While Lionel Messi is recognized as one of the two best players in the world, Argentina‘s Angel Di Maria has been almost as crucial to his team’s run to the semifinals, and his thigh injury will prevent him from playing against Netherlands on Wednesday.
Di Maria had been in excellent form for both club and country in recent months and his absence will cause a tactical problem for Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella.
Di Maria was often deployed on the right side of the field so he could cut inside on his heavily-favored left foot to either shoot or draw in defenders before making a pass. Rupert Fryer correctly stated on Twitter “that Di Maria is the only Argentinean player besides Messi that can penetrate defenses to find areas of weakness to exploit.”
His injury will put even more pressure on Messi to perform tasks of individual brilliance against Netherlands and he already had enough pressure on his shoulders to begin with. After Wednesday’s result, we may have to wonder whether the burden was simply too big for Messi and his team to overcome.
Di Maria, who plays at Real Madrid, was known for his excellent pace which simply cannot be replaced by anyone on Argentina’s bench. Sabella will be forced to reexamine how he chooses his lineup against a rigid Netherlands team.
On the bright side, Sergio Aguero seems fit to return to the squad, which should bolster the Argentina attack in a major way. He’s not a like-for-like replacement of Di Maria, but his scoring instincts and technical ability should add a different element. Argentina also has Ezequiel Lavezzi to play on the left wing and attack players one-on-one. Lavezzi is another player of high quality and should be ready to take a more advanced role with Di Maria out.
What we might see from Sabella is deploying Messi in the right channel in a narrow fashion where he can still cut in on his left foot, but he will not be the traditional out-and-out winger that Di Maria was. Without Di Maria’s pace on that right side of the field and Messi’s lack of defensive responsibilities, Netherlands should look to counter down that side with Daley Blind and the three-headed monster of Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder.
Sabella will need to decide if he can live with that sacrifice in order to put his team’s best player in the ideal position to create havoc on offense. Whatever Sabella decides to do, Di Maria’s absence proposes a problem for Argentina and it could result in a spot in the third-place game instead of playing in the final.