The fact that Argentina looked out of sorts in a 1-1 draw versus Iceland in their opening World Cup match wasn’t particularly troublesome in itself. After all, they weren’t alone. Brazil, Germany and Spain also struggled in their first outing of the tournament, the weight of expectation always difficult to shake off when the curtain finally lifts.
Yet as the Albiceleste lined up for a key second game in Group D versus Croatia, it was clear that something was very, very wrong. First of all, Coach Jorge Sampaoli had changed to a back three with Nicolas Otamendi as the only centre-back versus a side that play with width and a physical striker in Mario Mandzukic. That choice was certainly baffling, especially given that Argentina had AS Roma defender Federico Fazio sitting on the bench, an ideal alternative to partner his Manchester City counterpart in a back four.
As the national anthems played, Sampaoli looked stressed in the extreme, appearing to be almost clenching his teeth even before a ball had been kicked. After a poor performance in the first match, Lionel Messi was captured gripping his forehead as though he were suffering from a tension headache, a strange moment instead of what would normally be a proud one for any footballer representing their country at a World Cup.
It was as though they knew every single thing about their setup was wrong, from the squad selection in the first place, to the starting XI on the night, plus the questionable tactics and mentality of the team.
“Messi is our Captain, he leads the team and we quite simply couldn’t pass to him to help him generate the situations he is used to,” admitted Sampaoli to the BBC after the match. “We worked to give him the ball but the opponent also worked hard to prevent him from getting the ball. We lost that battle.”
These comments highlight another issue in the side, as the importance of the Barcelona number ten has been inflated beyond belief, the Coach so wrapped up in ensuring Messi gets what he needs that the rest of the side is ignored. Football is a team sport and it only takes a look at rival Cristiano Ronaldo to see that a great player needs a well-organised side behind him and that the star in the side needs to step up and make himself counted rather than hiding in the shadows when things don’t go right.
Last night, Argentina so strongly resembled the Italy national team during their ill-fated World Cup qualifying run under Giampiero Ventura. The veteran boss was lost at sea, didn’t have a clue how to manage any single aspect of his side and Sampaoli’s fate will likely end up the same.
It’s baffling that the current Albiceleste boss did so well with Chile in 2014, however back then he managed his side without a heavy burden of expectation and without an atmosphere that seems so toxic in the current setup. Those things make a difference and it seems to be the reason why Argentina look likely to be heading home after their final group match.
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