Midway through a stuttering qualifying campaign — it required, well a Lionel Messi hat-trick in the final game against Ecuador to stave off embarrassment — coach Jorge Sampaoli tore a tactical sheet into the dustbin at the football headquarters in Buenos Aires. “It must be the hundredth I have torn this month,” he fumed.
As if being tasked to anchor a plunging ship was not enough, their third coach in 18 months, Sampaoli was beset with a complicated, even convoluted, problem, which the more he tried to resolve the more tangled it turned out to be. A surplus of riches upfront – the names roll out like a breeze – Paulo Dybala, Angel Di Maria, Cristian Pavon, Sergio Aguero, Giovani Lo Celso, and of course Lionel Messi. So much so that Gonzalo Higuain is an afterthought and Mauro Icardi was shunted back home.
It’s Messi’s presence that uncomplicates and complicates Sampaoli’s plight at the same time. Uncomplicates because he has arguably the most hallowed No 10 in an all-time dream team. Complicates because there are at least four others who like to inhabit, and are prone to trespassing, Messi’s space. Dybala treads exactly the same channels for Juventus. Di Maria is most penetrative when he scythes in from wide areas on the left to Messi’s parch. Even Aguero, more of a conventional centre forward, drifts into Messi’s ranch before he thrusts forth at full-pelt. Youthful midfielder Lo Celso, widely anointed the future of Argentina after Messi, prefers to lurk around the same areas.
To compound the quandary, Manuel Lanzini, who has successfully switched flanks, is out injured, forcing Sampaoli to perhaps remodel Benfica’s Salvio into a right-sided winger, or thrust the highly-rated young forward Pavon of Boca Juniors into the role. The most straightforward alternative was to shift Messi to the right, where he had played and looked utmost comfortable in the past, but he needn’t burn the house to kill the rat.
Chop and change
So much of his tenure has been a relentless effort to rehabilitate his side and build the team around Messi. Hence, Dybala was deputed upfront for a couple of games, before he was moved to the right. But the latter’s tactical obstinacy didn’t help either. “It’s hard to get him used to our system,” the coach admitted. But he eventually had to take him because “he’s the closest replacement to Messi if he gets injured.” That would be Sampaoli’s worst nightmare, what with a Messi-less Argentina shellacked 6-1 by Spain in a friendly in Madrid.
Likewise, Lo Celso was pushed deeper, Di Maria crossed over to the right, like Louis van Gaal had futilely striven at Old Trafford, but each of them struggled to realign to the new positions. Worse still, they thawed and cribbed, and washed the linen in public. Di Maria complained he lost his explosiveness. “I ended up brooding a little more, because I’m not quite used to the new position,” he said. The result was congestion, and lack of width on the left.
Consequently, to de-congest the left side, Sampaoli was forced to experiment with radical, highly impractical formations – like the 3-3-3-1, 3-3-1-3 and 3-4-3 hoping that at least one would work. None did afford a stable, long-term solution, “but thankfully Messi’s brilliance made up for it.” It’s a testimony to his greatness than even if you try to slay his shadow, it still lurks around expansively. Eventually, he settled for a conventional 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1, with Messi operating just behind Aguero, Di Maria on his favoured left wing, Lo Celso,who has displaced Ever Banega, as the deep-lying playmaker and Lucas Biglia as the defensive screen. He’s even mulling a highly radical 2-3-3-2, with two defensive midfielders, one \just in front the back two and one upfront. “This will allow us to occupy different levels on the pitch, and develop our game in a way that will increase the difficulty the opponent has in containing us. Over and above having a compact, like-minded team of course. It would be through said different levels we are able to show our superiority – by dominating with the ball,” Sampaoli said.
”It could be a formational masterstroke or naivety. But there’s no harm trying it,” he files the disclaimer.
Less than sum of parts
In isolation, there’s plenty of outrageously skilled personnel. Dybala can find the net with unusual angles and turns (ex-Juve teammate Paul Pogba calls his square R2, the Playstation button to score goals on the turn), Di Maria can unnerve defenders with raw pace, Aguero can bulldoze defences, Lo Celso is a classy little dribbler, Banega can stroke Pirlo-like killer passes without a semblance of brutality, Pavon is so highly regarded by his compatriots that Messi wants him at Nou Camp. And of course, Messi himself. All of them had prolific club seasons too — between them, Aguero, Dybala, and Higuain have scored 79 goals in 135 games.
But unlocking their collective potential and moulding them into a coherent unit is what Sampaoli’s been trying all through his tenure. There’s a clutching fear back home that this campaign could unravel like Marcelo Bielsa’s that embarked on the 2002 World Cup as favourites and crashed out in the group stage, a wonderful squad that had among them the finest attackers in the game – Gabriel Batistuta, Kily Gonzalez, Ariel Ortega, Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastian Veron and Pablo Aimar. Between them, they mustered only two goals. There was a perceptible lack of structural discipline, and the coach’s relationship soured with the players, some of them even claiming that they were forced to play with injuries.
There was a shortage of goals in the qualifiers too — they netted only 17 goals, seven off them by Messi. Only Di Maria (two), Nicolas Otamendi, Lucas Bigilia and Higuain (one each) in this squad found the back of the net. To further stretch the over-reliance on Messi, the last seven goals they scored in the qualifiers were scored or assisted by Messi. It’s a testimony to his infallible greatness that he has almost single-handedly carried the team on his shoulders, but it also exposes the debilitating incoherence of Sampaoli’s side.
He sees this in a different light. “Even without our attackers hitting top gear, we found goals. If they can start scoring goals, we will be a dangerous team.” It’s a big ‘if’, and Sampaoli could end up tearing more tactical sheets, if his vaunted frontline doesn’t demonstrate the requisite tactical discipline. Lest Messi has other designs.