Boring. Embarrassing. Dull. Shocking. All spouted out at half-time as Iran held their ground against Argentina in their World Cup game. Many complained at the apparent ‘negative’ approach Iran employed, seeking to defend for their lives for 90 minutes. Some, as usual, even called it anti-football. With all the possession being held by Argentina, it was said how risky an approach that was in a World Cup. Viewers wanted entertainment, Iran wanted a result, and they nearly got one the only way they knew how to.
Iran had a clear plan, a basic one, but the right one. They certainly couldn’t expect to take the game to the Argentines, their attack wasn’t potent enough. But they are a team that can be solid defensively, having the best defensive record in the Asian qualifiers. Some may say at a World Cup you’d expect them to go out with more intent, but again you are looking for results. Entertaining football is for viewers, neutral ones especially, the right result is what management will look for. If Iran were to have a more attacking approach, we can say with no uncertain terms that the scoreline would have been far more pleasing to Argentine eyes.
Instead, as expected, Iran set-up to soak in the pressure. Waves of attack came from the South Americans, but rarely anything that really threatened the Iranian goal. In fact, Carlos Quieroz’ men landed up creating the more threatening chances, 2-3 of them. While their defensive line set-up with the usual ‘content to sit back’ approach, it was their midfield that ultimately got that result they were looking for. Teymourian & Nekounam were at the core of Iran’s midfield, flanked defensively on either side by Hajsafi & Shojaei.
Iran realised with Aguero & Higuain starting, Argentina were going for a front two combination. They would be looking to play off the shoulders of the defensive line, rarely dropping deeper, thus Sabella identifying the need to have men upfront at all times. Their midfield thus had the key role to play. With a player like Messi playing in that No.10 role, cutting service to and contribution from the Barca man would be crucial. The midfield thus took an interesting approach against the four-time Ballon D’or winner.
Their wasn’t one single clear individual tasked with marking Lionel Messi, instead he was constantly marked out by the nearest midfielder. This meant that rather than having a solitary player move with the star man as he does, there was a man marking Messi wherever he moved across that attacking third. If he was centrally positioned, Iran’s central midfield man would stick close to him, if he moved right, the midfielder there would replicate it. The Argentina captain was as a result completely marked out throughout the game without Iran necessarily losing their midfield shape; this is something teams looking to defend are usually guilty of.
Besides this, with the number of midfielders positioned in that central midfield zone by Iran, it made it extremely difficult for any other individual of theirs to make a telling contribution. Fernando Gago for instance was offered tons of time to dwell on the ball before picking out the perfect pass (due to Iran’s insistence on sitting deep and not pressing), but this space was meaningless with Gago’s passing options marked out. It would seem a risk from Iran to allow Gago to be afforded that time, but in retrospect it worked to a peach, in preventing the midfielders’ influence.
Midfielders Mascherano & Gago had over 200 passes between them (according to WhoScored), with rarely any of them proving to be effective. They continued to rotate play with lateral passes, and Iran were happy to allow them to do so. They rather let the Argentine’s have possession in that form, than with penetrative passes into attacking zones.
Thus Lionel Messi wasn’t allowed to influence the game as he usually would, the deep midfield creativity was contained, this consequently reduced the power of Higuain & Aguero, all stemming from Iran’s midfield set-up.
As the game wore on, players like Di Maria became less and less influential from the deeper zones and with his runs in, primarily due to the organised midfield set-up. He was able to make runs in behind the defence, but the proper service was lacking. His contribution was reduced somewhat from what we’ve come to expect, his role developed into more of a winger, but his service from their was controlled by the Iranian defence.
Iran may have come out second best in that game with a cruel late goal from Lionel Messi, but the way their midfield set-up, serves as an example as to how weaker teams who don’t quite possess the quick attack can get a right result (almost). The criticism will always be levied, but there was no possible way of getting anything from the game with those set of players against Argentina. A more attacking approach would have been an uninformed reckless strategy.
Iran’s midfield provided a solid cover for the defensive line that looked to sit-deep, kept Lionel Messi quiet, prevented creatvity from Argentina’s midfield and prevented them from having men over in that zone. It was the crucial difference, above all, in an almost perfect day.
This article was written by Sami Faizullah. Editor-in-chief of outsideoftheboot.com