Argentina proved too creative and too tactically astute for a dour England squad that fought hard despite losing 0-2.
Lionel Messi was the difference between the teams, twice lighting up the arena with flashes of brilliance during an otherwise grey and overcast match.
At half-time the scores were locked at 0-0 with neither team having clear-cut chances on goal. The first 45 minutes were a midfield battle with possession turnovers and tight man-marking being the order of play.
In the 25th minute, Aguero had Argentina’s first chance after receiving a laser-like pass played out of defense. The Argentinian striker turned on the ball and beat Stones with a tight change of direction. Support loomed wide but the return pass into the box was poor and was intercepted by England’s goalkeeper.
Two minutes later Argentina were on the attack again, driving down the right wing with the ball at Mascherano’s feet. The cross into the penalty area was driven low and hard into the path of Aguero, but again Pickford in England’s goal was able to smother the attack.
England were beginning to struggle. Argentina had the weight of possession, and the three-man England backline found itself stretched and under increasing pressure. In the 35thminute, Lionel Messi found himself deftly played into space. The Argentinian superstar beat a challenge, dribbled into the box, fended off a fierce tackle, and fired on goal – only to have Pickford produce the save of the night to keep a clean score sheet.
In the 52nd minute the pressure on England’s stretched defense finally told. Di Maria made a dazzling dribbling run, mesmerizing two defenders before cutting towards the byline inside the England penalty area. His short centering pass found Lionel Messi who was able to hold off a challenge from Stones to slide his shot inside the near goalpost to score.
England tried to hit back in the 58th minute when Vardy ran on to a ball played into space behind the Argentine defense, but his early pass into the penalty area to Rashford led to a hurried shot on goal that was easily saved.
The attack heralded a ten-minute resurgence for England. In the 63rd minute more good play from Vardy produced England’s best chance of the night. The striker turned on a good pass, dribbled the ball into the box under heavy pressure, and beat a tackle before firing on goal. Caballero pulled off an athletic save to shut down the attack, and an unmarked Rashford at the top of the penalty box vented his frustration at Vardy’s greedy decision to shoot instead of pass.
With twenty minutes left in the match, Argentina put the decision beyond doubt after a sudden break out of midfield. The pass on the right caught the England defense disorganized and dangerously outnumbered. Impulsively, Cahill lunged in for a tackle to shut the attack down but the rash challenge left the defense outnumbered. Aguero ran the ball to the top of the penalty area, laid off a short pass to Messi who played an outrageous back heel pass to Meza lurking on the left. The midfielder drew his marker, beat the tackle, and then slipped the ball back inside to an unmarked Lionel Messi who made no mistake with his shot on target.
Losing 0-2, England went to their substitutes bench, replacing a midfielder with another striker – but it was too little, too late. In complete control of the match, Argentina were able to dominate possession for the remainder of the match and ran out comfortable winners.
Tony Moffitt is an experienced coach of senior and junior footballers of all levels. He has coached in Ireland, Spain and Australia. He has worked with elite coaches from English Premier League teams and has earned a reputation for his tactical acumen.