The Argie-Bargy: Where It Has All Gone Wrong For Messi, Sampaoli and Co

Has Messi missed his last opportunity for World Cup glory? (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

A country with two previous World Cup triumphs, a Copa America-winning manager, and arguably the best player of all time in their ranks, surely Argentina are a banker to reach the knockout stages?

Well, apparently not, as Jorge Sampaoli’s men have failed to win their first two games to make their worst start to a World Cup campaign since 1974. The 3-0 loss to Croatia on Thursday night was also their biggest World Cup group stage defeat since 1958, when they lost 6-1 to Czechoslovakia, who no longer exist as a country of course.

Maradona has been unimpressed so far (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

How on earth have matters got this bad for the side who finished as runners-up in Brazil 2014? Let’s analyse this Argentinian side a bit further…..

Jorge Just Doesn’t Know

After winning the Copa America with Chile in 2015 and guiding Sevilla to a 4th place La Liga finish in 2017, Jorge Sampaoli was deemed the right man by the Argentinian FA to take Messi and co forward into the 2018 Russia World Cup. The country was arguably in a bigger crisis than it is currently in now with regards to football, as Sampaoli’s predecessor Edgardo Bauza was sacked after only eight games as Argentina sat perilously outside the World Cup qualification spots.

Sampaoli won the Copa America with Chile, but has failed to reach expectations with Argentina  (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

The Chilean was brought in to steady the ship and get Argentina to Russia, and although Sampaoli did exactly that, he has been very indecisive with regards to his set-up and tactics of his Argentinian team.

His first game against Singapore saw Argentina line-up in a bizarre 2-3-4-1 formation. Sampaoli only named two defensive-minded players in his side, while Marcos Acuna and Eduardo Salvio, who are both recognised as attacking wingers, were placed as inverted full-backs in the centre of midfield. While Argentina’s footballing ideology is based around the unfamiliar formations of tactical philosopher Marcelo Bielsa, even this was a step too far and the ludicrous formation was scrapped after Sampaoli failed to win his first three World Cup qualifiers. The irony of Sampaoli’s set-up was that this attack-minded formation brought about two 0-0 draws during this period, and despite the change in manager, Argentina still sat outside the World Cup qualification spots with one game to go.

Thankfully, Argentina qualified with a 3-1 win over Ecuador, as a Lionel Messi hat-trick ended an embarrassing streak of six competitive international matches (a period of eleven months) without an Argentinian player scoring a goal from open play. But since qualifying for Russia, Sampaoli has constantly switched between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 formation, giving the impression that he still does not know his best formation or starting eleven.

Although Sampaoli not knowing his best side is understandable considering that he has an abundance of attacking talent at his disposal including Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala and Cristian Pavon, what is not excusable is the lack of attention paid to the Argentine defence.

All three are good enough to start but not all of them can. (Photo by JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images)

Argentina looked defensively clumsy against Iceland, as their insistence to constantly play out from the back nearly backfired on them several times during the first-half. The loss of Sergio Romero to injury is a massive blow for Sampaoli, as Willy Caballero does not have the same technical ability or spacial awareness to build up play from the back of the field. The Chelsea ‘keeper confirmed this to the world against Croatia, as his mis-hit and mis-timed clearance fell straight to the path of Ante Rebic, whose emphatic finish should not draw anything away from the fact that Caballero made a complete clanger in such an important part of the game.

These frequent defensive mishaps signals towards a complete neglect by Sampaoli towards the defensive side of Argentina’s play, and the 58 year-old Chilean is 100% responsible for Argentina’s poor start to the tournament. Argentina’s set-up is the polar opposite to France’s, who are another side who is blessed with having a variety of attacking options. Didier Deschamps’ men have not really hit top gear so far in this tournament, but the right balance between attack and defence has earned Les Bleus two wins out of two and a spot in the last sixteen. Sampaoli should take a leaf out of Deschamps’ book, and the former’s poor man management and tactical competences may have cost Argentina a spot in the knockout stages.

A Messi Situation

While Argentina’s form has been a great surprise, what is even more shocking is the lack of influence Lionel Messi has had on the tournament in Russia so far.

In the games against Iceland and Croatia, both of Argentina’s opponents doubled up defenders on the Barcelona forward, making it very difficult for the 30 year-old to stamp his usual goalscoring authority on the game.

Doubled up? Trebled up? Messi has been rendered ineffective by defences so far (Photo by FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)

However, many pundits and analysts have drawn attention to the fact that Sampaoli’s system actually hinders the five-time Ballon D’Or winner. In both of the World Cup games, Messi has been deployed just off Sergio Aguero in a 4-4-2 formation, which could also be interpreted as a 4-2-3-1 set-up. This is very similar to where Messi has played for Barcelona this season, but the main difference between the two sides is the service from the midfield to both Messi and Aguero.

At Barcelona, Messi has the likes of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta to rely on to get him on the ball in key areas. This contrasts massively to the likes of Enzo Perez, Max Meza and Marcos Acuna, who have all started in midfield for Argentina over the past two games. These players have simply not been able to provide Messi with the usual service that he is accustomed to, and, as a result of this lack of quality, Messi and Aguero were the two Argentinian players who had the fewest touches of the ball in the first-half against Croatia. Overall, if Argentina are to play Messi in a 4-4-2 formation, then they simply must have the quality in midfield to find their captain and talisman in tight spaces in the middle of the park. They don’t have this quality, so the system is flawed.

While this is a key concern for Sampaoli, the Argentinian press has provided a different theory to Messi’s lack of effectiveness at the World Cup so far.

Messi and Dybala’s fractured relationship has been highly documented. (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Native journalist Flavio Azzaro has claimed that Messi has in fact outgrown his national side and actually has more power than the Argentinian FA. This has fuelled reports that Messi does indeed have power over who plays for Argentina and this control over Argentinian affairs has led to the demotion of players such as Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala to the roles of bit-part players.

Azzaro claims that “Messi does what he wants, he has been doing what he feels like in Argentina for the last eight years. He does not like high-profile players”. While there are clear tactical and technical deficiencies in this Argentinian side, there may be a strong case of a power struggle in the Argentina hierarchy.

Where do Argentina go from here?

Whether Argentina qualify for the knockout stages or not – a win against Nigeria in their final game could keep their hopes alive – there needs to be a major rebuilding process in the upper echelons of the Argentinian footballing pyramid. The contest between Argentina and Croatia displayed two teams at different ends of the footballing spectrum. The Croatians were organised and efficient, with a clear idea as to what their roles where and which players were good enough to start. Argentina, on the other hand, were clueless on many levels, and if they do manage to get out of the group, how far could they realistically go in this World Cup?

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