World Cup final tactical preview: Messi loves to exploit the exact spaces Mbappé leaves open

Four years ago, France defeated Argentina 4-3 in an authentic epic of a World Cup second round game. it was the day kylian mbappe he transformed from a future great to one of the best in the world: his impressive 70-yard run to win a penalty ended up being the defining image of his World Cup, the World Cup in France and the 2018 World Cup in general .

Lionel Messi, part of a chaotic side of Argentina, was peripheral. It seemed that Messi’s dominance had ended. After 11 years in the top three, he didn’t get on the Ballon d’Or podium that year. Neither, to be fair, Mbappe, although he was obviously the next force, destined to get better and better.

But these things don’t always go as expected. When Rafael Nadal defeated five-time winner Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, arguably the greatest of all time, it was considered something similar, a changing of the guard. But Federer won Wimbledon the following year, then again three years after that, and another five years after that.

The same thing has 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 in years. Mbappe, by the way, still hasn’t surpassed his fourth place finish at the 2018 Ballon d’Or. After all, the baton hasn’t been passed.

mbappe messi

Mbappé still exists largely in the shadow of Messi (Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images)

This obsession with individual prizes, and individualism more generally, in a team sport that is more collective than ever can become tedious. But often, in international football, it is prescient. Reminds me of the build up before Portugal Y Swedenthe two-legged tiebreaker at the 2014 World Cup, when the focus was almost entirely on Cristiano Ronaldo against Zlatan Ibrahimovic. What about the other 20 players? Well, he finished Portugal 4 Sweden 2 or to be more specific Ronaldo 4 Ibrahimovic 2.

International soccer lends itself to battles between stars. You can count on one hand the number of clubs that can afford to buy Messi or Mbappé in their prime. Sure enough, they are now teammates on the club (as it happens, on a club owned by the host nation of this final). Those clubs surround superstars with other superstars.

But at an international level you find unique players, superior to all their peers. Squads are more hierarchical. Either Messi, Mbappé or neymar for true challengers, Sadio Mane, son heung min either Robert Lewandowski for strangers, or Mohamed Salah, Riad Mahrez either Erling Haaland for nations that have not even qualified, international teams are often based solely on one man.

That is undeniably the case here, even allowing for the fact that Mbappe might not even have been the best player in France, thanks to the form of Antoine Greizmann. It can be said that Mbappe is the star man because while Griezmann has been forced to adopt a deeper role, harassing and chasing as much as creating and scoring, Mbappe is allowed almost total freedom of defensive tasks, sometimes with center forward position. Olivier Giroud descending to midfield.

Opta has recorded that Mbappé completed 0.2 defensive actions per game, the fewest by any outfielder in the entire tournament. He saves his energy for flurries of attack, which means France is a left-back. Theo Hernandez A good attacking player but a weak defender himself, he has often been exposed. Both England Y Morocco focused on attacking the space behind Mbappé. In the semi-final, 53 per cent of Morocco’s attacking touches were on the right third of the field (Mbappé’s side), which is the highest proportion of any game in the tournament.

Messi is also given almost freedom to defend and has spent much of this tournament simply walking instead of running, more than any other player and far more than any other central attacker.

Others happily take over. Against Croatiathat was obvious from the role of Julián Álvarez.

In possession, he was Argentina’s number 9: he ran back to win the first-goal penalty, worked his way up for the second and deflected Messi’s cutback for the third.

Out of possession, Álvarez became Argentina’s number 10, falling into midfield to mark the opposition’s holding player. Messi moves back somewhere to the right (and justifies this freedom by doing precisely what he did in that third goal, leaving yes guardiol for dead).

The intrigue, of course, comes from the fact that everything is interconnected and the action, on paper, will largely take place on that side. If Mbappé continues on top, then France risks Hernández being isolated again and Messi will happily roam any space on that side.

The following tactile map shows how little overlap there is between the areas of the pitch in which the two players operate. Mbappé has rarely touched the ball in his own half at this World Cup, suggesting there could be plenty of room for Messi to exploit it.

Tactically, the ball is in Lionel Scaloni’s court. France have maintained the same form throughout this competition, 4-3-3, with a very similar set of players barring injuries (and the last group match against Tunisiawhen Didier Deschamps rested his first teams).

Scaloni continues to mix and match. He started the competition with a 4-4-2, or a 4-4-1-1 depending on whether you interpret the role of Messi. He then switched to a 4-3-3 for the clash with Polandusing Messi in the middle and Álvarez on the left, before using a 5-3-2 against the Netherlands. For the semi-final, it turned more to a 4-4-2, with a very tight midfield designed to deny Croatia’s strength in the middle.

France offers a different challenge. Scaloni will be more concerned with stopping Mbappe-Hernández’s flank and may have the option of fitting back in. dimaria angel, the winner of last year’s Copa América final. Scaloni could decide that he does not need two holding midfielders and can therefore rule out Leandro Paredes.

That could mean he ends up going back to something like the 4-3-3 he used against Poland. Rodrigo DePaul Y Alexis McAllister could play anywhere Enzo Fernandezwith Di María falling back with, and speeding past, Hernández, then Álvarez further up the other flank, safe in the knowledge Jules Konde he barely pushes forward from the right side. That would mean the formations would look like this:

You also have to make individual selection decisions. Deschamps has generally preferred Dayot Upamecano about his ex RB Leipzig teammate Ibrahima Konatebut Upamecano was impetuous against England, while Konate excelled against Morocco. Adrian Rabiot will hope to return from a bout of flu; but, Youssouf Fofana He will keep his place in midfield. Aurelien Tchouameni and Hernandez did not train with the main group on Friday, but is expected to start.

Scaloni was without Marcos Acuna due to suspension against Croatia, but will likely return as a left-back instead of Nicolas Tagliafico.

All in all, the finale is perfectly balanced. Most bookmakers offer exactly the same odds for France or Argentina to lift the trophy. One couple considers France as favorites and one couple believes that Argentina is the favorite. This has been a largely good World Cup, possibly just missing a truly legendary game. Maybe this is it.

(Top graphic: Mark Carey)

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