It should be obvious to everyone who has watched Argentina’s matches that the systems Alejandro Sabella’s team has so far used have not worked. The 5-3-2 experiment in the Bosnia & Herzegovina game was correctly halted at half-time but the 4-3-3 has looked little better in the last two-and-a-half games. The genius of Lionel Messi has dug them out of holes but it is a bit embarrassing that they have needed Messi to bail them out against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. They were rather hoping that they would be able to hold that trump card in reserve until they faced Brazil in the final.
Argentina’s problems are many but can be simplified, and though they are simple, they are no less serious. In short: they have no attacking structure and not much in the way of defensive cohesion. They are a collection of brilliant individuals but not a good team.
As I wrote before the tournament:
From a tactical point of view, too, Argentina are at a disadvantage. They are likely to play a very vertical counter-attacking game, sitting deep and springing forward with Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín as well as Messi, an approach which maximises the four’s individual ability by allowing them lots of space with which to work, but one that has no recent history of success at this level. There is not a great deal on the bench that suggests they are going to be capable of changing their approach should an opponent park the bus.
Alejandro Sabella’s men are likely to carry on the tradition established by sides like Jogi Löw’s Germany and José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, whose shock-and-awe reactivism destroyed most opponents who allowed themselves to be suckered in to playing high up the pitch, but collapsed when sides twigged what was going on and simply sat deep and refused to be drawn out. Romania, a limited side who will not be at the World Cup Finals, held Argentina to a goalless draw in March by doing exactly that.
So it has proved. Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago, the two deep midfielders, don’t offer anything in the offensive phase; Messi, Higuaín and Agüero don’t do anything defensively; Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo rarely do much of anything at either end.
In open play, the creative burden seems to have been placed wholly on Lionel Messi and Ángel Di María, while getting the big guys on the end of set-pieces remains a secondary ploy. If the opposition simply crowd out Messi and Di María, they shut Argentina down. It is impossible for a side to win a World Cup if it is that easy to neutralise their attack.
Furthermore, every team Argentina faced in the group stage carved out incredibly good goalscoring opportunities. Bosnia & Herzegovina were unlucky to only register one, Iran could have had two or three and Nigeria’s two goals were just reward for their prowess on the break and Argentina’s lethargy in defence. The better sides they face later in the competition will be able to shut them down and pick them off with relative ease.
With all of the above being the case, what can Argentina do to prevent elimination? What will probably happen is that Ezequiel Lavezzi, formerly of Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain fame but currently best known for squirting his isotonic drink into Sabella’s face during the match against Nigeria, will take the now-injured Agüero’s place.
Lavezzi will demonstrate his usual hyperactivity, moving all over the attacking third and receiving the ball in wide positions, creating central space for Messi and Di María to move into, while also making diagonal runs between full-back and centre-back, a run Messi’s colleagues at Barcelona make regularly and one that allows Messi to lift the ball over the defence and give the runner a clear shot on goal, as is his wont. It could be that simple: a simple injection of energy could transform Argentina.
I would go one step further and introduce another playmaker in place of Gago – another mobile passer, like Lucas Biglia or Enzo Pérez but in an ideal world the absent Éver Banega, to take the ball and make something happen from the centre of the pitch. A third creator would mean that the opposition cannot just surround Messi and Di Maríá and know that, bar a moment of genius from the former, a goal is almost certainly not going to come. It would also give Higuaín the space to play as a lone striker, something he has done at club level for years.
To me it seems a no-brainer, but a coach as cautious as Sabella would probably perceive too much risk in switching to a variant of 4-2-3-1 that this team has never played together. Admittedly, that reason is as valid as any could be – but unless they address their obvious problems, they will find themselves on the plane home very soon. If Switzerland boss Ottmar Hitzfeld plays his cards right – as he did when his unfancied side beat eventual champions Spain 1-0 in the last World Cup – then it could all be over for Sabella, Messi and company on Tuesday.