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Argentina in Russia: a botchfest that was in the making for years

Karan M Tejwani | Updated on: 22 June 2018, 20:53 IST

Argentina came into this year’s World Cup as one of the strong favourites. Based on betting odds, they were the bookmaker’s sixth favourites to go all the way in Russia – ahead of the likes of Belgium, Portugal and Uruguay to name a few, and slightly behind France, Spain and Germany amongst others. Why so? There are a few simple reasons.

For one, they have one of the all-time greats in Lionel Messi playing possibly his last World Cup. They have a manager who has an international pedigree and is widely lauded for his tactical innovativeness. They have an all-star attacking unit with some of the best forwards in the world. And they reached the final of the last World Cup and the two successive Copa América editions. Why couldn’t they go one further?

On the face of it, everything looked ready, but the last six-odd months have been a disaster that has unravelled the mess that the Argentina Football Association are and the mess that they have created over the last few years which has gone largely under the radar as each piece of positive news only papered over the cracks. Ever since they reached the failure at the Maracanã four years ago, there have been problems brewing on and off the pitch and in the 3-0 defeat to Croatia, which put one foot out of the door, it’s all been exposed, and it’s been made clear that a major and comprehensive overhaul is necessary if they want to avoid going into further turmoil.

Instability in the coaching department

Starting off with the coaching situation. With three coaches to take you through three years of qualifying, it’s clear that the stability required, the system implemented, and the right balance will be difficult to find when the time comes. It all started with Gerardo Martino after the World Cup, but he left after the two failures at the Copa América. Then came Edgardo Bauza, but his incompetence of leading his nation led to them facing the prospect of missing the finals and then came Sampaoli, one of Argentina’s best coaches of the modern era, but his disaster at the World Cup, where he made basic errors in selection and strategy has left a mark on his CV.

Johannes Eisele/AFP

Why Willy Caballero

Why would he pick Willy Caballero – a 36-year-old who has been a second-choice at club level for much of the last four years, playing less than 50 games, a player with zero international caps before 2018 and a player whose best days were past him ages ago over someone as reputed as Franco Armani is beyond strange. Even Sergio Romero, Argentina’s first choice for nearly a decade was dropped due to a serious knee concern, but his party claims his injury diagnosis was overstated by the Argentine medical team. Caballero’s inclusion in the roster could be justified, but Sampaoli’s decision to start him and subsequent reluctance to drop him in a game they had to win against Croatia, despite the shakiness in the opening encounter against Iceland is baffling.

He dropped Marcos Rojo, which was arguably the right thing to do, but he did field Nicholas Otamendi, and pairing him with Nicolás Tagliafico and Gabriel Mercado, two full-backs by trade, in a three-man defence which left him greatly exposed to the strong Croatian midfield and attack. Otamendi didn’t have any protection and he isn’t quite the man to lead a defence by himself, and that was shown to the world against Croatia. So often they were allowed to break free and the 3-0 scoreline is probably generous to the Argentine back-four (defenders plus goalkeeper), who were incredibly atrocious for this level.

The squads incompetence

Next is the incompetence of the whole team, the lack of identity and the passiveness of the midfield. Sampaoli’s teams have always relied on their midfield to perfectly apply his style of verticality and pressing, but by leaving one of their best midfielders, Éver Banega, who drastically improved Argentina in their draw against Iceland, he made a grave error. The 3-4-2-1/3-5-2 against Croatia was shambolic, as they failed to get the ball to Messi enough, nor were his starting players good enough to perform the task from a technical perspective. The two in midfield, Javier Mascherano and Enzo Pérez were isolated, afraid and maybe the inclusion of Banega and/or Giovanni Lo Celso would have actually benefitted with this formation.

The midfield anonymity led to the two men out wide, Eduardo Salvio and Javier Acuña with too much responsibility to carry the attack and that left Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero with a dry night – almost nothing to do. Messi is great, Agüero is great, but when paired with nine others who are rather average, their greatness is going to have to be packed away. Sampaoli’s decision to drop Ángel Di María was smart, but if he had played the bright Cristian Pavón in a completely different set-up to the one he did field, maybe the result against Croatia would’ve been slightly better.

Sampaoli made mistakes in his selection and tactics for the Iceland game for which he was scrutinised. How he would play a defensive six against a side that was going to sit back and absorb pressure with no clear ball carrier is a strange decision, and even more unusual is the fact that he persisted with more mediocrity for the game against Croatia. Arguably more than anyone, this World Cup is going to take a huge hit on his stock – he will have a huge self-redeeming task wherever he manages next following the finals.

Mladen Antonov/AFP

Over-reliance on Messi

Then the problem of the over-reliance on Lionel Messi. Yes, he’s great, yes, he’s one of the best ever, but if you’re asking just him to drag you through the one competition everyone wants to do well in, you’re walking into trouble. No team amongst the 32 are more dependent on one man to drag them through a rough patch more than Argentina.

Messi virtually carried them on the way to Russia and his disapproving body language was evident. At the time of the national anthems, he looked dejected and bothered, with his hands covering his face, which is hardly what you want from your captain, and while there could be a case to say that he should be better with his expression to drive his team forward, his team, although less expressively, were probably just as troubled.

Johannes Eisele/AFP

Against Iceland, he had the chance to ease his trouble but failed with his spot-kick. Against Croatia, he was anonymous, with his frequent disappearance clearly affecting the drive in this side. They still have one more game to save themselves, but clearly, a bewildered Messi isn’t working, and an equally dazed supporting cast – whether they show it or not – doesn’t do much to help him. The fault partially falls on him too, but after two rather meagre games, him and Agüero are the only ones who’ll come out with the least battering from fans and supporters alike.

Sampaoli’s major problems

Then came Sampaoli’s own problems. Prior to the tournament’s kick-off there were allegations of him misbehaving with female members of the Argentine staff and just before the Croatia game, there was talk of him having a heated argument with his assistants in front of the whole team, and whether it actually happened or not is still up in the air, but it certainly would’ve had some effect to him and his roster. He’s a smart manager, a man who takes his time but yields great results, but this appointment is one of the most botched in the modern era amongst all major national teams and he did little to aid himself in a tough job. Luckily for him, it isn’t entirely his fault.

Even after the calamity against Croatia, he took much of the responsibility for the defeat but also believed that his players didn’t follow his “project”, to which a disheartened Sergio Agüero responded that he didn’t care what his manager said or thought. Clearly, this sort of toxicity in the dressing room, where the manager, staff and players are at a constant quarrel is a recipe for disaster.

Maybe he was appointed too late. His predecessor, Edgardo Bauza was under even more pressure and he hadn’t even led them to a major tournament. Maybe if Sampaoli came in earlier than he did, he would’ve had a better showing in Russia. And while that will never be known, the chances of that seem low as the AFA themselves have been in turmoil.

Failures off the pitch

They haven’t been able to have a worthy president in charge. The previous one, Luis Segura, has been caught up in charges for fraud since 2016 and they had to wait until another year to elect Claudio Tapia. The fact that they had instability on and off the pitch just a year before the finals, with no president for the FA and the coaching situation unclear speaks volumes about their insufficient and scandalous preparations.

And just before the tournament, they had the embarrassment of cancelling a friendly against Israel, meaning that their preparation was incomplete. Friendlies with Israel have been said to be a bit of a tradition before the World Cup finals, but why they would schedule it in the first place with such a politically-charged environment is inexplicable. They couldn’t get the warm-ups they needed, and they had to come out of the situation looking silly, which is hardly the ideal groundwork before the biggest tournament in football.

This is the definitely the end of the road for the men that were so often unlucky in the period where they were consistently losing finals between 2014 and 2016. This World Cup may just be the end of Agüero, Mascherano, Di María and others, but what will hit them most is the possible retirement of Messi. For the new era, Argentina have to be smart with their decisions. The likes of Pavón, Mauro Icardi, Leandro Paredes and Lautaro Martínez are all waiting in the wings, and if they weren’t used now, they have to be given importance in the future.

A botched preparation that was in the works for the best part of this decade was there for the world to see in one night in Nizhny Novgorod. There is still hope for Argentina to make it through, but those super-high odds on them going all the way seem all too senseless now. It’ll be a miracle to see them make it through should they face France, who seem the likeliest opponents for them in the Round of 16.

Thoughts of seeing gold on 15 July should already be dwindling if they haven’t died off completely. Arguably the worst preparation of any of the 31 nations led to one of the worst World Cup group stage performances in the modern era and it’s no less than what they deserve. From the pitch, to the boardroom, to the locker room, this was a huge wake-up call for the nation.

First published: 22 June 2018, 20:53 IST
Karan M Tejwani

Karan Tejwani is a student and a Manchester United supporter. He loves writing about the beautiful game of football and is a former scorer of the extraordinary when on the pitch