Is Jorge Sampaoli the man to unlock the best version of Lionel Messi for Argentina?
As Jorge Sampaoli prepares for his competitive debut as Argentina head coach in a crucial World Cup qualifier away to Uruguay on Thursday, a familiar question lingers: Will he finally be the coach to provide Lionel Messi with the platform to truly shine with Argentina?
Messi’s record with the national team doesn’t read as well as his one at club level but he has still been a decisive presence in a side who have received three consecutive international finals. He has, however, often found himself battling the elements, taking on too much personal responsibility to make up for flaws in team construction.
Getting the best out of Messi seems a simple formula: give him players to combine with and runners to find. But it is one that Argentina have only ever sporadically got right.
Perhaps the closest they came was during last year’s Copa America Centenario under Gerardo Martino. Javier Mascherano sat at the base of midfield, Ever Banega provided a reliable link point and Augusto Fernandez disrupted opposition defences with off-ball runs. Angel Di Maria provided a threat in behind as part of a front three.
It worked well until injury ruled Fernandez out of the final against Chile, where Lucas Biglia was unable to adequately replace his lung power. A 0-0 draw saw the match go to a penalty shootout in which Messi famously fired over as Chile again defeated Argentina in a final.
The baton now passes to Sampaoli. He has never hidden his desire to coach Messi and his approach seems tailor-made for producing the conditions the forward’s Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde recently highlighted as being key to making the most of his extraordinary talent.
“Messi is the best in the world, but we all have to help him out and find spaces to play in so that he feels comfortable and can then provide his passes and make his teammates shine,” he explained. “We need to be a compact team.”
It was very evident in Sampaoli’s friendly debut against Brazil in June that he intends to continue with the high-pressing, possession-based style he utilised with Chile and then at Sevilla. This will be a more compact Argentina, one in which technical midfielders such as Banega, Leandro Paredes, Javier Pastore and Manuel Lanzini will help construct play from deep and allow Messi to conserve his energy to make a difference in the final third.
With Chile, Sampaoli had the benefit of inheriting a group of players who had been playing a consistent style of football since Marcelo Bielsa’s appointment as head coach in 2007. To that, he added members of his successful Universidad de Chile side to construct a national team who played with the cohesion and conviction of a club side.
He doesn’t have quite that same advantage with Argentina, but he can at least count on a number of players who ply their trade at clubs with a similar approach to his own, including goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli (Real Sociedad) and defenders Javier Mascherano (Barcelona) and Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City). He has called up three players who worked under him at Sevilla last season, while he will also benefit from the work the club’s new coach Eduardo Berizzo will do with Banega and Guido Pizarro.
A close eye will also be kept on the interesting, Argentinian-laced project developing at Zenit Saint-Petersburg under Roberto Mancini. Paredes and new call-up Emiliano Rigoni have both made the current squad, while Emanuel Mammana, Matias Kranevitter and Sebastian Driussi will also hope to force their way into Sampaoli’s plans.
The June friendlies provided Sampaoli with an early chance to work with his squad and get across some of the key concepts of his approach. But he and his assistant Sebastian Beccacece have used the time between those matches and the upcoming qualifiers against Uruguay and Venezuela to fill in some of the gaps.
Domestic-based players were invited to the national team training centre at Ezeiza, and Sampaoli and Beccacece then embarked on a tour of Europe, armed with a laptop loaded with match footage demonstrating what they wanted from each player. From Paris to London, Milan to Madrid, Barcelona to Sevilla, they visited current and potential call-ups, establishing a key line of communication for what lies ahead.
The long term aim is to get Argentina playing attractive and effective football that provides Messi with the right conditions to fully prosper, but results are the most important thing right now. Things could change depending on the verdict expected this week from CAS regarding the Bolivia ineligible player case, but they currently lie fifth in the qualifying standings (the playoff spot) and have three teams within four points of them behind.
In nine attempts, Sampaoli has never won his first competitive match in charge of any of his previous teams. With Messi on his side, he will hope to change that on Thursday.