Argentina’s Messi situation: Sampaoli’s men need to reach Leo’s level

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER 11: Jorge Sampaoli coach of Argentina shouts instructions to his players during an international friendly match between Russia and Argentina at Luzhniki Stadium on November 11, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER 11: Jorge Sampaoli coach of Argentina shouts instructions to his players during an international friendly match between Russia and Argentina at Luzhniki Stadium on November 11, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images) /

With the World Cup less than three months away, Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli knows his team can’t rely on Lionel Messi alone.

Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli weathered the storm during World Cup qualifying. On the verge of not qualifying for Russia 2018, Sampaoli appeared to be on the precipice of disaster, the same disaster that befell other national teams that came up short last fall like Italy, the Netherlands, Chile, Ireland and the United States.

Instead, the Albiceleste qualified, but only because Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, happens to hold an Argentine passport. The heir to Diego Maradona for the hearts of the Argentine people bagged a hat-trick in a 3-1 victory against Ecuador to book the team’s spot in the World Cup finals. It was an emotional night for Sampaoli and the millions of Messi’s countrymen watching the game on TV. Disaster had been averted.

Now comes what Sampaoli hopes is a series of events that culminates with his side lifting the World Cup trophy in Moscow this summer. Upcoming friendlies, against Italy on Friday and Spain on March 27, are meant to give Sampaoli the chance to refine his tactics and figure out what players to call up for the final 23-man World Cup roster. During qualifying, Sampaoli had little time to experiment with a team desperate for points. Inept attacking and shambolic defending nearly cost them, but the genius of Messi was enough.

“We’re not playing for points,” Sampaoli told reporters earlier this month when asked about the two friendlies. “We are playing in order to focus on being a group in order to be able to defeat the teams we face.”

The 57-year-old Sampaoli, a former defensive midfielder, used a 3-4-2-1 for much of last year after taking over the side in June. He’s also experimented with a 2-3-5 in an effort to shake up the attack, but neither approach has helped a midfield that lacks cohesion or alleviated the attack’s reliance on Messi. Without their talisman in a 4-2 friendly loss to Nigeria last November, the offense was in disarray.

In the upcoming friendlies, Argentina will need to show they can play as a unit. The days of depending solely on Messi must be over if the team want to challenge for the World Cup. Sampaoli has a proven track record of success at international tournaments, having coached Chile to victory at the 2015 Copa America, but this is perhaps his biggest challenge yet.

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Learning from the past

There will be little time for blunders at the World Cup. A series of mistakes in the opening round (in a tricky group with Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria) and Argentina, a two-time World Cup winner, could be heading home early. Sampaoli’s roster features some of the best players in the world, but can they play as a team without depending almost solely on Messi?

The 1986 team that won the World Cup in Mexico featured Maradona at the height of his game, but there was a supporting cast worthy of a trophy. Soccer isn’t an individual sport, no matter how talented some of the individuals are. The midfield on that ’86 team was stacked with talent, including imposing midfielder Sergio Batista and the gritty Ricardo Giusti, while the attack was highlighted by Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga.

Coach Salvador Bilardo, who used a then-innovative 3-5-2 system, knew he could rely on Maradona to be the orchestra leader, either deep in his own half to create chances for Burruchaga or further up the field for a solo performance. Maradona’s individual flair masked a larger truth: Bilardo played an anti-soccer style that did the bare minimum to secure wins. Pragmatism and gamesmanship (like Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal) were also a big reason the team won the trophy in Mexico that summer.

Messi is similar to Maradona in stature and style. While some Argentina fans resent Messi’s success with Barcelona, arguing that it has come at the expense of the national team, this World Cup could be his last shot at World Cup glory.

“Messi is already the greatest,” teammate Angel Di Maria said back in January. “Winning the World Cup would validate him, but he is already the best. Hopefully, football will give Messi this World Cup — it would be good for everyone. Messi has achieved everything in his career — the only thing missing is a World Cup. Obviously, as an Argentine and a teammate of his, I would love for it to happen in Russia.”

While Messi is as fit as ever this season at Barcelona, it’s his supporting cast that’s been inconsistent the past few years. Gonzalo Higuain, who piles on the goals at Juventus, is back in the squad after he missed a clear chance to put Argentina ahead in the 2014 World Cup final and the team ultimately lost to Germany. In both Copa America finals against Chile, in 2015 and ’16, Argentina also lost after Higuain squandered clear chances early on.

Finding the right combination

Sampaoli’s success will come only when he finds the right combination of players in a lineup that emphasizes the best qualities of the players at his disposal. Argentina’s upcoming friendlies are last the chance for Sampaoli to test tactics and lineup before he needs to announce his provisional World Cup squad in May.

The right combination won’t be easy to determine given the choices at hand. Some of the best players on club sides in Europe hail from Argentina (particularly in Italy and Spain), giving Sampaoli lots of choices. Add to that up-and-coming players from the country’s own domestic league and the player pool swells to as many as 40 potential players.

Here’s who Sampaoli called up for his side’s pair of upcoming friendlies:

Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Manchester United), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres), Willy Caballero (Chelsea)

Defenders: Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Federico Fazio (AS Roma), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Ramiro Funes Mori (Everton), Marcos Acuna (Sporting CP), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax) and Fabricio Bustos (Independiente)

Midfielders: Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Ever Banega (Sevilla), Leandro Paredes (Zenit St. Petersburg), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Giovani Lo Celso (PSG), Diego Perotti (AS Roma), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), Pablo Perez (Boca Juniors) and Maximiliano Meza (Independiente)

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus), Angel Di Maria (PSG), Angel Correa (Atletico Madrid), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors) and Lautaro Martinez (Racing Club)

Notably absent from the roster are three Italy-based players: Juve playmaker Paulo Dybala, who’s having a great season but only recently came back from a hamstring injury, Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi, arguably the best player on that team, and Atalanta’s attacking midfielder Alejandro Gomez. Their absence doesn’t mean Sampaoli will omit them from the World Cup roster, but it does give us some idea of where he’s going with his choices.

The Dybala and Icardi snubs, especially after Sampaoli had two different chances to call up both players in recent weeks, left many perplexed. Also missing from the roster is Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero, who had originally been called up but has to miss the friendlies due to injury.

For the World Cup, Sampaoli could also call up former Manchester United striker Carlos Tevez, still beloved in Argentina, should he need even more offensive options in Russia. Tevez, 34, currently plays for Boca Juniors.

“These two matches won’t be decisive for anyone,” Sampaoli said.

Any tactical combination will have to involve Messi playing in unison with the team’s two strikers, whoever they end up being. With Chile, Sampaoli also had a team stacked with talent. He often employed a 3-4-1-2 and Marcelo Bielsa’s variation of a 3-3-1-3 formation with two wing backs, a high defensive line and a midfield that liked to soak up pressure and push the ball forward.

Sampaoli did that with Chile by deploying three center-backs, two wing backs and pressing high so that an opponent’s turnover could become a chance to score. It worked with great success as attacking players like Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas reaped the benefits of such a system. Can Argentina’s strikers do the same?

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Possible lineups

For a team that lacked offensive firepower last year (with the exception of Messi), Sampaoli could very well employ an attack-minded 3-3-1-3 with Messi as playmaker and the trio of Higuain, Di Maria and Correa as strikers. On paper, it’s a powerful attack. Correa, who previously served as playmaker for his country’s U-20 squad, would be filling in for Aguero.

Sampaoli could also opt for a 3-3-3-1, employing Di Maria as a lone striker with Correa behind him. Messi could play slightly to the right of Correa in the midfield, the same position Aguero played when Argentina defeated Russia 1-0 last November in a friendly.

While the attack is important, the midfield has to be equally impressive. Javier Mascherano, listed on the roster as a defender, is expected to feature in the heart of the midfield, flanked by Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega. Di Maria could also play in midfield, all depending on what Sampaoli thinks will work best with his squad of mostly European-based players.

Up front, Di Maria is also strong on the wings and down the middle, while Correa can score from distance and Higuain, when the day is right, remains one of the most dangerous poachers in the 18-yard box. Another possibility is giving a player like Pavon, who is just 22, a chance on the right wing. The budding star, who is expected to be in big demand during this coming summer’s transfer window, has already been rumored to be a replacement for Sanchez at Arsenal.

With a supporting cast like that, Messi should have all the tools at his disposal needed to put in a strong showing. The problem, however, hasn’t been Messi. It remains to be seen if his teammates can up their game this week and in the coming months.

“As far as Higuain goes, I’ve seen him mature and he’s convinced me,” Sampaoli said. “We need footballers who, if we call them, will guarantee us a good World Cup.”