Lionel Messi is the star but Julián Álvarez has revived Argentina’s attack

So much of the talk about Argentina at the World Cup has been about Lionel Messi finally getting his hands on the trophy. Argentina had the worst possible start, losing 2-1 to Saudi Arabia in their opening game, but things have improved since with three wins over Mexico, Poland and Australia. If they beat the Netherlands on Friday night, they will reach the semi-finals for just the second time since 1990.

While Messi has grabbed the headlines with his three goals – including the spectacular opener in Argentina’s 2-1 win over Australia in the round of 16 – a lot of credit should go to Julián Álvarez. He is the player who came into the team when Argentina were struggling and helped their attack, including Messi, click.

Lautaro Martínez started Argentina’s first two games, which made a lot of sense given that he had scored seven goals in his 15 league appearances for Internazionale this season. He was considered a frontrunner in the race to win the Golden Boot but did not have a shot on target or create a goalscoring chance – never mind score a goal – in those two games.

Martínez has since been dropped for Argentina’s decisive group match against Poland and their last-16 game against Australia. He has had to settle for cameos off the bench, and again he has failed to impress, missing three big chances across those two games. Of all the players yet to score at the World Cup, only Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku – his Inter teammate – has spurned more big chances.

Not only has Álvarez scored twice in his two starts, but Argentina’s attack as a whole has looked sharper. Martínez is more of an out-and-out goalscorer, but Álvarez’s ability to play across the frontline, whether on the wing or as a main striker, has helped the team.

Argentina have had more shots, more possession and scored more goals since Álvarez came into the side. In their first two games, 43.5% of their shots were from outside the box; that figure has dropped to 17% in their last two matches, suggesting they are more balanced and are cultivating better goalscoring opportunities.

On a personal level, Álvarez is having a bigger impact than Martínez: he has made more passes than Martínez, been caught offside less often, had more touches in the penalty area, provided more crosses, made fewer unsuccessful touches and, of course, taken more shots on target and scored more goals. The 22-year-old could even make some history if he scores against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals.

Only three Argentina players have scored in their first three World Cup matches: Guillermo Stábile in 1930, Oreste Corbatta in 1958 and Hernán Crespo in 2006. If Álvarez scores on Friday night, he would be the youngest player to score in his first three World Cup starts since Téofilo Cubillas did it for Peru in 1970.

Crucially for Argentina, Messi is playing better with Álvarez in the team. The Manchester City player’s energetic running in wide areas creates space for Messi in the middle of the pitch. In the final group game, when Álvarez earned his first World Cup start, Messi completed four successful dribbles.

Watching Messi in full flow is a spectacular sight but he spends a surprising amount of time at walking pace. In Argentina’s three group games, Messi covered 14,361m at walking pace – more than any other player in the tournament. He likes to work out opponents, understand their setup and then, when he does get the ball, he finds space, explodes into action and attacks with intensity.

Playing as a lone striker alongside hard-working wide players suits Messi. They occupy defenders and create space for him. Messi has taken 17 shots in the tournament – by far the most in the Argentina squad and second only to Kylian Mbappé in Qatar – so it’s important that the shape of the team suits him.

No team should rely on one player alone, but Argentina have to ensure Messi is involved and allowed to do his thing. Álvarez has made things tick more fluidly, with his pressing, running on the wing and overall involvement in the buildup. If Argentina are going to win the World Cup, they will do so because of Messi’s brilliance – but he needs the best platform to perform and that is what Álvarez provides.