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To beat Argentina in Copa America, a team must slow its attack

Argentina’s Lionel Messi takes a free kick during a Copa America Centenario Group D soccer match against Bolivia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Can anyone beat Argentina? Coming into the Copa America, Argentina was the clear favorite, but Chile and Brazil could make their cases, and Mexico looked to have an outside shot. Now Brazil has been eliminated and Argentina throttled Chile. And then to top it off, Argentina was drawn into the softer side of the knockout bracket. A semifinal matchup with the United States awaits if Argentina can get by Venezuela on Saturday, while Mexico and Chile sit on the other side of the bracket.

In the group stage Argentina looked unbeatable, outscoring Chile, Panama and Bolivia 10-1 and allowing not a single clear-cut scoring chance in 270 minutes.

The Argentine attack was probably not as dominant as the top-line score suggests, but clinical finishing isn’t unexpected when Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain are at the point of attack. But it is the defense that deserves particular praise. To concede less than one expected goal in three matches is excellent, but to do so while covering for mediocre-at-best center backs Ramiro Funes Mori and Nicolas Otamendi is spectacular.

The key here has been defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano, who is perhaps the game’s best at this specific role. Before he was rested against Bolivia, Mascherano had notched 17 ball recoveries in the defensive half in two matches, along with a handful of tackles. His positioning and power allows Mascherano to be first to loose balls or force opposing attackers to be loose with their touch, and his sureness on the ball means he can then quickly begin a new possession for Argentina. He has been supported as well by a relatively defensive midfield partner in Augusto Fernandez, and both fullbacks play relatively conservatively. This back six, of which Mascherano is the unquestioned rock, is what other sides in the Copa will need to unlock if they mean to win the tournament.

This is a problem that much better teams have failed to solve in recent tournaments. During the knockout phase of the Copa America in 2015, Argentina conceded only one goal — eventually falling on penalties to Chile after 120 minutes of suffocating defense. And in the 2014 World Cup, Argentina had not conceded a single goal in the knockout rounds until Mario Gotze found a breakthrough in the last period of extra time in the final. There is little reason right now to expect anyone to solve Argentina’s back six or to find a way around Mascherano.

So the most likely way past Argentina would be to slow its attack and hope to nick a lucky goal or a penalty shootout. So far in this tournament, however, Argentina’s front four has been excellent. Messi is returning to fitness, Ever Banega and Erik Lamela have provided playmaking, and Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain have been consistently dangerous at the point of attack. Argentina has the most well-distributed chance creation numbers in the Copa. Despite creating five expected goals, no Argentine player has more than 0.7 expected goals or expected assists. Everyone has gotten in on the act. This is particularly important because the back six typically contribute little to the attack, so if there is a weak link defenses should find it easy to target and slow Argentina down. The loss of Di Maria to injury is a problem, but it will also take a strong defensive performance to slow down such a balanced attack.

While anything can happen in a tournament, right now Argentina is rightly the massive favorite to take the Copa America title.