The Argentines face the very real prospect of an early flight home after their three nil defeat to Croatia in Group D. Touted by some as tournament dark horses due to their rich attacking talent, the 2014 finalists had to hope that Nigeria could do them favour against Iceland last night. The Super Eagles duly did just that, and a lifeline has been extended to Messi & co. But this is far from how it was meant to go for one of the proudest nations in world football.
On a night when Messi once again looked isolated and adrift, the national team failed miserably to make their mark. This set back though runs a lot deeper than one player, though. Indeed, if Argentina are to recover, they need to look beyond the Barcelona forward.
Disaster on the cards
A closer look at Argentina and their build-up to this tournament shows just how wide of the mark their billed status as potential champions was.
Jorge Sampaoli has begged for forgiveness from his nation after their humbling against Croatia. It was a dour defeat which was symptomatic of their big problems going into this tournament. The manager was turned to in a moment of crisis as Argentina made heavy work of their qualification campaign. Sampaoli got them results but struggled to build a framework around the squad he inherited
He tried to bring Icardi and Dybala to the fold, but with mixed results. The side struggled to adapt to Sampaoli’s pressing game, and their meagre goal return of nineteen from eighteen games should have provided fair warning for a potential disaster. Perhaps the demand to build a team around Messi has been a distraction. The constant need from fans to see their hero win them a trophy has meant countless managers and formations have been primed for the Barcelona forward to thrive in. Sadly none have worked.
Sampaoli inherited a side that was ageing and reeling from the back of three successive final defeats. It was a side devoid of natural pace despite plenty of attacking talent.
The high press game is all about destruction and pace. Hungry, aggressive players hound defenders into confusion and errors before pouncing on loose balls. This makes it such a potent weapon even against sides sitting deep with numbers, as Iceland did last weekend. In theory, it should work and create that extra crucial couple of seconds for the likes of Messi and Aguero. Looking at Argentina, though, they seem rather sluggish when pressing, lacking the vital commitment.
Should Sampaoli have found another way to get the best out of his players? Perhaps a more direct approach would have helped create more openings. Croatia are not a particularly solid defensive unit, and Dejan Lovren, in particular, is prone to lapses in concentration. Would they have coped with more taxing diagonal and direct balls?
Too many matches
Much has been made of Argentina’s talisman and his failure to light up a World Cup. Bizarrely, it has even been used as evidence to suggest he is not one of the best of players of all time.
One thing is clear though, the forward looks worn out. Fatigue is an obvious problem and it has been the elephant in the room for much of Messi’s recent career. Since his breakthrough campaign of 05/06, he has averaged 66 games a year in his career. He is not the only one; Aguero has averaged more than fifty games a year – and that is on top of numerous injury niggles.
These star players have talent in abundance, more than enough to be World Cup winners, however, they appear to be too tired whenever these tournaments come around. It’s a real issue for Argentina and appears to have cost them yet again.
Sampaoli is unlikely to survive this failure. The media will likely ignore his cries for forgiveness and demand his removal.
Beyond 2018, Argentina will need to reinvest their efforts in youth football. A generation of talented stars has reached its end and the next crop look a little pedestrian, to say the least. Tagliafico, Perez and Salvia, in particular, look out of their depth, even with more seasoned pros to guide them.
The challenge will now be to rebuild a team with an identity. If they want to continue with a pressing game they need more pace and enthusiasm. Whatever the outcome of the inquest, the future looks murky for the South American giants.
This article was originally posted by Anthony Kelly, here.