Expectations run high when you are a footballer who hails from South America. They increase tenfold when you call Argentina home. But if you’ve been labelled the heir apparent to Diego Maradona and one of the two best players of your entire generation aka Messi, the pressure around you is immeasurable.
It took a diminutive number ten to write the second act in Argentina’s World Cup history, and from the moment Lionel Messi’s star began to rise, memories of past glories soon became a desired reality. His record at club level is, in a word, immaculate, while his list of accolades and records held continue to grow. Other than rival Cristiano Ronaldo, there is no greater influence on the game than Rosario’s most famous footballing son.
Some say he’s the greatest player to ever play, and even more postulate that his achievements at club level will never be matched. But through all the breathtaking and indescribable moments we have witnessed at the Camp Nou and countless grounds around Europe, his time in the famous light blue and white stripes of La Albiceleste has paled in comparison.
To date, Messi has failed to win a single major international honor. Despite winning the U-20 World Cup in 2005, and Olympic gold in 2008, Copa America and the World Cup have remained a bridge too far. It has been a story of heartbreak for Messi, and there has been little sympathy to be found. After coming so close in 2014 – with the same result in the two resulting Copa America’s since – the odds of Argentina’s all-time leading goal scorer lifting footballs biggest trophy will likely fall to this summer; surely his last chance to do so.
“Leo is normal, he is human. Today we have to be with him, we know that at any moment he can define a match. The first match is always difficult. Argentina want to win against everyone. I hope that the Croatia game can be better.” – Sergio Agüero
Perhaps it is those very words by teammate and close friend Sergio Agüero that sum up, ever so simply, the underlying expectation that surrounds Messi. Fans and players alike, believe in his ability to lift the team to another level, and undoubtedly, Argentine head coach Jorge Sampaoli believes the same.
It is not a foreign concept for a team’s talisman (and captain) to be relied upon in big moments, and in truth Messi has delivered in this regard before; virtually putting the team on his back in 2014 and 2016 respectively. But the everlasting question many keep coming back to is why he should have to.
When Sampaoli was unveiled as the new coach last June after Edgardo Bauza’s position was deemed untenable, there was a feeling that the former Chile headmaster would ring in the changes. Highly successful on the La Roja touchline, it was thought that the same team-based system which saw Chile crowned Copa America champions in 2015 would take hold at the El Monumental. But Argentina would draw in their first three World Cup qualifying matches under his charge (scoring just one goal in the process) and coming perilously close to missing out on Russia this summer altogether; if not for a Messi hattrick on the final matchday away against Ecuador to ensure a third-placed finish.
The run-up to Russia 2018 was laced with a mixed bag of results. A narrow win against the tournament host was followed up with a shock 4-2 loss to Nigeria. Spirits were lifted with a credible 2-0 win against Italy four months later, only to be rebuffed by a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Spain in Madrid. An expected comfortable win against Haiti (4-0) would round out their friendly calendar. Fast forward to June 16th in Moscow, and a side billed as a potential tournament favorite on the back of a squad glistening with attacking talent would be met with stalemate by debutant Iceland; ironically by the same score line which they held Ronaldo’s Portugal in their European Championship debut two years prior.
Events at the Otkrytie Arena played out as one would expect. Argentina dominated Iceland in every statistical category; except the one that would matter the most. In the end Iceland earned a 1-1 draw on the back of a brilliant defensive display, arguably the best of the tournament. A Hannes Þór Halldórsson penalty save against – you guessed it – Messi himself highlighted a performance by a team who continues to build their international credentials.
Come the end of ninety minutes the favorites would go on to register twenty-seven attempts at goal, but Strákarnir okkar would block ten of them, while forcing fifteen of the sum total to come from outside the area. Sampaoli’s troops ran out of ideas on the back of countless moments of frustration, and it was Messi who put the burden on himself to rectify the situation, taking thirteen shots himself over the course of the match.
“We tried to work better and create more opportunities, but what can you do? We’re just starting. We will learn from this experience. Beyond the goal scored against us, I don’t think our transitions were fast enough and we should have hurt our opponent more. In the second half we made them feel uncomfortable, but they did have many people playing defensively”
“We need to find more alternatives to our style of play – alternatives that can hurt our opponent. Croatia is not the same as Nigeria or Iceland. The next game will be different, and we must understand what strategy works best. This is going to be a tough group.” – Jorge Sampaoli
Though the thought process is the correct one [hurting their opponent more], the practical application has been lacking. Much of that, if not all of it, rests on the fact that the national team continues to rely far too heavily on Messi’s otherworldly ability and not nearly enough of their own. A revisit to the numbers from the Iceland reflect such a notion. Beyond racking up half of Argentina’s total efforts on the night, Messi added half the teams successful dribbles (13 of 25) while Agüero was the only attacking player to register more than two. Ángel Di María did not manage a single one and neither did young substitute Cristian Pavón, while Gonzalo Higuaín and Independiente’s Maximiliano Meza could only manage three between them.
When Sampaoli referenced his sides inability to find alternatives he hit the nail on the head. The alternative, which seems obvious to so many, is a greater reliance on the depth in talent in the team. In forcing play to go through Messi as much as possible, Iceland were all too happy to sit deep in two banks of four and defend as a unit, while charging down as many shots as possible in the process. It’s a story we have all seen before; one that Germany repeated against Mexico a day later. Against a team happy to defend in depth and look to hit you on the break, more must be done to stretch their lines and unsettle their structure. Argentina were unable to, though this could have easily been avoided, and that responsibility falls solely on the shoulders of the coach.
Ability to possess the ball aside, control is not nearly enough; it is what makes Barcelona so dangerous over recent years. Though possession is key to their brand of football, they will always have players in their team who can beat their man on the ball when a side cannot be broken down simply by passing.
There were candidates in Sampaoli’s starting XI to aid in this task in the form of Di María and Meza, as well as Pavón, who despite being lively and attempting to stretch play when he could, did not have enough time to put a real stamp on the match. Di María particularly failed at providing width down the left-hand side, rarely venturing closer than thirty yards from Halldórsson’s goal while straddling the central channel rather than stretching play. This may not have been a problem if left back Nicolás Tagliafico looked to overlap, but the Ajax man often occupied the same space as his left-sided partner.
Despite Messi routinely making himself available in all areas in and around the final third, Iceland would not be dragged out of their shape. Every one of Argentina’s attacking players – as well as the fullbacks – were guilty of failing to drive further forward. Central duo Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano, deeper midfielders by trade, also failed to give their European opponents a moment of pause. All too happy to employ one sideways pass after another, the South American giants could not count on penetrative passes generated from deeper areas; play was simplistic and passive in all manner of respects.
The technical ability of the squad is such that being more direct when on the ball should be a key goal targeted by Sampaoli when they face-off against Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod. Vatreni are undoubtedly considered a respectable opponent while fielding arguably the best midfield duo in the tournament. Prudence may dictate to yet again deploy two central holding players, but to do so would starve Argentina of additional creativity beyond Messi. It could be time to give PSG’s Giovani Lo Celso – a more forward-thinking and creative midfielder – serious consideration. Deploying such an option in conjunction with Mascherano – still a capable ball-winner – should serve as another creative outlet with which to mount assaults on the Croatian lines.
It is foolish to doubt the capability of a Messi-led team, even one that does not reside on Spain’s eastern seaboard. But this Argentina team is so much more than one man. Among its ranks are some of Europe’s top strikers, seasoned veterans, and bright young talents who have yet to come close to their overall potential. This is not a summer where one man should shoulder the burden of an entire nation, but a month-long grind where a team must come together and support a living legend.
For a nation whose motto champions unity, it is time for that powerful notion to come to fruition. Not behind one man, but alongside him.