One of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.
Toss aside the relatively meaningless FIFA World Rankings and Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 win over Argentina still makes little sense. Even the statistics on the day would indicate Argentina would likely win. But football, as they say, is played on the pitch. Despite everything seemingly against them, the Saudi team opened their tournament with a win over one of the favorites to win the tournament.
Here’s how it happened.
Saudi Arabia scored two goals from just three shots and 0.14 xG. That’s silly. Translated: Based on the quality of those shots, the stats said they should not have scored at all.
It’s not that the quality of their shots were awful, but based on where they came from you simply don’t expect them to turn into goals very often. The execution was simply outstanding in difficult goalscoring circumstances. The eventual winner by Salem Aldawsari was particularly spectacular, and a testament to the quality of his strike. He was being closed down by a defender as he turned to reset himself and got the shot off just in time. Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez got a hand to the shot as well, but the ball was struck with such power and accuracy that nothing in the way stopped it.
Quite simply, both Saudi Arabia goals were just well taken in a period where they’d taken initiative but had by no means taken control. They made their limited time with the ball count, and caught Argentina off guard coming out of the break with how enterprising their play was.
A classic, organized defensive model that worked perfectly for Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
Possession and xG aren’t everything when it comes to the result, but they do help tell the story of the match. Argentina, especially in the first half, looked set to dominate. The penalty goal seemed as though it would just be the opening of the floodgates, and they would go on to have three goals ruled out for offside in the first half.
Here’s two excerpts from a Twitter thread by JJ Bull of Tifo Football, who highlights well the approach by Argentina in both halves.
First half Argentina were able to do this. High line a really worthwhile gamble. They were defending about 5-10 metres from the halfway line for a lot of it. But because there wasn’t enough pressure on the deeper players, Arg could pass through and over pic.twitter.com/NMwOvhZpTh
— JJ Bull (@jj_bull) November 22, 2022
2nd half was more like this. Higher first line of press with loads more support. Only real option was wide. As soon as the ball went wide they were isolated but then the fullback jumped, forced play backwards. Midfielders all hidden by press and going missing themselves pic.twitter.com/wasDxYFpFU
— JJ Bull (@jj_bull) November 22, 2022
Argentina attacked very directly in the first half, sending balls over the top for their forwards to run onto. For the first half at least it kept them on the front foot, and nearly got them another goal, too. The offside trap remained organized, but even then the margin that ruled out Lautauro Martinez’s goal was very slim. Lionel Messi had a close offside call as well, thinking he had doubled his tally and the lead.
Failing to capitalize on the first-half chances had an effect on Argentina, who made few meaningful adjustments over the course of the second half to remedy a suddenly dire situation.
Saudi Arabia on the other hand came out of the break with intention, and they adapted well to both make Argentina uncomfortable and create chances for themselves. They mostly sat deep and defended once they had the lead, but they still forced Argentina to resort to long balls and crosses. They took away the middle of the pitch, where Argentina’s most dangerous runs came in the first half, and as a result the gap between the forwards and the areas of possession grew. They simply had no answer to retake control of the midfield in the second half, even with their opponents largely playing without possession.
Argentina were still presented opportunities to equalize, notably headed attempts by both Messi and Julian Alvarez, but Saudi keeper Mohammed Alowais came up with some huge saves. His proactive goalkeeping to challenge crosses and establish control in the area was a big boost for their defensive efforts as well. While Argentina’s creativity was poor, and they seemed out of ideas even before desperation time in the final 20 minutes, the Saudis deserve a lot of credit for their halftime adjustments. They took their chances, and saw out the win by frustrating a very talented Argentina side.
Going forward it will be interesting to see how both teams handle their respective tests against Poland and Mexico, who played to a 0-0 draw in their opening match. Certainly, on paper both will be a tougher test for Argentina, but as everyone was reminded tournament football has no guarantees. Saudi Arabia sit atop the group for now, and their next opponents will think twice before assuming three points against them.