo of the play and has the requisite passing ability to open up defences from deep or further forward. On the left of a midfield three or in a more advanced number 10 role, Banega is exerting more and more influence on games and, after Messi, is now arguably the next most important player in this system.
The loss aside, it has been yet another successful Copa America for Venezuela under new boss Dudamel and they will now hope to take that momentum into the World Cup qualifying.
The return of Dani Hernandez in goal is a clear improvement and with the likes of Jose Contreras and Wuilker Farinez the future looks bright between the sticks. Furthermore, before the Argentina game, the Venezeula defence had conceded just one goal in three games – and that was a late wonderstrike from Jesus Corona. Shielded by their deep-lying midfielders Rincon and Figuera, they can be difficult to break down and are perfectly set up to counter with pace. A look at Ecuador can see just how effective this tactic can be and one that they will surely try to emulate.
Going forward there is reason to be positive too. Alejandro Guerra is in fantastic form for Atletico Nacional and youngsters Adalberto Penaranda and Juan Pablo Añor both look to be good prospects for the future. In Salomon Rondon they have an extremely potent forward whose aerial ability was a constant issue for the Argentinian defence, as shown in their goal in the 4-1 defeat, and speedy Josef Martinez acts as the perfect foil in a classic big man, little man strike partnership.
The victory for Argentina will have underlined their credentials as favourites to lift the trophy at the MetLife stadium. For Venezuela they can exit with heads held high, although they may look back at the missed penalty as the decisive blow to their hopes of wrestling the tie back in their favour. Their Copa performances should give Dudamel the blueprint for their remaining World Cup qualifying games as they look to qualify for the first time ever.
Written by Tom Robinson