Argentina: Messi’s mutiny is completely justified
There are rumours that the squad has totally turned against Jorge Sampaoli. After the Croatia horrorshow, they have every right to.
As Croatia streamed forward in the dying moments of their victory over Argentina, several players just stood and watched as Ivan Rakitic collected a square pass and finished with nobody pressuring him.
This was one of the great footballing nations in football’s most prestigious competition, conceding a goal more commonly seen on a Tuesday night in the Power League as a group of aging plumbers and estate agents just stop caring.
There was a sense of finality in that Croatia goal, the last humiliating blow as years of federation incompetence reached its inevitable conclusion. Argentina had been heading for this for some time.
Miraculously Argentina are still masters of their own fate. Should they beat Nigeria (and better Iceland’s score against Croatia), they will make it to the knockout rounds.
After the shambolic nature of their performances thus far, this can be considered this a cruel twist for Argentina. That they will have to suffer it all again. Nigeria were excellent against Iceland and the pace of Ahmed Musa, in particular, should terrify a slow and ponderous defence.
But it need not be this way. In Messi, they still have the footballer most capable of conjuring game-changing magic, a selection of top quality forwards. This generation made three finals in a row and narrowly lost each time. They are capable of ending this nightmare.
What’s happening behind the scenes?
It’s inevitable that rumours will surface after a performance so catastrophic.
Generally, these rumours can be taken with a pinch of salt but, after Aguero’s pointed post-match comments, delivered with contempt – “Sampaoli can say what he likes” – and the way his 3-4-2-1 formation left attackers nullified and defenders exposed, it’s only natural there will be a lack of faith.
The next morning, there were already reports in the Argentine press that the team had turned against the coach and asked for him to be replaced by Jorge Burruchaga.
There would be a poeticism in the scorer of the winning goal in the 1986 World Cup final, the goal that enshrined Maradona’s legend, now taking charge for Messi’s last shot at international glory.
Yet nothing came of it. Not even after Nigeria defeated Iceland and put meaning back into their final group game. It looks like Sampaoli will remain, then, at least until their sorry stay in Russia comes to an end.
But in what capacity? The latest reports from Sunday morning have suggested that the players have revolted and will themselves dictate the approach against Nigeria.
It’s an imaginative story, but perhaps no less so than the squad allowing Sampaoli to choose another unconventional, ruinous formation.
Where did Sampaoli go wrong?
The performance against Iceland was ponderous and unimaginative. There was a cowardice in constantly playing the ball to a triple-marked Messi: a kind of on-field hero worship, every useless pass to him screaming “save us”.
More dynamism in midfield was needed and the introductions of Cristian Pavon and Ever Banega eventually improved things so it wasn’t a complete disaster.
But there was at least a semblance of shape. It put Messi front and centre, and the players need to bear some responsibility in only looking to the messiah as opposed to ever taking their own initiative.
But for different fortunes – the penalty scored, or another given – and Argentina may well have edged through this one, as they often did under Alejandro Sabella and Tata Martino.
The second match against Croatia was a tactical disaster. There aren’t many examples of managers getting it so wrong in the World Cup’s 88-year history.
His stubborn return to his own favoured formation (a variant of the 3-3-1-3 inherited from Bielsa and effective with Chile) failed to get the best out of any of his players.
It left his midfield out-manned, his defence under pressure, and his forwards (the only jewels of this squad) isolated.
The least technically able players, Javier Mascherano and Enzo Perez, were the ones most often on the ball, and they were outclassed by Croatia’s exceptional midfield.
Desperate times, desperate measures
“Mutiny” is a word prevalent in some of the worst World Cup campaigns in history.
France in 2010 infamously crashed out in the group stages after the players fell out with coach Raymond Domenech. Such agitation behind the scenes cannot be healthy and is unlikely to be conducive to form a strong collective unit.
The last two World Cup winning squads have spoken of the importance of squad unity, with even the third-choice goalkeepers contributing to the atmosphere and positivity needed to succeed.
The Argentina squad would be playing a dangerous game by undermining their coach and having to overcome the factions within the squad.
There are obvious issues. The practicalities of such a situation are problematic, especially when it comes to in-game management. And anyway: can this team really set up intricate positional details themselves?
But desperate times call for desperate measures and Argentina were certainly desperate against Croatia. It also appears that the players have lost faith in their coach and cutting ties might help return some belief to a team that’s desperately missing it.
Can this team be trusted to manage themselves?
The departure of Julen Lopetegui the day before Spain kicked off their first match won’t be the only scandalous storyline at this World Cup.
It will be an interesting case study in self-management but this is with multiple leaders, have a defined style of play and already know how to play with one another. The work has already been done.
That’s not the case with rudderless Argentina. Messi is the captain but does he have the authority and leadership skills of a Sergio Ramos? Does he have any idea on how to fix this broken team and set his teammates up to help him?
Part of the problem is the old guard. Javier Mascherano, in decline for years, is not able to play in midfield anymore and has never been a deep-lying playmaker.
Angel di Maria is not nearly in the same form he was in 2014. Youngsters Cristian Pavón and Giovani Lo Celso appear to offer a lot more, but they’d be unlikely to feature if the senior players have control.
But even the blunt team that failed to defeat Iceland would be expected to fare better against a Nigeria who wouldn’t play so deep and don’t have quite the same powerful and classy options of Croatia’s midfield.
Without a little more space, Messi could finally have a real influence – and this would be amplified with the dynamic Ever Banega sitting behind him in a midfield two. Would this team do the right thing and choose him?
Will they have the courage to give Franco Armani, the most in-form goalkeeper, a debut in a massive World Cup game? Do they have the requisite judgement to see if he’s mentally prepared?
The issues that plague Argentinian football are endemic and the lack of quality young players coming through is an area of concern but in the here and now, this team can give themselves half a chance if they can return to a “Basics + Messi” approach.
It was never outstanding but got them so close to glory under Sabella and Martino. It will be interesting to see if this team can emulate that out on their own.
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