Argentina without Lionel Messi is going all wrong
How rapid a fall from grace can be. Finalists at the last World Cup, Argentina's attempt to go one better in Russia 2018 is now underway, and it could hardly have got off to a worse start. Defeat at home to Ecuador ---a side who've struggled at sea level and particularly in Buenos Aires for a long time -- and a 0-0 draw away to Paraguay on Tuesday night mean Argentina sit seventh in the CONMEBOL group after two matches. Never in the history of the South American qualifiers, even so early in the campaign, have they been this low.
With a month to go until two matches that are now more high-pressure than ever -- at home to Brazil and away to Colombia -- there's little room for manoeuvre. Only once in the current CONMEBOL system has a South American side reached the World Cup after having taken one point from their first two matches (Brazil at USA '94). Just two or three, -- or, Heaven forbid, one -- from four matches really would be a crisis.
This correspondent wrote a piece for ESPNFC when Gerardo Martino became Barcelona manager, and another after he was made Argentina manager, and both, broadly, stated that he was a better manager than he'd so far had a real chance to show. After the last two matches, one has to admit that argument is looking less convincing. Argentina have looked directionless, flat and unimaginative.
Some of that has been down to bad luck. With Lionel Messi already missing, this was a chance for the rest of the attack to show what they were capable of, but when the in-form Sergio Aguero felt his hamstring go just over 20 minutes into the Ecuador game, Argentina found themselves replacing a penalty box sniffer with almost one goal in every two games for the national side with Carlos Tevez, a second striker who's scored almost one goal in every five games.
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The absence of Messi in the first place, of course, was also beyond Argentina's control. But why wasn't another No. 9 called up, someone who could replace or play alongside Aguero? Gonzalo Higuain isn't without his critics but has a good record in qualifiers. Mauro Icardi is a younger option who's becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Paulo Dybala, the youngster who unlike Icardi was in the squad, got his first cap against Paraguay, but it seemed as if he was introduced as a late afterthought.
It would be unfair to blame only the strikers, though. The worst player by a distance over both matches was Javier Pastore, who started as part of a midfield three (alongside Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia) against Ecuador, and "in the hole" behind Tevez against Paraguay. Clearly intended to be the man carrying the ball forward and orchestrating Argentine attacks, Pastore was almost entirely anonymous. His most noteworthy contribution in either match was to give the ball away, setting up an attack from which Paraguay almost scored Tuesday.
Pastore didn't seem to want the ball, the players further forward were too frequently starved of it, and the result was that against Ecuador, Argentina's best chance of the night somehow fell to Mascherano. And that against Paraguay, until a couple of Ezequiel Lavezzi half-chances late in the first half, Mascherano was also the only player with a shot on target. Mascherano isn't finished yet (though moving him to centre back is surely an idea worth considering), but when he's the man forcing saves from the opposing goalkeeper, your team has problems.
Will Messi's return help turn things around, if he's fit in time for the Brazil and Colombia matches? Yes and no. On the one hand, they stand a far better chance of getting the results they need from two tricky fixtures with him in the team. On the other, Messi's presence until now might be what's bred the current cluelessness; for some time now, he's bailed his teammates out and papered over the cracks of successive midfields whose setup has forced him to drop much deeper than he does at Barcelona. In these two matches, the man dropping deep to get on the ball was Tevez. That's in keeping with Tevez's style, of course, but it wasn't at all helpful because he was supposedly playing as the main centre-forward.
To that end, perhaps the one bright spot of Tuesday night's display was Matias Kranevitter's performance alongside Mascherano in a midfield pair. Impressive in the recent friendlies in the United States, it was Kranevitter's first competitive match for Argentina and he immediately looked as if he belonged. On his own, he won't transform the midfield overnight, but he's surely got to be a key part of the new-look unit.
And that's the thing; there has to be a new-look unit, in midfield as much as up front, and while that unit needs to be put together with a consideration of how to get the best service to Messi, the way to do that seems to be to build a team which is less reliant on him -- a team who don't expect Messi to do all their work for them.
The local media obsession with Tevez isn't helping either. It's hard to wonder whether he'd be included if Martino was as strong-willed as Alejandro Sabella before him. No one's saying Tevez is a bad player, but he's had many opportunities at the national team level without impressing. Against Paraguay he got his 76th cap, taking him level with Juan Pablo Sorin. Tevez has 13 goals for Argentina; Sorin scored 11. Sorin, remember, was a left-back. Tevez might not be a penalty box poacher, but his poor goal tally is only the most obvious example of his underwhelming performances for Argentina. At 31, is it really worth continuing to call him up?
Ultimately, though, Tevez isn't Argentina's biggest problem. Their biggest problem is a team who rely too much on their star man, and the manager's seeming unwillingness to change that. Martino has a lot of thinking to do in the next month.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been one of ESPNFC's South America correspondents since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com