TCM Analysis: Argentina v Saudi Arabia

We break down possibly the biggest World Cup upset ever.

Nov 23rd 2022

Written by The Coaching Manual


There is an abundance of analysis of matches at the World Cup, but The Coaching Manual does things differently.

We give our audience insight into the tactics and systems on display in Qatar, but we go the extra step and give our users practical training sessions that they can deliver to their players so that for the next 6 weeks the World Cup can inspire our coaches and players to emulate their heroes on the training field.

So, whilst your regular season curriculum might go out of the window for the next few weeks, you can still use the World Cup to create genuine outcomes for everyone.


Argentina - 1-4-4-2

Saudi Arabia - 1-4-1-4-1


First Half Review

Argentina entered the 2022 World Cup on a 36-game unbeaten run which started back in July 2019. This winning streak also included their success in winning the Copa America in 2021. Saudi Arabia entered the World Cup ranking outside the top 50. 

Argentina started strong, with an attacking system leaving their 2 strikers and two wide midfielders high and wide. This was partly due to a high line set out by Saudi Arabia.

Argentina won a penalty which Lionel Messi (10#) dispatched confidently into the back of the net after just 10 minutes played.

Argentina were then on the assurgency to score more goals and take advantage of Saudi Arabia’s high line. Shortly after the penalty, Lionel Messi (10#) got in behind and finished - however the line proved to be organised because it was disallowed for being offside.

Lautaro Martinez (22#) got in behind twice and finished both times clinically, however Saudi Arabia’s defenders kept together meaning both of those goals were also offside. As the first half drew to a close, Argentina started to get careless, giving possession and chances away to Saudi Arabia. 

Argentina went into the half time break with only scoring 1 goal despite putting the ball in the back of the net 4 times. 

Second Half Review

Argentina started the second half lethargically with a lack of intensity, and gave possession away too easily while forcing passes due to the high line of Saudi Arabia.

It only took 3 minutes for Saudi Arabia to capatilise on this when Saleh Al Shehri (11#) received a pass going into the penalty area, and took a positive first touch into the box causing Christan Romero (13#) to not be able to move his feet quickly to get in line with the ball and get a clean block on the finish.

This finish ended up going right into the bottom right corner.

Just 5 minutes after the equaliser, Saudi Arabia were quickly ahead against the favourites, when Argentina failed clear a cross, then a shot, which looped into the air just inside the 18 yard box.

Salem Al Dawsari (#10) brought the ball down well under pressure, taking his touch away from pressure enabling him to back into one of the defenders and face up one of the other defenders. Al Dawsari identified that Rodrigo Del Paul’s (7#) body weight was leaning toward the byline, so he kept low and shifted the ball quickly giving him a chance to get a shot on goal, which he did excellently in the top right corner. 

After Saudi Arabia took the lead, the defensive, midfield, and attacking unit dropped off by 5-10 yards to protect the space more but still holding a high line.

Argentina got in behind on three occasions after going behind, including when Lionel Messi (10#) was tackled in the box excellently denying a shot on goal.

One other occasion demonstrated how important a goalkeeper is when having a high line, when Mohammad Al Owais (21#) read the danger and got to the ball ahead of Lautaro Martinez (22#). The goalkeeper reached the ball ahead of the striker purely because of his excellent starting position. This demonstrated that all players knew thier game plan and all understood their roles and responsibilities even when the defensive line was beaten. They demonstrated excellent recovery skills, where 1 player would make body contact and delay the player making the run, while the other defenders covered and stepped in. 

Check out a guide and session by Martin Hunter, based on Recovery and Delay to support your players when this might happen to them in a game. 

Argentina put on some pressure, but nothing that would disorganise and disrupt the Saudi Arabia defensive shape out of possession, leading to a historic win for Saudi Arabia. 

Specific Strategy: Saudi Arabia’s Defensive Shape


The image above demonstrates Saudi Arabia’s defensive shape, it shows the high line and how compact they were. The players tried to stay in this green highlighted shape as long as possible when the ball was in front of them. They would then screen and slide as the ball switched across. 

They would encourage Argentina to do either of 2 actions to play into their hands. 

One would be forcing the ball in behind where the back line would either play Argentina offside, clear the ball away due to their physical presence and amount of numbers within the central channel in order to win both the 1st and 2nd balls, or capitalise if the pass is overhit.

It is important to highlight that the goalkeeper understood his role, and when called upon to come out and meet the ball when the defensive line was broken, he did. 

The other way would would be forcing Argentina to play into the number of players in that highlighted green shape. When the ball is played in they would defend aggressively and in numbers whilst maintaining their position inside that shape, with players dropping in or filling in position if players stepped out. 


The image above shows that although the shape is similar, as Saudi Arabia setup in a 1-4-1-4-1, the player in front of the back 4 - Abduleleah Al Malki (8#) - had an important role to play to keep the defensive and midfield units together and compact.

This also gave him the license to drop in between the centre backs and create a back 5 to fill the gap between centre backs and compact the centre even more.

This was done to cover forward passes through the central channel both in the air and on the floor. This was integral as it enabled them to close any gaps in the defensive line, while it also allowed Al Malki to step back into midfield when the team got up the field. This would usually only occur if Argentina were looking building in around the half way line or in Saudi Arabia’s half. 


The image above shows how the shape looked when Argentina got the ball wide to their fullbacks and wide players. 

Teach your players how to defend in balance and be compact like Saudi Arabia in 2 sessions delivered by Lee Smith and Alex Ball. 

Game Stats

Passes per defensive action (PPDA) is a metric used to quantify a team's passing intensity.


The data point represents how many passes the opposition make (on average) before a defensive pressing action is executed by the team out of possession, in the opponent's half of the field. A lower PPDA score represents a more intense pressing strategy.

Next Game 

Argentina look to bounce back against Mexico in their second group game. 

Saudi Arabia look to continue their winning start against Poland in their second group game.

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