Argentina announce World Cup roster: 3 takeaways on Messi’s supporting cast

Argentina's forward Mauro Icardi (L) plays with a ball next to coach Jorge Sampaoli (C) and midfielder Lucas Biglia during a training session in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires on October 3, 2017 ahead of their upcoming World Cup qualifier matches against Peru and Ecuador. / AFP PHOTO / Juan MABROMATA (Photo credit should read JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Argentina's forward Mauro Icardi (L) plays with a ball next to coach Jorge Sampaoli (C) and midfielder Lucas Biglia during a training session in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires on October 3, 2017 ahead of their upcoming World Cup qualifier matches against Peru and Ecuador. / AFP PHOTO / Juan MABROMATA (Photo credit should read JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images) /

Argentina’s 23-man World Cup roster says a lot about manager Jorge Sampaoli’s attitude going into Russia. Here are three takeaways to ponder.

Finalizing rosters ahead of a big tournament often means leaving off some big names. That’s certainly the case if you’re a team like Argentina who possess lots of depth at various positions. The right combination of players will determine whether or not this team can lift their first World Cup since 1986 in Russia in July.

While manager Jorge Sampaoli has tried to wean his side off their dependence on Lionel Messi, his final 23-player roster sends mixed signals in this regard. While Messi, as one of the world’s best players, remains the fulcrum for this team, there are other players — in defense, midfield and attack — that are also expected to have big tournaments.

Optimism is high as Sampaoli’s team features a blend of youth and experience that can go far, although this does, on paper, look like a weaker roster than those selected by defending champions Germany and contenders such as Brazil and Spain.

Sampaoli made it clear his selection was based on the tactics he thinks are best-suited for the tournament ahead of him.

“We understand that these players have characteristics that will suit us,” Sampaoli told reporters in Buenos Aires on Monday. “With some time and the desire to play, this will be further enhanced. I have a lot of hope and, every time I see them train the dream grows.”

As is the case with nations considered World Cup contenders, the names of players who don’t make the cut make more news than the ones that do. The biggest omission included Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi, who had a great season in Serie A. Boca Juniors forward Carlos Tevez, who last played for his country in 2015, was also not selected.

“There was always talk about those same players that would go and they have been included. I don’t give it too much importance. I will watch the World Cup on TV with my feet in the sand,” Tevez told Argentine channel TyC Sports. “When I came back [to Boca Juniors], I had the hope of being in the national team, but now the last game [of the season] can’t come soon enough for me as I need to rest. I’m not there, my body doesn’t respond and it’s in pain.”

Here are three takeaways to ponder as the team prepare for Russia and their first game on June 16 against Iceland.

No Icardi limits offense options

No Icardi in the Albiceleste lineup or the bench means Sampaoli is forgoing the chance of using one of the best players in Europe this season. Icardi not only helped Inter Milan to a fourth-place finish in Serie A (and a spot in next season’s Champions League qualifying round), but finished as the league’s joint top scorer, with Lazio’s Ciro Immobile, on 29 goals.

Instead, Sampaoli went with Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain. Only two of these players, Aguero and Higuain, are pure strikers. Dybala works well as a playmaker and a substitute should Messi be injured at any stage of the tournament. Aguero is a powerful forward (more on him later) and deserves inclusion. Icardi, however, would have worked well as a trio with Aguero and Angel Di Maria (listed on the roster as a midfielder) in what certainly would have been a potent and attack-minded 3-3-1-3.

Instead, Icardi’s omission means Sampaoli will go with a 3-4-2-1 with Higuain likely to get the start up top. A strong forward at club level for Napoli, and more recently Juventus, the burly striker has often come up short when Argentina needed him most. In both Copa America finals against Chile, in 2015 and ’16, Higuain flubbed scoring chances early on that could have changed the course and outcome of those matches. Argentina also lost the World Cup final four years ago to Germany after Higuain squandered a clear chance early on.

A lot riding on a fit Aguero

It looks as if Sampaoli is betting on Aguero to come up big offensively for a squad that have many options to choose from at that position.

The Manchester City star had a a strong 2017-18 campaign, scoring 30 goals in 39 matches across all competitions. Aguero could have had an even better season had he been pain free in his right knee, an injury he is finally free of entering the World Cup.

“Aguero has been training as normal since last week. He is in no discomfort,” Sampaoli assured.

Argentina’s FA even made it a point to mention Aguero’s fitness on social media over the weekend.

Under City manager Pep Guardiola, Aguero has become an even better player. Guardiola, known as being demanding of his players, has allowed the club’s all-time leading scorer to adapt to the pressures of playing in high-profile matches. This should all benefit Sampaoli and Argentina in the coming weeks.

Next: The best 30 players at the World Cup

Betting on second-tier players

This is where Sampaoli may draw the most criticism. There are two squad selections (defender Cristian Ansaldi and midfielder Maximiliano Meza) that stand out most.

Let’s start with Meza. The Independiente player is 26 years old and has never played club soccer outside his home country. That aside, he also lacks experience at senior international games (just one cap for Argentina) and the biggest tournament he’s ever played in was the 2017 Copa Sudamericana, a tournament he helped Independiente win. It’s not exactly a shining resume.

Sampaoli referred to Meza as “a multi-functional player” and someone who “can help us in many areas of the midfield,” although he did not offer specifics.

Ansaldi, a 31-year-old defender, played at Torino, a mid-table club Serie A club this season. On loan from Inter Milan, Ansaldi, who has only five caps for Argentina, can play as a wing-back, but has had a journeyman, playing for seven different clubs over the past 13 years. The only positive is that he has had some experience in Russia after playing a decade ago with both Rubin Kazan and Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Sampaoli made a point of saying he chose a player like Ansaldi because of the defender’s ability to play on both the left and right flanks — an indication he has yet to decide who will start in the backline.

For a team battered 6-1 by Spain in a recent friendly, Sampaoli may have been better off going with experience (West Ham’s Pablo Zabaleta, a member of the team four years ago, quickly comes to mind), rather than gamble on players yet to prove themselves at international level.