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Tom Robinson provides tactical insight into the Copa America Centenario final that finished Argentina 0-0 Chile (2-4 pens) .
The Copa America Centenario concluded on Sunday night with a tense, closely-fought contest between Argentina and Chile in a repeat of last year’s final. And, in a prescient case of déjà vu, it once again saw Chile emerge triumphant from a penalty shootout after a goalless draw, handing them their second trophy in quick succession.
Much of the aftermath was dominated by Lionel Messi’s shock announcement that he would be retiring from international football following a fourth final defeat for Argentina. However, this shouldn’t overshadow the great achievement by Chile in what was a fascinating final between two well-matched sides. What’s more, Chile under Juan Antonio Pizzi have grown throughout the tournament, having lost their opener to Argentina and only snuck past Bolivia thanks to a late penalty, before their 7-0 destruction of Mexico and subsequent victory in the final.
Naturally the margins in such an even match are extremely fine and mean that the respective tactics take on an added importance when trying to decipher where the game was won and lost. With that in mind, here is the Outside of the Boot tactical breakdown of the Copa America Centenario Final 2016.
Argentina (4-3-3): Romero; Rojo, Funes Mori, Otamendi, Mercado; Banega, Mascherano, Biglia; Di Maria, Higuain, Messi.
Chile (4-3-3): Bravo; Beausejour, Jara, Medel, Isla; Aranguiz, Diaz, Vidal; Sanchez, Vargas, Fuenzalida
Argentina set up in their usual 4-3-3 with two changes to the team that started against the USA. Lucas Biglia replaced the injured Augusto Fernandez in the midfield trio and Angel Di Maria passed a late fitness test to come in for Ezequiel Lavezzi, himself injured in the last game. Messi again started out right but had a relatively free reign to drift in from the flank
Meanwhile, Chile also began with a 4-3-3, albeit a lopsided one with Fuenzalida rather deeper on the right side of the front three. Chile also made two changes to the side that beat Colombia 2-0 with Marcelo Diaz and Arturo Vidal returning to the midfield, as Francisco Silva and Pablo Hernandez made way for the first choice duo. Under Pizzi, Chile have switched from a back three to a back four and the benefits of this defensive solidity were beginning to bear fruit with two clean sheets in their last two games.
Although Chile had more possession in the early stages, it was Argentina who were able to create the most opportunities. Employing their own counter-press, the Argentinian forward line and midfielders were able win the ball back high up the pitch and find space in between the Chilean lines. In the image below, we can see how Argentina rob the ball and take out three Chilean midfielders with Banega’s drive into the vacant space in front of the defence, resulting in the first chance of the game.
This press from the Argentina front line also resulting in arguably the biggest chance of the game in the 20th minute when Gonzalo Higuain (the furthest man forward) robbed Gary Medel and was clean through on goal, before contriving to put his dinked finish over Claudio Bravo and just wide of the post. However, for all their early chances (5 to Chile’s 0), they were unable to make the breakthrough.
Another aspect of the early stages of the game was the space Lionel Messi was finding and the problems he was causing when running at defenders, particularly Marcelo Diaz, the deepest lying of Chile’s midfield three. Twice in the opening 30 minutes, Messi was able to find a pocket of space on the right and create a one-on-one situation with Diaz, both resulting in bookable offences which saw Chile reduced to ten.
Even though the scores were level, Messi had made an impact of a different nature and at this moment it looked as if Argentina’s numerical advantage would open the floodgates given the importance of Diaz’s role as both a shield for the defence and the conduit through which Chile transition from attack to defence and dictate the tempo of the game.
The most notable feature of the first half was the card happy antics of Brazilian referee Heber Lopes, who seemed to be intent on stealing the limelight. Having already brandished six red cards in the last nine games he has officiated, it was no surprise for what was to follow but nevertheless it threatened to ruin the spectacle. While there can be no complaints about Diaz’s first yellow, the second was harsh and in general his constant stopping of the game was disrupting the flow.
To their credit, Chile did not panic when they went a man down in the 28th minute and didn’t significantly alter their formation; leaving themselves in a 4-2-3 with Fuenzalida dropping back more to provide cover. With the tireless running of Vidal and Aranguiz they have the ability to cover plenty of ground so the loss wasn’t as keenly felt.
Argentina’s numerical advantage did not last long though as Lopes sent Marcos Rojo off for a challenge from behind on Vidal. In real-time it didn’t look a great challenge but replays showed that Rojo had won the ball, albeit rather robustly. There was definitely a sense of evening things up and as a result meant that what looked like a hammer blow for Chile was reduced considerably.
Argentina however did not react as well to being a man down. Mascherano dropped into the centre of defence and Ramiro Funes Mori was pushed out to left back. Di Maria moved from his wide left forward role back into the midfield three to make it a 4-3-2 but without Mascherano controlling things, Chile were able to gain a foothold in the centre of the park. Furthermore, the combination of the more defence-minded Biglia (compared to the box-to-box capabilities of Augusto Fernandez), a clearly unfit Angel Di Maria and Banega also carrying a knock meant that Argentina’s midfield were no match for the boundless energy and superior fitness of Vidal and Aranguiz and Chile began to dominate more.
Tata Martino sought to remedy this and wrestle back some of the control with the introduction of Matias Kranevitter for Di Maria but it nevertheless was a defensive move, one designed to contain and stifle Chile. Although it was able to even things up in the midfield battle, it did further limit Argentina going forward and the stalemate was set.
A key component of Chile’s game is their well-documented pressing, which has remained a constant feature from Bielsa, through Sampaoli and now with Pizzi. Their press and counter-press was in full effect against Argentina and, as mentioned above, helped them to dominate the midfield against a reshuffled Argentinian pack, whilst creating an intense, non-stop feel to the game.
They may have committed fouls, 22 in total compared to Argentina’s 14, but their tackle success rate was an impressive 65% whereas Argentina could only muster 43%, which is another indicator of their effective pressing.
Naturally much of the focus of Chile’s attention was Lionel Messi. In last year’s final, Gary Medel did an excellent job of hustling and harrying Messi at all times and once again the Chileans were able to double and treble up on Messi, leaving him increasingly isolated as the game wore on. Jean Beausejour in particular did very well to keep a frustrated Messi quiet.
As Messi drifted out on the right as is his ilk it also affected his link up with Banega who was generally patrolling the left side of the midfield. Their axis has been one which much of this Argentina side’s success has revolved but with Banega not fully fit and the increased distance between himself and closely guarded Messi, the key component of the Albiceleste’s attacking fulcrum was blunted.
The burden of yet another final loss weighed heavy on Argentinian shoulders and it had its mental toll on some of the players. Gonzalo Higuain, pilloried for his misses in the finals of both the World Cup and previous Copa America, once again displayed his mental fragility when he missed Argentina’s golden opportunity. The pressure seemed to affect the whole team as the number of late chances were snatched at by Aguero, Lamela and Messi. It is now three finals in which they have failed to score.
In contrast, Chile showed their steel once again, not letting their heads drop after the early sending off and maintaining their shape and discipline for the rest of the game. Having ended their 99-year wait for a trophy last year certainly would have taken the pressure off to some extent but they never showed any signs of diminished hunger, hunting the ball as a synchronised pack throughout, prioritising team over individual.
And then when it came to the ultimate test of nerves, the “lottery” of the penalty shoot-out, Chile prevailed again, despite Arturo Vidal’s opening miss, while Argentina were left to scratch their heads once again.
Chile proved that last year’s Copa America win was no fluke as they successfully defended their crown. After the dreadful refereeing of Lopes threatened to spoil the contest, Chile were able to adapt to the sending offs, retain control of the midfield thanks to their tireless press and the tactical conservatism of Martino and cut off the supply to an increasingly isolated Messi. For Argentina the defeat will be a hard one to take and the fallout could be considerable, what with the off-field disarray of the AFA and Messi’s international future in the balance. On another day this tight fixture could have swung the other way but Argentina will once again rue their missed opportunities to end their 23-year wait.
Written by Tom Robinson