Between 1945 and 1990, Nizhy Novgorod was officially closed to the outside world. As a hub of Soviet military research, the politburo wanted the city’s secrets protected and it was removed from official maps; effectively hiding in plain sight. At this point you are free to draw your own parallels with the Argentinian weapons-grade footballer who seemingly disappeared at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Thursday night.
Having had a penalty saved in Argentina’s opening 1-1 draw with Iceland, Lionel Messi’s World Cup lurched from bad to disastrous as a humbling 3-0 defeat left him, and his country, on the brink of elimination. The margin of defeat, and the nature of the performance, has led to intense and searching criticism of Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli.
With the help of Opta, we can see just how badly Sampaoli messed up – and just how impotent Messi has become in his system. Sampaoli attempted to breathe life into Argentina by changing systems from the Iceland game; all he achieved was managing to marginalise one of the all-time greats.
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Messi’s involvement: A historic low

Leo Messi - Argentina v Croazia - Russia 2018

Image credit: Getty Images

Messi has played 90 minutes or more on 13 occasions at the World Cup. Remarkably, in the Croatia match he had the fewest touches of the ball in any of these games. With Argentina failing to open up a supply line to their best player, Messi touched the ball just 49 times.
As the table below shows, that is the least involvement Messi has had in a match when he has played the full 90 minutes. For contrast, he averaged 83.2 touches of the ball per match with Barcelona in La Liga last season.
Date OpponentTouchesTouches in opp boxShotsChances created
17/06/2010South Korea94363
15/06/2014Bosnia and Herzegovina97744
It was not only that Messi hardly had the ball; he barely did anything with it either. As the table shows, a player with 616 career goals only managed one shot in the whole game. That is Messi’s joint worst ever shooting contribution in a full World Cup match – level with the semi-final win over Netherlands four years ago. In La Liga last season he averaged 5.9 shots per game.
He managed just two touches in Croatia’s box; in La Liga it was nine per game. And he created two chances; in La Liga he was averaging 2.6. The statistics clearly show that far from playing to Messi’s strengths, Argentina effectively neutered him.

What Sampaoli did wrong

orge Sampaoli, Head coach of of Argentina reacts during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group D match between Argentina and Croatia at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on June 21, 2018 in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia

Image credit: Getty Images

Sampaoli didn’t try and deflect when he faced the inquest of the press on Thursday night. Shouldering responsibility for the defeat, he acknowledged: "Some of the players didn't manage to play with my system, I probably didn't set up my team in the right way."
I am the one who needs to make the final decision on these things but the key to our defeat relates to my responsibility. I am the coach and I had to devise a plan for this match. Had I set things up differently, it might have turned out much better... I probably didn’t understand the match as I should have.
But what, precisely did he get wrong?
Although Argentina were far from impressive in their 1-1 draw against Iceland, Sampaoli’s decision to abandon a back four to move to a back three was disastrous. He favoured the back three during his spell as Chile manager but Argentina don’t have the players to execute the same gameplan and they lost their shape badly with centre-backs Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Tagliafico and Nicolas Otamendi all struggling.
Wing-backs Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuna were relentlessly exposed by Croatia – and even worse, Sampaoli’s decision to have three forwards meant Argentina were effectively going two v three against one of the most talented midfields in the tournament. Unsurprisingly, Javier Mascherano and Enzo Perez were no match for Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic.
Argentina’s inability to get a platform in the game meant they were unable to feed Messi as regularly as they would have wished. Messi took up similar positions to where he operates for Barcelona, coming in from the right, but Argentina just simply couldn’t get him the ball. Sampaoli acknowledged the problem:
Messi is our captain, he leads the team and we quite simply couldn't pass to him to help him generate the situations he is used to. We worked to give him the ball but the opponent also worked hard to prevent him from getting the ball. We lost that battle.
As Modric said in his post-match interview: “Messi is an exceptional footballer but he can't do it all by himself. In football, you need help."

Can Argentina fix it?

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi (R) stands next to Argentina's coach Jorge Sampaoli

Image credit: Getty Images

Argentina’s fate is no longer in their own hands and few have any real faith that Sampaoli is the man to sort things out - so bad, so tactically inept has their campaign been so far. But that is not to say Argentina have no hope. With a heavy win in their final game against Nigeria they will certainly have a chance of making the last-16.
That said, Messi’s struggles with the national team are a long-standing issue. There is no easy answer and Sampaoli has spent months trying to work out how to play to his strengths. He got things horribly wrong against Croatia, of course, and now has to try another approach for the final group game against Nigeria.
It is clear that the back three didn’t work and step one for Sampaoli will be restoring the back four. Then, the midfield clearly needs reinforcing. An additional man will be freed up by having four defenders instead of three plus the two wing-backs and either Ever Banega or Giovani Lo Celso would be good additions – players who can pick out a precise pass or carry the ball forward.
More than anything, Argentina cannot face another scenario where arguably the greatest player in history is left isolated on the pitch. On commentary for the Croatia game, former international Jorge Valdano said Sampaoli’s side were “playing as if Messi didn’t exist.” Like the city which hosted one of Argentina’s most traumatic World Cup moments, he needs to be rediscovered.
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