Qualification for the World Cup is one thing. The tournament is another.
Brazil in 2002 give the best example. Their qualification campaign was a protracted nightmare, and without a little bit of luck along the way they may not even have made it to Japan and South Korea. But once they got there, just seven months later they won all of their matches on the way to a fifth World Cup title.
Might Argentina be capable of something similar this time around? Their road to Russia was arduous and painful – and only a magnificent last day hat-trick from Lionel Messi away to Ecuador got them over the line. Now, though, they have time and tranquillity to aspire to something better. And they can look back on their reconnaissance mission with some pleasure. Saturday’s 1-0 win against Russia in Moscow was encouraging. There are signs of a team in progress, a unit consolidating an idea of play under Jorge Sampaoli, their third coach of the campaign.
Sampaoli took charge for the final four rounds looking to make big changes, but lacking any time on the training ground to bed them in. The consequences were shambolic. His track record, however, shows that he is a fascinatingly bold coach: a huge success with the Chilean national team and a relative success with Sevilla, who he abandoned after a single season to take charge of his the land of his birth.
His World Cup side will inevitably be dependent on the individual genius of Lionel Messi. But there were signs in the Russia game of a side capable of doing more than passing the ball to the No.10 and praying. There were little circuits of passing, opening up the pitch and creating space for Argentina’s possession game.
Javier Mascherano, who against Ecuador operated in the middle of the back three, now moved to the right. He orchestrated everything from deep – indeed, after half-time Russia took steps to close him down and stop Argentina’s attacks at source. Has a player’s range of passing ever been more underestimated? Mascherano’s more combative virtues are often highlighted – though as he moves into his mid-30s and loses pace they are perhaps not as outstanding as they once were. But it is his capacity to pass long and short that continues to make him so useful for club and country.
The slight positional switch helped Mascherano find more space to pick his pass. But the most important change made by Sampaoli was one of personnel – the return of Sergio Aguero at centre-forward.
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A debate has raged in Argentina about who should fill this position. Should it be Gonzalo Higuain? Sampaoli thinks not, and has already gone with Mauro Icardi and Dario Benedetto. The answer, though is simple; one of the hidden statistics of Argentina’s troubled qualification campaign is that Messi and Aguero only started together on two occasions. Both were victories.
And Aguero effectively put the debate to bed with a man of the match performance in Moscow. He carried a persistent threat, forcing two fine first half saves from Igor Akinfeev. He linked the play well, holding the ball up and creating good chances for Messi and Angel Di Maria. And he was rewarded with the late winner, nodding in from the rebound after his shot from Cristian Pavon’s low cross had been blocked. There was a suspicion of offside – Pavon looked to be behind the defensive line when Messi slipped him a pass. The win, though, was fair reward for Argentina’s domination.
That does not mean everything is suddenly perfect, though. Far from it. There are still serious structural problems for the coach to wrestle with over the coming months.
The major one is this: does he have the defensive pace to play the Sampaoli way? His teams like to press furiously, imposing themselves on the game and keeping the opponent pinned back in their half. But without much speed in their back three, the Argentina defensive line stay deep. The team are unable to press collectively, Messi often picks up possession far from goal and the wing-backs are forced to cover massive distances. In the absence of good attacking full-backs, Argentina use wingers in these positions. Against Russia Eduardo Salvio played on the right and Angel Di Maria on the left.
Their lack of defensive nous can be exposed – one of Argentina’s worst moments came from a free-kick needlessly conceded on the edge of the area from Salvio. It also seems a waste of Di Maria, who was much better used in a floating role in the previous match against Ecuador, when he combined to wonderful effect with Messi.
Argentina stay in Russia for a few days, facing Nigeria on Tuesday – another opportunity for Jorge Sampaoli to look at options, further consolidate his idea of play and hope that they will have made more progress by the time they come back for the World Cup.