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Nahuel Molina: Messi’s New Wingman

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Leo Messi has found his new wingman. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner forged a terrific society with Jordi Alba for over a decade at FC Barcelona and he now seems to have found a new partner at the Argentinian national team with Nahuel Molina. The 24-year-old right back from Atletico de Madrid has proven a very solid mutual game understanding with ‘La Pulga’, reaching its climax with the goal scored against the Netherlands in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Nevertheless, Molina’s role is not understood or praised by many in the public eye. Within the Argentinian national team, Molina’s impressive on-field chemistry with Messi allows him to create amplitude in areas of the pitch when Messi is more central, or likewise to “fill in the inner pockets” when Messi is open in the wing. That is why today we label Nahuel Molina as Argentina’s “Hidden Key”, to further comprehend his role and positive impact with his national team.

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As mentioned at the beginning, one of Molina’s main advantages as a right-back is his coordination with Lionel Messi. Argentina’s #10, usually plays as a center-forward in a GK-4-4-2 diamond or GK-3-5-2 system, but naturally pivots to the right wing when he detects advantages on the flanks. So, Nahuel Molina shows high tactical intelligence and adapts his position based on the space that Messi is occupying, to help the team occupy the space rationally.

As seen here, Messi drifts to the flank to receive the ball after Argentina is able to switch the game orientation. Molina fills in the pocket between the Croatian midfield and defense, so that Messi can stay wide and unmarked to receive any incoming pass. On the other hand, when Messi is positioned in inner spaces, Molina offers width to the team. This behavior is very important as with the GK-4-4-2 diamond system that Argentina usually plays, it is the full-backs that are usually providing width to their team. However, when Messi as a striker drifts wide, there is a space in the inner corridor that needs to be occupied by another player, and Molina understands this perfectly.

Molina is also a player that provides depth constantly to his team. Not only in positional attack but also in transition, when Molina recovers the ball, passes to a teammate, and rapidly attacks the gaps in the opposite defensive line performing unmarking movements in depth, both in the inner corridors or acting as a winger. In this next example, we can see Molina progressing, playing with Messi and then attacking the gap opened between Blind and Van Dijk. Messi is then able to progress, attract four Dutch players, and filter a through-pass that Molina manages to get past the goalkeeper.

Molina’s tactical intelligence can also be seen when Argentina is in the defensive phase. In defensive transitions, Molina identifies quickly which are the potential link players and anticipates their receptions, to stop dangerous progressions. Anticipating this dangerous reception is key during the defensive transition to avoid giving space and time to the opponent. In addition, Molina tracks the ball holder with high intensity, proving to be a very solid player in defensive duels. This defensive ability, anticipating and being strong in individual duels, helps Argentina counter-press with success and allows them to recover the ball fast.

Another example of Molina’s defensive tactical intelligence can be seen when there are imbalances in the defensive line. rebalancing the defensive line. He is able to read those situations well and adjust his width to reduce potential gaps with the furthest center back. This defensive ‘secret’ is very important for full-backs, specially when one of the center-backs follows the opposite striker, and opens a bigger gap that could be attacked in depth. Molina, is constantly checking the center-backs position and reacts fast when an imbalance is created, as shown in the example below when Otamendi breaks the Argentina defensive to follow one of the Croatian midfielder, who is about to receive the ball in the pockets. His defensive action avoids Croatia being able to play deep to their striker and allows the team to recover the balance.

To conclude, Nahuel Molina has shown very good chemistry with Messi in the offensive phase, adapting his positioning on the pitch to provide an advantage to ‘La Pulga’ and offering progression options in depth when Messi is in possession of the ball. Out of possession, Molina shows great game understanding, anticipating transition and helping to rebalance the team. In summary, Nahuel Molina has shown a very solid level throughout the whole World Cup and, despite not receiving the attention of Julián Alvárez or Enzo Fernández, who has also been fantastic, he has played a key role to help Argentina reach their second World Cup final out of the last three editions.

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