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On the second Day of World Cup, South Africa gave to me: Maradona’s 4-3-3

June 13, 2010

So, at the end of it all, Maradona didn’t go for his four centre-backs at the back nor did he go for the proposed three at the back that was being bandied around a couple of days before the match. However, he did opt for three up-front and more importantly, played Messi in a position that he had recently been successful in playing for Barcelona.

Over the past season, Messi has played on the wide right and during the end part of the Barcelona’s successful league winning season, in the middle. In this position, he flourished either behind the front man where he scored a hat-trick against third place Valencia. He has also shown that he can be the man furthest forward as he showed against Arsenal with his four goals. His turn of pace and his ability to turn on the proverbial peseta causes panic in defences, who don’t know whether to close him down where they will inevitably get brushed aside or drop deep and give him time to have a shot.

This similarity between his position yesterday and his position for Barcelona is evident when studying respective heatmaps.

Heatmap of Lionel Messi against Arsenal


Heatmap of Lionel Messi against Nigeria

An interesting observation that was well picked up on by the commentary team was that the Argentinian front-line were all playing in between the lines and in the space without a traditional central striker. Quite often the Nigerian central defenders were left without anyone to pick up and not knowing whether to keep in line or move up to close down the attackers. This was an interesting choice, and could have been the right choice – by moving out and closing down the Argentinian front-three, this could leave spaces behind the defence.

Messi, Tevez and Higuain are all playing in between the midfield and defence. This means that the Nigerian defence may want to push up to close down the space, but by doing this, they are always susceptible to a diagonal ball over the top. With the central defenders not pushing up, the central midfielders need to stay deep to close down the space they have. Like every tactical variation, this has knock-on effects in other areas of the pitch. This means that quite often Veron had the time to find a good pass, as the Nigerian forwards were not too enthusiastic when it came to closing Veron down. This allowed Argentina to dominate the game with 65% of possession.

When a back four finds itself defending against a 4-3-3, the full-backs have one man to pick up each, which means they are unable to tuck-in to help negate the threat of the central striker. However, with Argentina having a very fluid front-three (which turns into a front four when di Maria pushes on), a conundrum appears as the defence have the choice of pushing up or not at all.

Heatmap of Angel di Maria

Angel di Maria’s heatmap shows that he was stuck on the touchline. This created a front four that created opportunities for Argentina. The Nigerian right-back went and picked up di Maria, stretching the defence that created gaps between the central defender and the full-back. It is this space that Lionel Messi attempted to exploit time and time again.


Another problem that Nigeria found was that with di Maria always creating the need for the defence to be stretched, the left-full back often pushed forward to mark one of the Argentinian front three. However, this often meant that there was space to exploit on the Nigerian left, this space is further widened as the Nigerian central defence tried to stay tight to reduce the chance that Messi will run between the two of them. This created huge spaces for either Tevez or Higuain.

Maradona showed two interesting developments in their system yesterday. Firstly, the position of Messi in the centre was complimented by di Maria’s position wide on the left, creating large spaces in the central defence. The use of three unconventional central forwards who all dropped deep created problems with Nigeria’s defence and central midfield as they did not know how to pick them up zonally. This allowed Argentina to dominate possession with the use of only two midfielders.

Argentina dished up an exciting 4-3-3 with emphasis on creating opportunities going forward to compliment their attacking strengths. The deployment of Messi in a central role is one where he can get on the ball and turn and run at a central defence that has been stretched by the positioning of di Maria. This new system seems to be more measured and may help prove that Maradona does indeed have method in his (apparent) madness.

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