Three things from Saudi Arabia’s stunning upset of Argentina

Lionel Messi trudges off the field after Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia in Qatar. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Lionel Messi trudges off the field after Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia in Qatar. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images) /
Argentina Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia players celebrate their second goal against Argentina on Tuesday. (Photo by Stefan Matzke – sampics/Corbis via Getty Images) /

Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina 2-1 at the Lusail stadium in a Group C match of the World Cup in Qatar on Tuesday.

Saleh Alshehri and Salem Aldawsari scored for the Saudis in the 48th and 53rd minutes, respectively, after Lionel Messi had converted a spot-kick in the 10th minute for Argentina.

It was Argentina’s first loss since 2019 as their 36-match unbeaten run came to an end. This was also the first time the South American champions have lost to an Asian team in the World Cup.

Here are three things that stood out in the match:

Argentina scored soft opening goal amid frenzy in the middle third

Argentina, starting the match with a 4-2-3-1 formation, had the talismanic Messi playing as the No. 10 behind Lautaro Martinez. They started dominating ball-possession from the beginning, but played a lot of passes inside their own half early on. However, Argentina did not have to work too hard for their opening goal.

They got a free-kick on the edge of the Saudi Arabia penalty box and as Messi took the kick, Leandro Paredes was intercepted illegally by a Saudi Arabia player inside the penalty box. VAR intervened and the Argentines were awarded a penalty.

Messi made no mistake in scoring his 92nd international goal to put Argentina ahead. Still, there continued to be a lot of chaos in the middle third, with players from both teams crowding the area and fighting hard to win the ball.

Saudi Arabia kept high defensive line to play Argentine forwards offside

After conceding the goal, Saudi Arabia adopted the tactic of playing with a high defensive line to make sure the Argentine forwards were often caught offside.

They were quite successful as both Messi and Lautaro Martinez put the ball into the net after receiving through passes, but their goals were ruled out for offside.

Sensing that tactic, Messi started playing as a deep-lying playmaker towards the latter stages of the first half by dropping down to his own half and playing long balls to the Argentine forwards.

Argentina were particularly active down the left flank and the inside-left channel, with “Papu” Gomez involved in a number of the attacks.

Saudi Arabia also tried to attack down their right-flank, with Saud Abdulhamid catching eyes with his overlapping runs and getting involved in battles with Nicolas Tagliafico, Argentina’s left back.

However, the Saudis, despite increasing number in the opposition half and pressing high enough,  relied a bit too much on short passes and did not play enough long, incisive balls past the Argentine defensive line. As a result, they often gave the Argentines too much time to organize their defense.

Saudi Arabia’s twin strikes left Argentina stunned in second half

Saudi Arabia reaped the rewards by playing more direct football in the second half and left the two-time world champions stunned with a couple of goals within a space of 5 minutes.

Alshehri scored first with a well-placed left-footer that bounced into the far corner of the net and then Aldawsari gave the Saudis the lead following yet another attack down the right flank.

Abdulhamid started the attack from the right and then played the ball across before it reached Aldawsari. The Saudi forwards then cut inside from the left before letting go a perfectly-placed right-footed shot that beat Emiliano Martinez.

Argentina were quite taken aback, but started launching attacks one after another, with Angel Di Maria coming to the fore.

Most of the Argentine attacks were launched through the right flank involving Di Maria and the latter combined with Messi on a couple of occasions, but they could not beat Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais.

Alowais grew in stature as the match progressed and kept coming off his line to deny the Argentines repeatedly.

Argentina introduced Julian Alvarez and Lisandro Martinez in place of Gomez and Christian Romero, respectively, but could not breach the spirited Saudi defense.

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Saudi Arabia’s left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani, who was superb in the second half, suffered a head injury during stoppage-time and had to be replaced, but it had no bearing on the result as the Saudis registered a memorable victory.