Endowed with some of the most talented attacking players in the football along with the home advantage, Argentina were clearly the overwhelming favourites to win the Copa America 2011. And it was not unrealistic to expect them to roll over minnows like Bolivia like a bulldozer in the group stage. But strangely, the hosts not only failed to match the expectations but suddenly all the craze around the superstars in the team looks farce and superficial. Leave aside the dazzling football hoped from the hugely talented team, they failed to even play as a team and perform.
Coach Sergio Batista, who took over from legend Diego Maradona after the devastating loss against Germany in the 2010 world cup, claimed before the tournament that his team will strive to play like Barcelona do. It did not look like a farfetched idea as team was centred on Messi and has got services from Javier Mascherano and Gabriel Milito who have played for Barcelona. But a look into the performance of the team in the first two matches pointed one thing clearly, this team can not play the Barcelona style. And following are the reasons why.
Lack of Cohesion in the team:
The basic idea behind the game play of Barcelona is the inimitable chemistry among each player of the team. Each player knows well in advance where his other team mates are and that helps them make some perfect passes. This immense understanding between the players forced even Jose Mourinho (who is the only coach to have dominated Guardiola’s Barcelona in last three years in any game) exclaim, “this team can play the game blindfolded”. And if you saw the performance of Argentine team in the last two matches then you know what this team lacks is cohesion. So many passes were misplaced, directed straight at an opponent player or behind the target player that would even shame the children still learning to play the game.
Lack of creativity in the midfield:
Just compare the midfield of this Argentine team with Barcelona. Mascherano, Cambiasso and Banega against Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. Do they stand any chance! The key to Barcelona’s game is holding the ball in the midfield, create some hole in the defence and then pass it forward leaving the likes of Messi to do the rest. But here, The midfield trio are mostly wrecker of a game than creating. Not even once in the 180 minutes, did any of these three did anything like create a chance for the advancing forwards. So the forwards have to go to midfield to create the game and they are easily outnumbered in the opponent half. While in Barcelona Xavi and Iniesta (sometimes advancing Busquets) pose some danger and the defenders have to take care of them leaving some space for the likes of Messi, Villa or Pedro, in Argentine team Messi, Tevez and Lavezzi were left in the mercy of the opponent defenders. As a result, whenever Messi got the ball he had 3-4 defenders waiting to overpower him.
Lack of ball-playing defenders:
Or should I say lack of defender at all! Passing game of Barcelona is created from the heart of their defence and with Milito and Burdisso Argentina have two such defenders who are not able to make even a single perfect pass. What results when they try to do what Puyol and Pique do is a back pass that does not reach the goalkeeper or a parallel pass that goes straight to the opponent Centre Forward instead of the fellow Centre Back. Milito showed with his performance in these two matches that not for nothing did Pep Guardiola preferred to play Busquets, Mascherano or even Fontas over playing him in any match that mattered the least. Milito has lost his touch and cannot even keep standing on the ground without stumbling throughout the 90 minutes even if nobody touched him. And the people who followed Serie A claimed that they were not at all surprised to see Burdisso committing such mistakes. So what can the coach do when the best two central defenders of his country are of such standards? Anything but not tell them to pass amongst themselves to create a beautiful game. Just kick the bloody ball away from the post and leave the rest on the other people.
Lack of understanding between the strikers:
The idea behind playing three strikers is to outnumber the opponent defence with mutual play and make use of their mistakes. And when the three strikers you have on team are Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Ezequel Lavezzi, who among themselves have scored more than 80 goals in the season, you expect them to make a burning whole in the opponent defence. Instead what we saw in the game were some individual efforts from Lavezzi and Tevez trying take on the whole defence on their own. Most of the time Messi played deep to create the game from his sterile midfield and Tevez and Lavezzi mostly preferred to remain on the wings. So either the team had three lone strikers (!) or no striker upfront.
Messi dependency only in theory:
So much is said about Messi dependency of this Argentina squad. But in fact, the said dependency is only on paper, the players on ground do not seem to believe in that. In Barcelona, they build the game around Messi having ultimate faith on the little magician when they need his service. Xavi, Iniesta build the game from midfield keeping him in mind and more than once have we seen Villa and Pedro to believe in Messi to score while they themselves are in may be a better positions to score. This not only raises the confidence of the little maestro and makes his job easier, but also allows Villa and Pedro to have some space to do their job when needed. But this Argentine team seems to be more confident in their own skill than the so called Messi magic. The likes of Lavezzi and Tevez more often than not led themselves into impossible situations and lost among the defenders than passing back to Messi when he made a run. I do not doubt their talents, undoubtedly hugely talented they are, but they need to use huge talent they have in their squad.
Poor team selection by coach:
All the above problems could have perhaps been solved with a better selection of the first eleven by the coach Sergio Batista. His overly cautious approach of using three midfielders all of whom are more defensive in approach might have taken its toll on the performance. Batista has the problem of who to select and who to bench from the talented squad. But strangely, he preferred not to use any of Aguero, Pastore, Higuain or Angel Di Maria. It really makes no sense to field three defensive midfielders when he has someone like Pastore who could lend his hand in attack and help Messi and co better than either Banega or Cambiasso. Batista could select Pastore ahead of either of them thus making his approach more attacking while keeping the defence safe with two defensive minded midfielders. He needs to use the strength of his squad rather than which is surely attacking rather than defending from back. In the attack, it is seen that Aguero or Higuain plays well with Messi due to their experience in la liga where playing style is to some extent similar to Messi’s Barcelona teammates. At least in the do-or-die match Costa Rica, Batista must come out of his shell and use Pastore and Aguero or Higuain to make the approach more attacking.
Missing the M-factor:
Argentina’s poor performance cannot be blamed on Messi, but even his biggest fan will accept that Messi did not play to the level he has set for himself while in Barcelona. It is true that he plays deeper than usual and gets almost no support from the midfield men Banega or Cambiasso, it is true that he has created a few brilliant defence splitting passes only to see fellow strikers miss them blatantly, but still we do expect some more from him. He is the superstar and he needs to provide some sparks to the team to play better than they are currently doing. I’ll not go along the current trend of going too far and say Messi is not Argentine enough as we know he preferred to play for Argentina when he had an offer to take up Spanish citizenship and play with a more creative midfield. And not to forget he almost forced Barcelona to allow him to play for Argentina in the 2008 Olympics. May be the burden of too much expectations is getting heavy on him and hopefully he will do better when he has the above mentioned players to share his load.
Though the full article was about the comparison between Barcelona and Argentina due to the comment from the coach, I sincerely hope that when Batista mentioned about playing the “Barca-style” he meant the beautiful yet effective football that the European Champions play and not literally play exactly like Barcelona. To be frank, Argentina has always had huge pool of talent and they do not need to play like Barcelona. Even before Messi came into limelight Argentina played their own version of beautiful football. Remember the goal after 25 passes they scored against Serbia and Montenegro in the 2006 world cup?
Copa America is not going in the way it was expected. The usual suspects Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are outside top two in their respective groups and some adverse results in the last round of matches may keep all three out of the quarter finals. The tournament was predicted to be Neymar vs Messi, but the Sanchezs and Falcaos ran away with the points so far. Just for the sake of good football and keep the world glued to it, I hope that the biggies do return to form and show the world why they feared by everyone in the world.