Tactics preview of the World Cup final: Messi loves to exploit exactly the spaces that Mbappe leaves open

Four years ago, France defeated Argentina 4-3 in an epic World Cup second round match. It was the day that Kylian Mbappe transformed himself from a future great into one of the best in the world – his stunning 70-yard sprint to win a penalty eventually became the defining image of his World Cup, the World Cup in France and the 2018 World Cup overall.

Lionel Messi, part of a chaotic Argentina side, was on the sidelines. It seemed like Messi’s dominance was over. After 11 years in the top three, he failed to make the Ballon d’Or podium that year. In fairness, neither has Mbappe – although he was obviously the coming force that should only get better and better.

But these things don’t always work as expected. When Rafael Nadal defeated five-time winner Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, arguably the greatest of all time, it was seen as 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.

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 in years. Incidentally, Mbappe still hasn’t surpassed his fourth-place finish at the 2018 Ballon d’Or. However, the baton was not handed over.

Mbappé Messi

Mbappe still largely exists in Messi’s shadow (Picture: Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images)

This obsession with individual accolades – and individualism in general – in a team sport that’s more collective than ever can become tiring. But in international football, it often proves prescient. It’s reminiscent of the preparations leading up to the two-legged play-off between Portugal and Sweden for the 2014 World Cup, when the focus was almost entirely on Cristiano Ronaldo versus Zlatan Ibrahimovic. What about the 20 other players? Well, it ended Portugal 4 Sweden 2 – or more specifically Ronaldo 4 Ibrahimovic 2.

International football lends itself to battles between star individuals. You can count on the fingers of one hand how many clubs can afford to buy Messi or Mbappe at their peak. In fact, they are now club-mates (as it happens, at a club owned by the nation hosting this final). These clubs surround superstars with other superstars.

But at international level you get single players, players who are superior to all their teammates. Squads are more hierarchical. Whether it’s Messi, Mbappe or Neymar for real challengers, Sadio Mane, Son Heung-min or Robert Lewandowski for outsiders or Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez or Erling Haaland for nations that haven’t even qualified yet, international teams are often based on just one man .

That’s undeniably the case here, even considering Mbappe might not even have been France’s best player thanks to Antoine Greizmann’s form. You can tell Mbappe is the star because while Griezmann has been forced to slip into a deeper role, pushing and chasing as much as he creates and scores, Mbappe is almost completely devoid of defensive duties, sometimes with center forward Olivier Giroud in midfield .

Opta recorded that Mbappe made 0.2 defensive actions per game, the fewest of any outfield player in the entire tournament. He conserves his energy for attacking thrusts, which means France left-back Theo Hernandez – himself a good attacking player but a weak defender – has often been exposed. Both England and Morocco focused on attacking the space behind Mbappe. In the semifinals, 53 percent of Moroccan offensive touches were in the right third of the field (Mbappe’s side), which is the highest percentage of any game in the tournament.

Messi is also given near freedom from defense and has spent much of this tournament just walking around instead of running – more than any other player and far more than any other central attacker.

Others are happy to fill the gap. Against Croatia, this was shown by Julian Alvarez’s role.

He was Argentina’s No. 9 in possession – sprinting from behind to win the penalty for the first goal, pooling his way for the second and converting Messi’s cut-back for the third goal.

Without possession, Alvarez became Argentina’s No. 10, dropping into midfield to mark the opposing defender. Messi lingers back somewhere on the right (and justifies that freedom by doing exactly what he did on the third goal and leaving Josko Gvardiol for dead).

The allure, of course, comes from the fact that this is all connected, and most of the action – on paper – will take place on this page. If Mbappe continues to stay high, France risks Hernandez being isolated again and Messi will happily migrate to all spaces on this side.

The map below shows how little overlap the areas of the playing field in which the two players operate. Mbappe has rarely touched the ball in his own half at this World Cup, suggesting Messi could have plenty of space to exploit.

Tactically, the ball lies with Lionel Scaloni. France have maintained the same form in this competition, 4-3-3, with a very similar group of players barring injuries (and the last group game against Tunisia when Didier Deschamps rested his pros).

Scaloni shuffles and passes on. He started the competition with a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 depending on how one interprets Messi’s role. He then switched to a 4-3-3 for the game with Poland, using Messi in the middle and Alvarez from the left, before using a 5-3-2 against the Netherlands. For the semis it was more of a 4-4-2 again, with a very tight midfield designed to negate Croatia’s strength in the centre.

France offers a different challenge. Scaloni will focus primarily on stopping Mbappe and Hernandez’s cross and may have the option of a fit Angel Di Maria, the match-winner in last year’s Copa America final. Scaloni could decide he doesn’t need two midfielders and can therefore throw Leandro Paredes overboard.

That could mean he ends up going back to something like the 4-3-3 he used against Poland. Rodrigo De Paul and Alexis Mac Allister could play on either side of Enzo Fernandez, with Di Maria backtracking with Hernandez and sprinting past him, then Alvarez further up the other flank, safe in the knowledge that Jules Kounde could barely get forward from the right back urges . That would mean that the formations look something like this:

Here, too, individual selection decisions must be made. Deschamps has generally preferred Dayot Upamecano to his former RB Leipzig team-mate Ibrahima Konate but Upamecano looked impetuous against England while Konate excelled against Morocco. Adrien Rabiot will be hoping to return after a flu bout – if not, Youssouf Fofana will keep his place in midfield. Aurelien Tchouameni and Hernandez did not practice with the main group on Friday but are expected to start.

Scaloni was without Marcos Acuna through suspension against Croatia but is likely to return at left-back in place of Nicolas Tagliafico.

All in all, the finale is perfectly balanced. Most bookmakers offer exactly the same odds for either France or Argentina to win the cup. A couple considers France to be favorites and a couple believes Argentina to be favourites. This was a largely good World Cup, arguably just missing one truly iconic game. Maybe this will be it.

(Top graphic: Mark Carey)

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