Argentina go into their final World Cup group game against Poland on Tuesday without knowing which script their campaign is following. The hope is that it goes the same as Italia ’90, when they recovered from a shock first game defeat to Cameroon and made it all the way to the final. The fear is that it could follow South Korea/Japan 2002, when they arrived among the favourites, had plenty of possession but created little, and after a win (over Nigeria) and a loss (to England), they drew 1-1 with Sweden and failed to make it out of the group.
Many will see ominous similarities with 2002. So far, Argentina have failed to live up to their billing as one of the strongest candidates to take home the trophy. People have wondered how this team managed to come in to the tournament on a 36-game unbeaten run, overcoming Brazil, thrashing Italy at Wembley. What has happened to Lionel Messi and company? There would seem to be two answers.
Firstly, opponents have studied them in depth, working out how to neutralise their strengths. Coach Lionel Scaloni’s team has been based around a basic idea: a passing midfield which patiently builds rhythm, seeking to wear down the opposition, and waits for the right moment to turn possession into penetration.
Saudi Arabia came up with a bold solution: to press the space in midfield using a high defensive line. It was a risky strategy and only the narrowest of offsides stopped Argentina building up an unassailable first-half lead, but the bravery of the Saudis was rewarded with a shock 2-1 comeback win. They denied Argentina the time and space to play their normal game, and Argentina never found a solution.
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On Saturday, Gerardo Martino’s Mexico tried something much more conservative: defending with a block of three centre-backs protected by another trio of central midfielders. It was not easy on the eye — Mexico’s exciting wingers of four years ago are now a distant memory — but it was frustrating and almost worked, before Messi struck and Argentina finished 2-0 victors.
All of this is part of the game but, and here is the other part of the explanation, Argentina have also not been at their best.
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The alarm bells started ringing shortly before the competition when midfielder Giovani Lo Celso pulled out injured. Scaloni confessed that he did not have a like-for-like replacement and Lo Celso was a key part of Argentina’s ball-playing midfield trio. Over the course of the long unbeaten run, Leandro Paredes had been playing the first ball forward with quality, Rodrigo De Paul had been supplying thrust, and Lo Celso, with his subtle little passes, had been bringing Messi into the game close to the opposing goal. Good teams are made of little partnerships and the link between Messi and Lo Celso was an important part of the side. Alejandro Gomez stepped in for the first game against the Saudis and Alexis Mac Allister for the meeting with Mexico; neither was much of a success, although there are mitigating circumstances.
Scaloni made five changes for the match against Mexico, one of which was the enforced replacement of Paredes in the midfield anchor role. The 28-year-old has been struggling for fitness and was nowhere near his best against the Saudis, but the inclusion of Guido Rodriguez to take his place made little sense.
Rodriguez is a 6-foot-2 defensive midfielder. He might be a good option to come on and hold the fort when the team are protecting a lead, but he was all wrong for the Mexico game. The onus was on Argentina to create, to move the ball, to build up a head of steam. Rhythm comes from the back and it is hard for the players further forward to create anything if everyone is marked. The midfield anchorman needs to advance, commit opponents and create the space for a constructive forward pass. This is not the game of Rodriguez and, as the game wore on, it was clear that Messi was becoming increasingly frustrated.
Argentina looked like a team caught between two concepts. Was Rodriguez included because Scaloni was concerned about protecting the defence? But while he was there, it was hard for Argentina to be themselves. And then Rodriguez gave way to Enzo Fernandez.
Much has been made of the two moments of inspiration that won the game — the Messi shot from outside the area and the gorgeous curled finish from Fernandez late in the game. But there is something else. Messi scored after receiving a clever pass from Angel Di Maria on the right wing; Di Maria received the ball from Enzo Fernandez. Suddenly, with Fernandez on the field, Argentina had a circuit of passing taking place in the opposing half.
It is the golden rule of football: the team makes the stars. Messi and company had not suddenly become bad players when Argentina were struggling to break down Mexico. The team had not been moving the ball well enough to give them space to do their thing — until Fernandez came on that is. Now he has surely won a place in the starting XI against Poland.