Final World Cup tactical preview: Messi loves to exploit the subtle spaces that Mbappe leaves open
Four years ago, France defeated Argentina 4-3 in a truly epic World Cup second round match. This was the day Kylian Mbappe transformed from a future great into one of the best in the world – his stunning 70-yard sprint to win the penalty spot ended up becoming the defining picture of the World Cup, the World Cup in France and the 2018 World Cup generally.
One of the fringes was Lionel Messi, who was part of the brave Argentina national team. Messi’s dominance appears to be over. After 11 years in the top three, he did not finish on the Ballon d’Or podium that year. And neither has Mbappe, in fairness – although he was clearly the next force, he’s set to get better and better.
But these things don’t always work as expected. When five-time winner Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, certainly the best ever, it was seen as something similar, a changing of the guard. But Federer won Wimbledon the next year, then three years later, and another five years after that.
The same thing happened here. Messi won the Ballon d’Or in both 2019 and 2021. There was no award in 2020 and his current form is arguably the best he has shown for years. Incidentally, the fourth Ballon d’Or has been unbeaten since 2018. The baton hasn’t been passed after all.
This obsession with individual prizes—and individual prizes in general—in an ever more team sport can get exhausting. But more often than not, in international football, he proves prescient. This brings to mind the preparations ahead of the Portugal-Sweden home-and-away match of the 2014 World Cup, when the focus was almost entirely on Cristiano Ronaldo against Zlatan Ibrahimovic. What about the other twenty players? Well, Portugal finished 4 Sweden 2 – or more specifically, Ronaldo 4 Ibrahimovic 2.
International soccer gives way to battles between the stars. You can count on the fingers of one hand how many clubs could buy Messi or Mbappe at their peak. Sure enough, they are now teammates (as it happens, at the nation-owned club hosting this final). These clubs surround superstars with fellow stars.
But at the international level, you get, for once, players who are superior to all of their teammates. Teams are more hierarchical. Whether it’s Messi, Mbappe or Neymar for real contenders, Sadio Mane, Son Heung-min or Robert Lewandowski for outsiders, or Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez or Erling Haaland for countries that don’t even qualify, international teams often center around just one. man.
There’s no denying that’s the case here, even considering the fact that Mbappe probably wasn’t even the best player in France, thanks to the form of Antoine Griezmann. You could say Mbappe is the star because while Griezmann has had to drop into a deeper role, chasing and chasing as much as creating and scoring, Mbappe is allowed almost complete freedom from defensive duties, sometimes with striker Olivier Giroud in charge. Midline.
Opta recorded that Mbappe completed 0.2 defensive actions per game, the fewest of any defenseman in the entire tournament. He saves his energy for attacking attacks, which means French left-back Theo Hernandez – himself a good attacking player but a weak defender – is often attacked. Both England and Morocco focused attacking space behind Mbappe. In the semi-finals, 53 percent of Morocco’s attacking touches were in the right third of the field (Mbappe’s side), the highest share of any match in the tournament.
Messi also enjoys almost complete freedom from defending and has spent much of this tournament simply drivin’ around rather than running – to a greater extent than any other player and far more than any other central striker.
Fortunately others pick up the slack. That was evident against Croatia from the role played by Julian Alvarez.
In possession, he was Argentina’s No. 9 – he ran behind him to score the penalty for the first goal, worked his way in for the second and brought back the Messi defense for the third.
Without possession, Alvarez became Argentina’s No. 10, dropping in the center of the field to mark the opponent’s player. Messi dips somewhere to the right (and justifies that liberty by doing exactly what he did for the third goal, leaving Jusko Guardiol for dead).
The plot, of course, comes from the fact that it’s all interconnected and the action will happen – on paper – very much in that aspect. If Mbappe continues to rise, France risk relegating Hernandez again and Messi will happily fill any spaces down this side.
The touch map below shows how little overlap there is between the areas of the field that the two players operate in. Mbappe has rarely touched the ball in his own half at this World Cup, suggesting there could be plenty of space for Messi to exploit.
Tactically, the ball is in Lionel Scaloni’s court. France has maintained the same form throughout this competition, 4-3-3, with a very similar group of players ruled out by injury (and the final group match against Tunisia, when Didier Deschamps rested the first-teamers).
Scaloni continues to mix and match. He started the competition with a 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1 depending on how you interpret Messi’s role. He then switched to a 4-3-3 formation to face Poland, using Messi centrally and Alvarez on the left, before using a 5-3-2 against the Netherlands. For the semi-finals, the score was back to 4-4-2, with a very tight midfield designed to negate Croatia’s strength in the middle.
France presents a different challenge. Scaloni will be more interested in stopping Mbappe winger – Hernandez and may have the option of Angel Di Maria, winner of last year’s Copa America final. Scaloni may decide that he does not need holding midfielders and can therefore get rid of Leandro Paredes.
That could mean he ends up returning to the 4-3-3 he used against Poland. Rodrigo de Paul and Alexis McAllister could both play on either side of Enzo Fernandez, with Di Maria trailing back with Hernandez – and running past -, then Alvarez higher up the other flank, safe in the knowledge Jules Conde barely pushed forward from the right-back. This means that the formations look like this:
There are individual selection decisions to be made as well. Deschamps has generally favored Dayot Upamecano over his former RB Leipzig team mate Ibrahima Konate, but Upamecano looked reckless against England, while Konate excelled against Morocco. Adrien Rabiot will hope to return from a bout of flu – if not, Youssouf Fofana will keep his place in midfield. Aurelien Tchouameni and Hernandez did not train with the main group on Friday but are expected to start.
Scaloni was without Marcos Acuna during his suspension against Croatia, but will likely return at left-back in place of Nicolas Tagliafico.
All in all, the finale is in perfect position. Most bookmakers offer exactly the same odds for France or Argentina to lift the trophy. A couple consider France the favourites, and a couple think Argentina the favourites. This has been a pretty good World Cup, arguably lacking just one legendary match. Maybe this is it.
(Top graphic: Mark Curry)
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