It has been two years since Marcos Rojo struck inside the last 10 minutes to eliminate Nigeria from the World Cup. For some reason, I never actually did an analysis of this game. So, this anniversary seemed as good a time as any to exhume this dead horse and whip it afresh.
Coming into this, both teams could not have been in more different places mentally and emotionally. Whereas Argentina made five changes from the starting 11 that suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Croatia in the previous game, Nigeria named an unchanged side and kept the same shape from their victory over Iceland.
Amid reports of a mutiny within the Albiceleste ranks, Jorge Sampaoli (or Lionel Messi, if some sources are to be believed) actually named his most coherent team to this point in the competition. The shape was a 4-3-3, with Gonzalo Higuain starting for the first time in the competition, and Messi on the right.
One of the more intriguing things about goals in football is how patterns of play repeat themselves, almost as warnings, before the fact. Both Argentina goals in this game came from situations that had been foreshadowed, but had gone unheeded.
Interesting thing I’ve noticed from watching football: a lot of the time, goals that seem like they came out of the blue really didn’t. Even when against the run of play, there is usually some warning from earlier that was not recognized or heeded. pic.twitter.com/0JcHCEB9bX
— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) July 7, 2019
The opener saw Ever Banega receive the ball just inside the Nigeria half. He looked up, and swept a delightful ball over the top for Messi, and after two brilliant touches, the Barcelona man finished past Francis Uzoho with his weaker foot.
It was immediately apparent what had gone wrong: Nigeria were playing a medium block, but there was no pressure at all on the ball. To do so is suicidal: without pressure on the man in possession, he has as much time as he likes to measure the pass behind the defensive line.
Alternatively, we could just stand off, putting no pressure on the ball carrier while playing a high line. What could go wrong? #Nga
— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) June 26, 2018
That goal came in the 14th minute. However, it was not an isolated incident: the combination of a lack of pressure on the ball and space in behind had manifested itself already previously.
The second goal came with four minutes to play, Marcos Rojo volleying home Gabriel Mercado’s cross from the right to break Nigerian hearts.
However, the inability of rhe Super Eagles to get a handle on the Argentina left-back had been apparent from early in the first half.
One of the demerits of a 3-5-2 is the lack of obvious cover for the opposition full-backs.
Here, Argentina used theirs differently. On the right, Mercado played deeper, and when he did get forward it tended to be on the outside, with Perez covering the counter against the pace of Ahmed Musa, who had wreaked havoc against Iceland in the previous game. On the right, however, Angel Di Maria played wider, and so (especially in the first half) Tagliafico focused on making runs infield.
Those runs consistently went untracked. Naturally, Messi was Argentina’s hub for ball circulation, and he would draw two midfielders, leaving Banega free to play into Tagliafico.
Here, Iheanacho sees the Ajax man advancing, but rather than mind him, he points for Victor Moses to do it. Belatedly, he realizes Moses has problems of his own.
With the game tied at 1-1, Sampaoli made a raft of attacking substitutions, bringing on Maximiliano Meza, Cristian Pavon and Sergio Aguero and moving to a 3-3-4.
Crucually though, the outside centre-backs Mercado and Rojo continued to make forward runs as though they were full-backs—only a win was good enough for Argentina, so it was necessary to throw caution to the wind.
As the cross was about to come in, Moses was clearly concerned with his nominal man (Meza), before realizing Rojo has gotten forward unchecked (from left centre-back) and was unmarked right inside the penalty area. Balogun was minding the near post run by Aguero, and so was in no position to address the unfolding situation.
Should there have been that much space between Moses and Balogun? Probably not, especially as the ball was on the opposite flank. Still, it is interesting that that situation, which had been playing out since the first half, ended up deciding the game.
What could Rohr have done differently?
Hindsight is, as they say, 20-20. However, perhaps one of the most annoying bits of received footballing wisdom is the idea that you do not change a “winning team”.
In the first place, no two matches are the same. What wins against one will not necessarily win against the other.
In the build-up to this game, I argued against this reasoning and against retaining the back three shape.
A back three would also be somewhat redundant against a side that plays only one proper centre-forward, and would open the Super Eagles up to deep runs from the Argentina full-backs, who play very high.
However, having opted to keep three centre-backs, Gernot Rohr could have instead tweaked the shape from 3-5-2 to 3-4-3. That would have entailed starting Ighalo upfront, dropping Iheanacho, who by Rohr’s admission was not fit, playing Moses as one of the inside forwards and starting Tyronne Ebuehi at right wing-back.
Would that positively have affected the outcome? Well, it is impossible to know for sure. However, what is unarguable is that the set-up Rohr did go with did not provide his young side with the best chance of coming away with victory.