It is no secret that the 2018 World Cup was nothing short of a failure for Messi and Co. Sampaoli failed to get his strategies right at Russia this summer and was heavily criticized all over Argentina for his inability to get the best out of a squad that boasts one of the most terrifying attacks in the world.
This side failed to perform as a unit due to the over-dependence on Messi and there were some senior players (like Caballero, Higuain, Biglia) who did not deserve to be on the plane to Russia at all. Moreover, injuries to important players like Sergio Romero and Manuel Lanzini also made things tougher for La Albiceleste. So first, we will be having a look at the 23 man squad who should have travelled to Russia.
The Ideal squad
Goalkeepers: Franco Armani, Guido Herrera, Nahuel Guzman
Defenders: Gabriel Mercado, Federico Fazio, Javier Mascherano, Marcos Acuna, Nicolas Tagliafico, Nicolas Otamendi, Cristian Ansaldi, Marcos Rojo
Midfielders: Giovanni Lo Celso, Ever Banega, Alejandro Gomez, Angel Correa, Cristian Pavon, Eduardo Salvio, Santiago Ascacibar, Angel Di Maria
Forwards: Lionel Messi, Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala, Sergio Aguero
Players excluded from the original squad
Gonzalo Higuain: Since that infamous miss at the 2014 World Cup Final, his career with the national team has gone downhill. Moreover, he has had fitness issues for quite some time. He should not have been even considered for the initial 35 man squad in the first place.
Willy Caballero: His performance against Spain in their 6-1 rout against Argentina should have been a clear indication to Sampaoli that he did not have the capability to be their starting goalkeeper.
Lucas Biglia: He was clueless along with Mascherano against the Spanish midfield in their 6-1 defeat. Moreover, he had a pretty ordinary season with AC Milan in the 2017/18 season and has a tendency to play a lot of back passes which slows down the team’s tempo.
Maximiliano Meza: It might be harsh to include Meza in this list after his performance against Spain in that friendly, but there were other talented midfielders who have performed better than him in European leagues where the level of competition is much higher.
Now let us have a look at the ideal starting lineup
The Lineup and Tactics
The lineup would look like a 4-2-3-1 on paper. The reason why I have picked Alejandro Gomez over Angel Di Maria on the left flank is due to Di Maria’s questionable decision making in the final third. Moreover, Alejandro Gomez often tracks back to help the defence and presses the opposition which is an added benefit compared to Di Maria.
Gomez came off a pretty successful season in Serie A in 2017/18 and was one of Europe’s best creators with 10 assists. His creative abilities could have taken a lot of pressure off Messi.
Salvio is picked over Cristian Pavon due to his better decision making in the final third and ability to maintain width compared to Angel Correa. Salvio’s job would be to provide width down the right hand side, press the opposition fullbacks and track back and help out the defence in cases of emergency.
Messi would be given the tactical license to roam freely. This role would allow him to create and score at will and create havoc for opposition defenders.
Aguero would be the striker of this team. He was also coming off an excellent season at Manchester City and his chemistry with Messi is also an important factor.
Lo Celso would play the role of a box to box midfielder in this lineup. He has the stamina to press the opposition and also has the ability to move the ball forward to attacking players. Lo Celso is not short of creative abilities and could have chipped in with some important assists in this tournament. Lo Celso’s role would prevent Messi from dropping deeper to collect the ball and allow him to play freely.
Ascacibar plays the role of a midfield destroyer in the middle of the park. His playing style is very similar to Mascherano in his Liverpool days. He could have been an able replacement for Mascherano in this side due to his age and speed (would have been useful against oppositions with quick attackers like France).
Tagliafico and Ansaldi would play the role of overlapping fullbacks. One of the reasons why Argentina struggled against Croatia was the lack of natural fullbacks. Argentina needed a more experienced and natural fullback at the right back position. Ansaldi is a much better option as he is a natural fullback (unlike Salvio), and provides much more going forward (unlike Mercado).
Rojo and Otamendi would take up their positions as centre backs in this side. Although Fazio is a better centre-back, he struggles against speedy forwards due to his lack of pace.
Franco Armani should have undoubtedly started as the goalkeeper in all of Argentina’s matches.
The role of substitutes
Now, many people would question the exclusion of Dybala from the starting lineup. Dybala is a very talented player, no doubt. But Dybala and Messi take up similar positions on the field and come in each other’s way. So it is not possible to play them together. But there were been situations for Argentina in this tournament where Messi was unable to influence games and was forced to drop deeper in order to collect the ball which often left Sergio Aguero isolated upfront. In such cases Dybala should have been brought on to add some spark to the attack.
Icardi could have been used against Croatia and Iceland where he could have gotten on the end of the crosses (unlike Aguero). Aguero was unable to get on the end of crosses due to his short stature and Icardi’s tall presence could have been important.
Angel Correa, Cristian Pavon and Di Maria could have all played as backups to the wingers with Di Maria being the first choice substitute in case of wingers. Also, Angel Correa’s versatility could have allowed him to play as a backup to any of the four forwards in the starting lineup.
Mascherano could have acted as a backup to Ascacibar and used his experience to guide him in the World Cup. Mascherano could have also acted as a backup to the defence due to his vast experience of playing at centreback with FC Barcelona.
Fazio would have been the other backup centreback, with Acuna and Mercado being the backup fullbacks.
This is not a rant against Sampaoli’s tactics and does not mean to disrespect him. Moreover, the tactics and strategies mentioned in this article do not guarantee that Messi and Co. would have won the World Cup in Russia this summer. But it is no secret that this team was extremely dependent on Leo Messi.
Whenever Messi was marked effectively and rendered useless, there was no one else to step up. Their entire system was totally dependent on a single player which helped oppositions to stop them easily. Moreover, their midfield lacked spark and their defence was well below par. Thus, I feel that these tactics could have made Argentina less dependent on Messi and allowed them to play as a unit, increasing their chances to win the tournament.