As the Spartak Stadium geared up for the showdown between the world’s biggest footballing star and the Lilliputian Nordic nation, the booming clangour of the thunderclaps reverberated around the imperialist buildings of Moscow, bemusing not only the travelling Argentine fans used to the hooliganism of Barra Bravas back home, but also the otherwise stoic Russian citizens. Video clips of the moment soon circulated worldwide, further endearing the small European country off the coast of North Atlantic and its unlikely aggregation of football team to the neutrals.
What sets apart that moment from the celebratory moods of supporters of other nations thronging various cities in Russia is synchronization and preparation — two traits the World Cup debutants brought in abundance against the footballing royalty of Argentina.
“People can’t help but love us. We certainly feel it. We have not attacked anyone or been at war with anyone. Well, except the ‘cod war’ and nobody got hurt there,” practicing dentist Heimir Halgrimmson is definitely a proud manager leading his band of merry men into the cauldron of footballing legacy, although he entertains the cult status that his team enjoys among the hipsters.
But the 51-year-old manager will be the first one to allude to the fact that his side aren’t mere pushovers.
Their stupendous performance in the 2016 European Championships wasn’t a fluke, but rather a culmination of years of intense preparation since Halgrimmson took charge of the national side back in 2011. They arrived in Russia in even better shape — Gylfi Sigurdsson, the team’s heartbeat finally shrugging off injuries, along with players like Alfred Finnbogason and Hordur Magnusson are coming on the back of successful club campaigns.
Conventional wisdom suggested Argentina may find it difficult to break down the ‘ice cold’ Iceland, but it wasn’t beyond Lionel Messi to wave his magic wand and garner three points in the opening fixture. And the occasion presented itself to the 30-year-old maestro in the 64th minute when he stepped up to take a penalty — a potential match-winning goal, but a meek shot within the reach of Hannes Thor Halldorsson, a part-time film producer, meant the night would end in despair for La Albiceleste.
A slight frown on Messi's face was the only indication of frustration on display, but the Argentine captain was bound to be exasperated by the phenomenal display of siege mentality from Iceland.
Rather than lining up in a traditional 4-4-2 formation, which they successfully modernised during the Euro 2016 campaign, Halgrimmson fielded a 4-5-1 formation with Sigurddson as the ‘floater’ just behind Finnbogason up front. Not only did this allow Siggurdsson to circumvent the two Argentine central midfielders Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano while orchestrating an attack, but also ensured Siggurdsson operated as a No 8 whenever Iceland lost possession — making up more numbers in the midfield.
Not that the midfield comprising of Aron Gunnarsson and Emil Hallfredsson required more numbers — stifling opposition creative outlets has become all but second nature to this duo of central midfielders. To crowd out the centre of the park against better opponents is a ploy many teams around Europe adopt at club level, but to asphyxiate the channels of ball circulation is where Iceland excels.
Iceland were facing an Argentine side which isn’t really good at pressing in advanced positions, not for the lack of trying though. However, the lack of pace from the wingers Angel di Maria and Maximiliano Meza meant Messi had to do the grunt work, from reconnaissance to execution.
“We have the bitterness of not being able to take the three points that we deserved. They did not want to play but closed well,” Messi told reporters after the game, his consternation justified but his ideology of how Iceland should have played doing a huge disservice to the sheer effort his opponents put in.
Not for the first time, such words have been heard from arguably the world’s finest ‘false nine’ ever. But what Messi failed to acknowledge that the 1-1 draw, irrespective of how hurtful it was for Argentina’s knockout chances, was a mere example of years of preparation combined with steadfast resolve among a golden generation of Nordic footballers. After all, Iceland did not arrive in Russia simply to make up numbers.
Messi had 115 touches on the ball and completed 60 passes, just eight passes less than the entire Iceland midfield. However, every time the Barcelona forward came close to the ball, a trio of white shirts converged around him with hawk-like precision and ape-like aggressiveness. Simply dropping deep in their defensive zone or man-marking Messi can only get a team so far, but it is the intricacy of their narrow team structure which underlines Iceland’s defensive prowess.
Like a basic tactical drill at grassroot level of footballing pyramid, Iceland players tend to operate in triangles, ensuring a tight defensive space is always maintained around the ball. It is that tenet of the Vikings’ game which ensured Argentina could neither succeed from Messi’s genius playmaking nor could the likes of Biglia and Di Maria feed the Barcelona talisman with the necessary service.
Spectacular creativity and artistic flair are inherent to most successful modern football teams, but Iceland are the standard for the contrasting spectrum — that not only the Ronaldos and Messis of the world can succeed, but moderately talented players with a sense of unity and a drive to achieve their dreams can shoot for the stars if backed by the correct coaching methodology. As Jonathan Wilson put it, "football is not just about players; it's all about formations and space, about the intelligent arrangement of players and their movements within that arrangement."
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Updated Date: Jun 17, 2018 19:04:47 IST