If Lionel Messi is to fill the one glaring gap in his resume, Argentina need to get their act together.
Yes, Tuesday’s loss to Spain was an outlier. Apart from no Messi, there was also no Paulo Dybala, no Sergio Aguero, no Angel di Maria – none of the star players whose names are always trotted out when Argentina’s case for being among the favourites at an international tournament is being made.
But even as an outlier, a 6-1 scoreline is galling. There was enough quality in the team to avoid getting rolled over like that. Nicolas Otamendi, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia, Marcos Rojo, Ever Banega all started and subsequently saw their country suffer its joint-heaviest defeat.
The result highlighted the same inexplicable problem that has plagued Argentina this entire decade: Messi can’t lift a side which still hasn’t figured out how to play beyond the sum of its parts.
It shouldn’t even have to – any team which has a selection dilemma of picking two out of Dybala, Aguero, Di Maria, Higuain, and Mauro Icardi to play with Messi should be tearing through opponents.
Nor is the team truly top-heavy, as the regular criticism goes. In Mascherano, Banega, Biglia, Otamendi, Rojo, and Gabriel Mercado, there is enough depth to make a serious run in the World Cup without relying solely on the talents of one man, even if that man is one trophy away from ending the debate as to who is the greatest player of all time.
Indeed, this is a team which made the last World Cup final and followed that up with two straight appearances in Copa America finals.
Yet, each time, Argentina’s success in reaching the last hurdle was down to the efforts of Messi, with nobody else playing up to par. And each time, in the final, they came up against a team more well-oiled, more cohesive, more attuned to the concept of playing as a unit, and they lost. And there is nothing to suggest that the 2018 vintage will be any different.
Consider this: in 18 fixtures during qualifiers for this summer’s tournament, all that attacking talent managed 19 goals. Messi scored seven of those in 10 appearances. Three of those came in the final qualifier via a hat-trick – and without that, Argentina wouldn’t even have qualified for the World Cup. The over-reliance on their talisman cannot be overstated.
Over-relying on Messi got them to the final in 2014 and had a few bounces gone their way against Germany that day, they would be world champions. Four years later, however, and the weaknesses which have plagued them then haven’t been solved.
A new “next Messi” has been found but Dybala hasn’t hit the heights of his club career for his country. Higuain hasn’t been relied upon as a consistent scorer, after famous misses in tournament finals, despite his form at club level since. Aguero hasn’t even been a guaranteed starter, depending on the formation used by whoever was coaching.
Current manager Jorge Sampaoli says the World Cup is like a gun pointed to Messi’s head in terms of the pressure it brings.
But the rest of the team is doing nothing to release that weight of expectation, and Tuesday’s loss was the latest example. Spain found it too easy to retain possession, Argentina withered in the face of their opponents’ press, and an utterly embarrassing result followed.
Argentina have suffered their joint-heaviest defeat; their third by a 6-1 scoreline:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 27, 2018
1958: Czechoslovakia 6-1 Argentina
2009: Bolivia 6-1 Argentina
2018: Spain 6-1 Argentina
Totally blown away. 😳 pic.twitter.com/S3V6Vl7TsH
Put them against any of the other favourites for Russia, even at full strength, it’s difficult to see Argentina coming out on top. Brazil beat Argentina 3-0 during the qualifiers even with Messi on the pitch. Spain would back themselves to repeat Tuesday’s performance against Argentina’s first-choice midfield. Germany at their best look like a side in total control, as good as the 2010 Spain side that never let anyone else touch the ball.
And Germany showed in the 2014 final that there is a way to contain Messi. Unfortunately for La Albiceleste, until someone else on the team shows they can step up on the big occasion, that will be enough to derail their World Cup hopes.
With just three months to go until the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and following the conclusion of the final mid-season international friendlies, we take a look at four bosses who still have plenty of work to do ahead of the start of this summer’s tournament in Russia.
We’ve picked out two key areas that each manager must focus on between now and June if they are to enjoy a successful World Cup campaign.
JORGE SAMPAOLI – ARGENTINA
Over-reliance on Messi
When you have a player capable of producing magic every time he touches the ball, it’s difficult not to try and build your team around him. But Jorge Sampaoli appears to have forgotten that those accompanying Lionel Messi for Argentina this summer aren’t at the level of his Barcelona team-mates. Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala are both likely to be left at home this summer, simply because Sampaoli believes they do not fit Argentina’s style. But what is the style he talks about? Messi’s magic, but as has been the case previously, he can’t win a World Cup on his own.
Playing out from the back
While Argentina are blessed with a plethora of options going forward, the same cannot be said defensively. While Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo and Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi are likely to form the heart of Sampaoli’s defence, his options are limited elsewhere. Trying to get his side playing out from the back complicates matters further. Sampaoli must find a way to shore up the defence and not be the creators of their own downfall.
FERNANDO SANTOS – PORTUGAL
Aiding aging central defenders
With no more international breaks between now and the end of the season, Fernando Santos looks likely to rely on experienced central defenders this summer. Jose Fonte, Bruno Alves, Pep and Rolando are all over the age of 30, but look like they will be heading to Russia at the end of May. The Netherlands made light work of Portugal’s defence on Monday night, and Santos’ primary focus must be ensuring his aging central defenders get the cover and support required. An extra defensive midfielder may provide that, but creativity going forward could be seriously impacted.
The Ronaldo conundrum
Cristiano Ronaldo has shown his quality as a central forward for both Real Madrid and Portugal this season, but his switch from a wide position gives Santos a problem. His side severely lack natural width, and with Ronaldo and Andre Silva in attack, as was the case against Egypt, Goncalo Guedes and Gelson Martins – two players with genuine pace – would miss out to make way for more secure midfield options. Santos must decide whether he wants Silva to support Ronaldo, or whether players who provide width and speed is the way to go.
DIDIER DESCHAMPS – FRANCE
France’s fine margins
Such is the strength of France’s pool of talent heading into the World Cup that Didier Deschamps’ biggest problem comes in the form of selecting his 23-man squad for the tournament. The French boss admitted during the international break that these friendlies were designed to give everyone playing time, but many of his counterparts chose to go as close to full strength as possible in at least one of the two games. Deschamps has to ensure that France aren’t left behind in their preparations.
Pogba’s creative presence
France’s attacking possibilities are endless, but the importance of Paul Pogba cannot be ignored. With the likes of N’Golo Kante, Adrien Rabiot and Blaise Matuidi as alternative midfield options, Pogba’s creative ability from deeper positions could be vital in games in which the opposition afford France plenty of possession. That’s likely to be the case in all three group games, against Australia, Peru and Denmark, meaning Deschamps must ensure Pogba is firing come the summer – even if his frustrations at Manchester United continue between now and May.
GARETH SOUTHGATE – ENGLAND
Creativity is key
Gareth Southgate has moved to lessen the blow of a lack of creativity in midfield by switching Kyle Walker into the heart of the defence and asking him to step out with the ball and get the team moving forward. But that tactic will only get England so far up the pitch. Without a creative midfielder who can unlock defences regularly, the Three Lions will struggle to score the goals they need to challenge this summer. Southgate must hope either Adam Lallana or Jack Wilshere can find some regular form and game-time between now and the end of the season.
Guessing the goalkeeper
Does Southgate really know who he will start in goal when England take on Tunisia in their opening group game? No-one can be sure, with both Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland getting 90 minutes each in the two friendlies. Southgate must decide who gets the nod sooner rather than later to allow the goalkeeper enough time to prepare himself fully, while also giving the defence the chance to build a strong understanding with the man behind them.
With no more international fixtures to be played between now and the end of the season, national team bosses won’t have another opportunity to bring their players together before naming their initial squads for this summer’s 2018 FIFA World Cup.
While there’ll be some happy managers, including Spain’s Julen Lopetegui and Brazil’s Tite, others such as Portugal’s Fernando Santos and Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli have been left with plenty to ponder following mixed results in their two March friendlies.
Here we take a look at five things to consider ahead of the World Cup following the latest round of international matches…
MESSI’S REST WILL SERVE ARGENTINA WELL IN RUSSIA
Will he? Won’t he? No-one was quite sure what was going on with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi during the international break, before he eventually missed both games due to a slight hamstring injury. While there’s no doubt he would have liked to have played against his Barcelona teammates in Argentina’s game against Spain, by not featuring in either of the two friendlies, Messi will have earned himself a full two-week break by the time he plays for Barcelona again. Club boss Ernesto Valverde will be happy, but so too will Jorge Sampaoli, as his key man will be fresher come crunch time in Russia.
WALKER’S THE MAN FOR SOUTHGATE’S DEFENSIVE PLAN
When Kyle Walker was named as the right-sided defender in a three-man backline by Gareth Southgate for the game against the Netherlands, eyebrows were raised. But the Manchester City man showed just why his national team boss has moved him away from his natural position with impressive displays against the Dutch and then Italy. Kieran Trippier will likely start at right-wing back with Walker on the cover, forming a crucial part of Southgate’s plans for England in Russia. The Three Lions will need to be brave at the World Cup this summer, and their manager is leading the way.
BRAZIL’S PROGRESS HIGHLIGHTED IN BERLIN
Memories of that 7-1 defeat in Belo Horizonte will never truly disappear, but Brazil went some way to showing they’ve put that mauling in the past with a 1-0 victory against Germany. Marcelo and Fernandinho were the only two who started that loss four years ago as well as the friendly on Tuesday night, emphasising the transformation Brazil have made under Tite. This Brazil look like the team to beat in Russia this summer, and defeating Germany was a psychological hurdle which will have done them the world of good. They’re joint favourites for a reason.
FRANCE’S OPTIONS COULD BE THEIR UNDOING
Didier Deschamps is arguably blessed with more strength in depth than any other national team manager. The French boss certainly has a plethora of options in every area, but that could well cause problems in itself. He made seven changes from the 3-2 defeat to Colombia in the first friendly for the 3-1 win against Russia, playing two different formations. With so many options, it’s easy to understand why he perhaps doesn’t know his best XI – or even his best formation. The problem is, he’s not going to get many more chances to decide. If France are to go one step further than they did at EURO 2016, Deschamps must make some big decisions – and fast.
WORLD AND EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS? PORTUGAL CAN FORGET IT
Portugal were surprise winners of the European Championships in 2016, but two years on it’s difficult to see them replicating their success at the World Cup in Russia. A narrow win against Egypt, saved only by Ronaldo’s two injury-time headers, and a 3-0 defeat to an experimental Netherlands side, don’t make for ideal preparation and confidence. Very few expected Fernando Santos’s to win EURO 2016, but there’ll be even fewer believing they can enjoy a positive World Cup. With aging central defensive options, Ronaldo’s goals will be more important than ever.