New York Times News Service
I n the early hours of Friday, Argentina’s World Cup squad returned to its training facility at Bronnitsy, a few miles outside Moscow, in almost complete silence, the mood funereal. The country’s World Cup hopes hang by a thread: not of winning it, but of merely qualifying for the knockout rounds, of avoid-ing immense embarrassment.
A crushing 3-0 defeat to Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday left Argentina reliant on others to stay alive in the tournament: the team’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, and his players must beat Nigeria in their final game and hope that Iceland — the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup — fails to beat Croatia.
This is not how Argentina’s summer was supposed to go. Boasting the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, a phalanx of outstanding forwards and a coach with a fine record at the international level, Argentina arrived in Russia with hopes of going one better than it had in Brazil four years ago, when it lost in the final, and winning its first World Cup since 1986. So, what has gone wrong, and what can be done about it?
Does it make sense to put all of the blame on the coach?
In his post-match news conference Thursday, Sampaoli could barely raise his eyes to face his interrogators. On half a dozen occasions, maybe more, he made it clear that only one person should take responsibility for the fact that Argentina was now on the brink of elimination: him.
“Had I set things up differently, they might have turned out much better,” he said. “I probably did not understand the match as I should have.”
Sampaoli made mistakes, without question, in terms of player selection, in terms of tactics, in terms of preparation. Following their tie with Iceland in the opening game, Argentina’s players only had three training sessions to get used to the system Sampaoli introduced for the game against Croatia, the most dangerous opponent in Argentina’s group. It looked it, too: against Croatia, Argentina had a defence left exposed, a midfield that was overrun and an attack that was blunted.
There was an emotional failure, too. Sampaoli’s style has always relied a little on organized chaos: it was the relentlessness of his Chile teams that led him to such success with that country, and in no small way led to him being given the Argentina job.
Against Croatia, though, cooler heads were required, particularly after falling behind in such unexpected circumstances, on a goalkeeping blunder. Sampaoli did nothing to help. He threw on attacking players seemingly at random, with little apparent design and to no obvious end. He proved incapable of thinking his way out of the problem.
Diego Simeone, the Atlético Madrid coach, described it as “chaos,” pointing to a “total lack of leadership,” in a WhatsApp message to his assistant, German Burgos, that somehow went viral. Simeone, who played in three World Cups for Argentina, had been a contender to take charge of the national team before Sampaoli took the job.
Maybe, in hindsight, he would have done better. In 13 games as coach of Argentina, Sampaoli has used 13 lineups, and a total of 59 players. He has nev-er given an impression that he knows what he wants this team to be, or who — beyond Messi — he wants to be on it. There was no Plan B, to be used in an emergency, because he had not yet settled on Plan A.
And yet, it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that all of this is more deep-seated than one poor team selection, or just one underwhelming managerial tenure. In the last 13 years — the span of Messi’s senior international career — Argentina has had eight coaches.
Some have been cross-the-fingers, hope-for-the-best appointments: Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista, say. Others, like Alejandro Sabella, Alfio Basile and Edgardo Bauza, have been uninspiring, but experienced, relatively well-regarded coaches. Sampaoli, like José Pekerman and Gerardo Martino, came with impressive résumés and widespread public support.
Though Argentina’s international record is not quite as poor as is often claimed — a World Cup final and two Copa America finals in recent years is bet-ter than most — it has still not won a trophy since 1993, and given the talent at its disposal, it has failed to live up to its own standards. Should Argentina fail to reach the round of 16 in Russia, Sampaoli will be fired. If past experience is anything to go by, that alone will not solve the problem.
So, if it’s not all Sampaoli’s fault, it must be Messi’s?
Before we get to that, let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Lionel Messi does not need to win the World Cup to have a case to be the greatest player of his era, or even of all time.
The logic that only World Cup winners could be true greats is an antiquated one. It was true enough when it was only on that stage that the very best on the planet regularly encountered each other: a time when Pelé spent his entire career on one side of the Atlantic, and when Maradona played only a handful of European Cup games in his career.
It is not true now, given that we have the Champions League, and Messi can face his peers over and over again, from September until April or May. That is the stage where greatness is bestowed, and Messi has shone on it often enough certainly to be one of the two finest players of the 21st century.
Whether he’s better than Cristiano Ronaldo — and whether either of them are better than Pelé, Maradona, Johan Cruyff or anyone else — is, more than anything, a matter of personal taste, but it should not be determined by whether he has won a World Cup or not. It is, after all, hardly Messi’s fault that Nicolas Otamendi is the best defender Argentina can produce.
Messi, though, does not seem to see it that way. There has been a long-standing, and now somewhat clichéd, allegation that he does not deliver for his country, one that somehow managed to linger after he carried it to the World Cup final four years ago and a couple of Copa América finals at the same time.
Even more hackneyed is the idea that he does not care, that because he has spent so much time away from Argentina that he somehow lacks the requi-site passion to represent his nation.
His behaviour in the last week or so should expose that thinking as flawed: the stress was evident as he stood for Argentina’s anthem in Nizhny Novgo-rod; he had avoided a family barbecue at Argentina’s training facility in Russia in the days preceding the game, preferring to stay alone in the room he shares with Sergio Agüero.
Even before that, his determination to do something for his country — to win the World Cup, to cement his greatness — was clear. Messi volunteered to change his own role so as to enable Sampaoli to make more use of the likes of Agüero, Ángel Di María and Gonzalo Higuaín.
He has made tactical suggestions, too, to try to improve the team. In some lights, perhaps that looks like the sort of egocentrism more associated (right-ly or wrongly) with his great rival, Ronaldo. In others, it is a veteran player, one of the best of all time, desperate to succeed.
That none of it has worked, that Messi still seems such a shadow of himself in the blue-and-white of his nation, could be one of two things.
Perhaps he is inhibited by the pressure, crushed by the weight of his country’s expectations, and his own. That seems unlikely: he is well used to per-forming under pressure, and in an environment that is, at times, no less dysfunctional, at Barcelona.
Perhaps, then, as Sampaoli said, the flaws in the rest of the team “cloud” Messi’s abilities, and prevent him from shining in the way that Ronaldo can for Portugal.His brilliance cannot disguise the shortcomings of the others.
Wait, what? This is a team with Higuaín, Agüero, Paulo Dybala, Di María and the rest: Messi’s teammates are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Are they really that bad?
There are two issues here. One is psychological: all of those players rank among the best in the world in their positions at club level, but they have long seemed totally dependent on Messi for Argentina.
Against Iceland and Croatia — and for years now — it was striking how few of them seemed willing to try to ease the burden on him.
Too often, Argentina’s plan seems to be to funnel the ball to Messi and hope for the best. It almost worked in Brazil four years ago, but much of the time it makes the team predictable and easily contained. Croatia, for example, deployed Marcelo Brozovic to shut down Messi in Nizhny Novgorod.
He did his job extremely well — Messi did not have a shot until the 64th minute, and made just 15 passes in the first hour — but, more tellingly, none of Messi’s teammates was able to take the reins. If Messi is not firing, Argentina does not seem capable of coping. The rest of the players are diminished in his presence.
The other issue is that Argentina’s squad is almost comically front-loaded.
That signifies two issues: one is that Sampaoli cannot, realistically, squeeze all of it into the same team. No system could adequately accommodate Dybala, Higuaín, Agüero and Messi, let alone the likes of Mauro Icardi, the prolific Internazionale striker left out of the squad (purportedly to suit Messi).
Sometimes, having that many choices can be paralyzing: It may be that the richness of his resources is what has left Sampaoli so indecisive in his time in charge of Argentina.
The other, more serious, issue is what that abundance of attacking choices says about the team's defence.
There is a valid question over whether the midfield Argentina has brought to Russia is capable of playing the way Sampaoli desires — the intense, high-pressing style that has brought him so much success — but it is at the back that Sampaoli has had to make do with what he has got.
Otamendi, Marcos Rojo, Gabriel Mercado, Federico Fazio: these are not elite central defenders. And at fullback, with the noteworthy exception of Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico, the problem is just as pronounced.
Eduardo Salvio, an attack-minded right-winger, has played as a fullback and a wingback in Russia so far.