In a hard-fought 2021 Copa America Final, Argentina ended a 28-year long wait for inter­na­tion­al silverware by beating Brazil 1 – 0 thanks to Angel Di Maria’s goal — Cover image: @CopaAmerica on Twitter

Not since Gabriel Batistuta, Diego Simeone and Fernando Redondo lifted the trophy in 1993 had Argentina celebrated not just a Copa América title but any senior title whatsoever. The 28-year drought seemed as though it would go on forever and the glittering career of arguably the greatest ever player Lionel Messi would forever be lacking that piece of international silverware.

Despite reaching the final of the 2021 Copa América, few expected Lionel Scaloni’s side to overcome red hot favorites Brazil. After all, the defending champions remained the form side in South America and hadn’t lost on home soil since 2014.

With Gabriel Jesus’ suspension from his quarter-final red card extended, Tite named an unchanged Brazil side to the one that saw off Peru in the semis. A fluid 4-2-3-1 with Casemiro and Fred the deepest of the midfielders, tasked with protecting the back four and the impressive Lucas Paquetá aiming to continue his outstanding form alongside Neymar floating behind the mobile Richarlison.

The eyebrows were raised from Lionel Scaloni’s decision to make five changes from Argentina’s semi-final. Cristian Romero’s return from injury only hinged on the Atalanta center-back’s fitness but the other four were all open to debate.

Lionel Scaloni’s calls ultimately receiving full vindication. Argentina’s switch to a 4-4-2 was decisive and each of those selected gave the formation the required tweaks to counter Brazil.

What was of particular interest is what this allowed Argentina to do when in possession. For many, the decision to opt for Leandro Paredes over the more specialized ball-winner Guido Rodríguez at the base of midfield was a risk.

However, the inclusion of Marcos Acuña at left-back and his natural instinct to push further up the wing meant that Giovani Lo Celso could tuck inside off the left and provide an extra man centrally regardless.

Acuña joining the midfield left Argentina with almost a back-three at times and the midfield three of Paredes, De Paul and Lo Celso were able to close off the spaces through the middle.

Unlike say Colombia who were able to utilize the man-marking capabilities of specialist Wilmar Barrios to track Neymar, Argentina tended to hunt in packs and swarmed both Brazil’s number 10 and Lucas Paquetá as soon as they received the ball and in doing so cutting off a major supply line.

And it wasn’t only Argentina’s midfield that played a role in making things difficult for Brazil. Lionel Scaloni’s clear instructions to both Lionel Messi and Lautaro Martínez was to cut off the short pass into Casemiro and therefore take away the first progressive pass for Brazil into midfield.

On a number of occasions, this forced Marquinhos to pass direct and played into the hands of Argentina’s center-back pairing of Cristian Romero and Nicolás Otamendi, both strong in the air.

No player made as many recoveries (10) or defensive duels (13 - winning 77%) as Rodrigo De Paul, who delivered the final’s outstanding performance. Tirelessly winning the ball and applying pressure on the Brazil midfield but making an impact offensively to create the two clear chances for Argentina - one decisively converted by Ángel Di María and the other late on missed by Lionel Messi.

Rodrigo De Paul vs Brazil

While De Paul and his Argentina teammates starved Brazil of space in midfield, the game’s only goal came when Tite’s side failed to do the same.

Arguably with the slower Thiago Silva partnering Marquinhos in central defense rather than Eder Militão, Brazil are forced to sit a little deeper and the disconnect with the midfield is made apparent in the goal. With a large space already between the back four and the midfield, no one wants to push further forward to press De Paul and it allows the freedom to find the pass.

The target of the pass being another of the contentious decisions in the Argentina XI ahead of kick-off. The switch to a 4-4-2 with Ángel Di María included in favor of Nicolás González on the left of a 4-3-3 was a bold one but paid dividends.

With Acuña pushing high on the left from full-back it allowed Di María to push high down the right in a somewhat lopsided 4-4-2 but it also gave Argentina a valuable outlet on the counter whilst applying pressure on Renan Lodi.

With three of Argentina’s six total shots, Di María was one of Argentina’s most active attacking threats in the first half at least and eventually, that yielded the game’s only goal. Renan Lodi failing to cut out De Paul’s pass and Di María expertly lobbing Ederson.

As expected, Argentina dropped deeper as the game went on and Brazil saw more and more of the ball. Tite sacrificed Fred in favor of Roberto Firmino and the additional forward did help to open up extra passing options into the final third.

Brazil failed to create too many clear chances but after Richarlison twice came close following his switch to the right, Scaloni made another important change to shore up his defense.

Nicolás Tagliafico replaced Giovani Lo Celso and, in doing so, allowed Marcos Acuña to play on the left of the midfield but give Argentina duel cover down the Brazilian right. The pair could combine to provide width for Argentina when in possession and importantly avoid Brazil having 2v1 situations against the full-back.

In their pursuit of an equalizer Brazil were increasingly forced wide and while many questioned Argentina’s full-back options pre-final, having seen Colombia’s Luis Díaz torment both Nahuel Molina and Gonzalo Montiel in the semi-finals, the Albiceleste stood firm.

Montiel (4) answering his critics with his best performance in an Argentina shirt. With nine recoveries, second only to De Paul, Montiel also a game-high eight interceptions and nine clearances.

Argentina Recoveries v Brazil

As Argentina increasingly retreated into a lower block, Brazil never really looked like finding an equalizer and in fact, Argentina could perhaps have made certain in the closing minutes.

Compact defensively, well-drilled and able to take their chance, Argentina secured a famous win at the Maracanã and with it ended their long wait for glory.

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