World Cup: Argentina National Football Team depends too much on Lionel Messi
Sampaoli demands that his teams sit high, press hard and attempt to overload the opposition. It is a style – seen in his 2011 Copa Sudamericana-winning Universidad de Chile and his 2015 Copa America-winning Chile – that makes equal demands of each player rather than resting on the talents of an individual.
It was different at the last World Cup. Alejandro Sabella predicated his Argentina on defence, believing that solid foundations underneath Messi’s mastery would be enough to edge his team through the tournament. That was, in a way, how it transpired. Of their five wins on the way to the defeat in the Maracana final, not one came by more than one goal. La Albiceleste scored just twice in the knock-out stages yet narrowly missed out on a third World Cup.
“This is going to be his team,” Jorge Sampaoli admitted in March, on an overcast day in Manchester. He was, as he often is as Argentina’s head coach, talking about Lionel Messi. “He is the best of all and is in a stage of maturity that can he can carry the team on his shoulders,” he added, before reiterating himself for good measure. “This is going to be his team.”
Messi, meanwhile, was named the player of the tournament – scoring four, including a memorable late group-stage winner against Iran – but the prize did not come without controversy. Sepp Blatter, then-Fifa president, was there to shake Messi’s hand when the Golden Ball was presented but later admitted to being “surprised”. Diego Maradona went further, dismissing the decision to award Messi the prize as a “marketing plan”.
Whether Sampaoli watched on thinking the same we do not know, but were he in charge, he would not have set out to channel Argentina’s play entirely through Messi in the same manner as Sabella. He may even have argued that, in order to extract the very best out of his greatest talent, Messi must play as part of a system rather than as a tacked-on superstar.
Why, then, those words in March? And why – a year on from Sampaoli’s eye-catching appointment – do Argentina appear no less dependent on the greatest footballer of a generation?
Having a player of such immeasurable talent as Messi is both a gift and a curse. The idea that he does not deliver for Argentina is overstated – without Messi’s hat-trick in Quito last November, Sampaoli’s side would not be participating in Russia. Yet his presence in the national side often causes a simple, schoolyard problem: Messi’s team-mates seek him out and look to him for inspiration rather than playing their own game.
Paulo Dybala attracted much attention last October when he said it was “not easy” to line up alongside Messi because they operate in similar spaces and play in a similar way. Dybala later claimed his words were misinterpreted, but by that stage Sampaoli had already attempted to clarify what the 24-year-old, the supposed heir to Messi’s throne, had meant.
“[Dybala] said what he felt about playing beside the world’s best player. It’s often difficult to know what position you have in the attack when you are playing alongside someone of Lionel’s intelligence,” Sampaoli said. The suggestion was that Dybala and too many of his international team-mates were still somewhat in awe of Messi, still adjusting their play to suit him rather than putting the system first.
Dybala’s remarks only fuelled the idea that he and Messi are incapable of forming a natural partnership and he is now destined to play second fiddle at best in Russia. Yet deference to world’s best player is still in the muscle memory of most of this Argentina side – not just Dybala – and it will prove difficult to shake, no matter the make-up. This is, as Sampaoli put it in March, still “Messi’s team”. The system is yet to incorporate the individual.
The latest attempt at a solution will be on show at Moscow’s Otkritie Arena on Saturday, when Argentina open Group D against this World Cup’s most organised, systemic of outfits – Iceland. Sampaoli felt comfortable enough on Friday to name his line-up at his pre-match press conference, revealing that Lucas Biglia, Maximiliano Meza and Sergio Aguero will all start. Messi is likely to take up his preferred position of second striker.
The formation will be a 4-2-3-1 on paper, though in practice may look more like the unconventional 2-3-3-2 that Sampaoli touted while announcing his World Cup squad. Yet whatever the shape, the personnel selected suggests that the creative burden on Messi will not ease. He will remain the central, uniting figure in the Argentina’s attacking play, with an out-and-out goalscorer in Aguero dependent on him.
Unless Argentina find a way to best complement their star’s talents over the course of this tournament, it is hard to see how La Albiceleste go one further than in Brazil. If Messi’s final World Cup at his peak is to end in triumph, it cannot be his team. It must be Sampaoli’s.