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World Cup 2014: Messi's brilliance and Sabella's pragmatism is a potent blend for Argentina

Argentina are blessed with attacking riches led, of course, by Lionel Messi

"It's 20 years since Argentina's last major title - a dreadful record given the players they have produced in that time and their five victories in seven World Under-20 tournaments from 1995 - but by giving up on the romance and trusting in the combination of Messi's brilliance and Sabella's pragmatism probably have them better placed than they've been at least since Jose Pekerman's side went to Germany in 2006."

Few international teams can rival Argentina's for attacking talent and the usually cautious coach Alejandro Sabella looks to have found a way of harnessing the world-class forwards at his disposal as the Albiceleste bid for World Cup glory 

Life is full of unintended and unexpected consequences. When Carlos Tevez and Roberto Mancini fell out on the bench in Munich in autumn 2011, sending the forward on a six-month sabbatical, it was generally agreed it was a very bad thing: bad for football; bad for Manchester City, who lost a top-class player; and bad for Tevez, who missed half a season in a career that rarely lasts more than 10.

But there was one winner, not that he necessarily realised it at the time: Alejandro Sabella.

Sabella had just taken over as national coach from Sergio Batista after the Copa America in which Argentina had played poorly before going out on penalties to Uruguay in the quarter-final. Batista, it should be said, was never a great fit for the job, but his main problem was the glut of high-class Argentinian forwards. He tried a front three of Lionel Messi, Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi and he tried a 4-2-3-1 with Messi, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero operating behind Gonzalo Higuain.

The 4-2-3-1 looked better than the 4-3-3 but neither really convinced. Part of the problem was the national love for Tevez, who many seemed to prefer to Messi, perhaps less because of his ability than because his squat, tousle-haired looks seemed better to represent the traditions of Argentinian football than the more refined Messi, who had left the country aged 11.

Before the 0-0 draw against Colombia in Santa Fe, Messi's home province, for instance, the match announcer reading out the teams described Messi as "the best player in the world" and Tevez as "the player of the people": the respective roars from the crowd showed who they preferred.

That meant any coach leaving out Tevez faced a huge backlash if things went wrong. He became, effectively, undroppable. But how do you fit Messi, Tevez and Aguero into the same side? Perhaps at club level, if they could work on their mutual understanding every day, it would be possible but at national level, where the lack of time available to coaches means tactics have to be relatively simple, it isn't.

Sabella is a cautious coach. Instinctively he would never have tried to play all three - and suddenly Tevez gave him his opportunity. Tevez's popularity had begun to wane after an abject performance in the Copa America quarter-final, in which he had come off the bench, been booked and missed a penalty in the shoot-out.

After Munich, even those who sympathised with Tevez's stance could hardly argue with Sabella when he said he wouldn't pick anybody who wasn't playing regular club football.

The 58-year-old has been flexible in his approach. In Argentina's last game, a friendly away to Guatemala in June, he did play a fluid front three, with Messi flanked by Lavezzi and Aguero, but that seems a system he will use only against sides he expects to beat easily.

More recently he has begun using a front three, with Messi and Aguero or Messi and Lavezzi behind Higuain, sometimes with Angel Di Maria on the left of a midfield three. At the start of the qualifying campaign, though, it was more usually a blocking 4-4-1-1 with Messi behind Higuain. There is a pragmatism about Argentina these days, one that Tevez's presence would only have hindered.

It's 20 years since Argentina's last major title - a dreadful record given the players they have produced in that time and their five victories in seven World Under-20 tournaments from 1995 - but by giving up on the romance and trusting in the combination of Messi's brilliance and Sabella's pragmatism probably have them better placed than they've been at least since Jose Pekerman's side went to Germany in 2006.

Add in the fact no European side has won the tournament in the Americas and, while the increasing homogenisation of the game means that is less of an issue that it was, and Argentina justify their billing as second favourites for World Cup 2014. That said, 6.25/1 is still too short to be tempting, even if it does represent better value than Brazil at 4.3100/30.


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Jonathan Wilson

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