What does Sampaoli need to change for Argentina to qualify for the 2018 World Cup?
When Jorge Sampaoli was appointed as Argentina coach in May 2017, the general feeling was a corner had been turned by the hapless national team. Finally, it seemed, La Albiceleste had landed the coach of their dreams.
The reality is, however, Sampaoli’s appointment has only seen the nightmare continue.
There have been few genuinely positive signs for Argentina since Sampaoli’s arrival, and they can only refer to perhaps a more organised backline as progress. Elsewhere, the problems remain as strong as ever.
The midfield lacks cohesion and a true link to the attack. The forward line itself meanwhile continues to malfunction and a series of different strikers have all fell short. Then there is the biggest issue of them all, Lionel Messi.
That the Barcelona man, arguably the greatest player in the world, is a problem for Argentina, perhaps sums up their plight. Now they are left in a precarious situation in which World Cup qualification is in doubt. The one thing they do have going for them is the tightness of their group, and Argentina, who are currently in 6th place, can still actually end up in 3rd place if they manage to win and results go their way.
A win on Tuesday against Ecuador and they would at the very least be guaranteed to make playoffs - regardless of what happens elsewhere in other games.
Maybe deep down, Argentina need to miss out on Russia next summer to truly understand and address their current situation. How they got here, is quite easy to understand. It would impact any team, and just because Argentina are blessed with Messi’s talent, and that of everyone else with their incredible depth, doesn’t mean they are immune to failure.
Sampaoli is the third coach they’ve had during the World Cup qualifying campaign, coming after first Tata Martino, then Eduardo Bauza. All three have tried different systems, different players and generally differing approaches. It’s a confusing period for anyone to be involved in. Messi, sadly, is stuck in the middle and a World Cup is potentially going to be missing the best footballer on the planet.
It seems beyond tactical and personnel, Argentina are a slave to their own failures. Mentally they are completely shot after losing three finals. This curse, while at times exaggerated, might well have substance to it.
Sampaoli was perhaps brought in too late to alter matters with Argentina. He knew stepping in that despite his own qualities, and that of the squad available to him, chances of failure were considerably high. He’s refrained from making wholesale changes and has instead opted to tweak things, maybe if he had more time it would’ve been different, but for now, he’s had to target the areas he felt were most vulnerable.
Getting over mental blocks takes more time, however, but that’s something Argentina don’t have at all. They are instead a work in progress, constantly operating on running repairs. Take the striking situation for one; they’ve had four different strikers in five different games. Against Chile, it was Gonzalo Higuain, then came Lucas Pratto’s chance in the match with Bolivia before Mauro Icardi was drafted in for the Uruguay and Venezuela games. Finally, on Thursday evening we saw Dario Benedetto facing Peru.
Finding the rhythm in a situation like this is near impossible and it’s why Argentina’s failed to score a goal in open play in 456 minutes. Quick fixes are all Sampaoli has with World Cup qualification in doubt, and in truth, he must go with that he feels works best…out of a bad bunch.
As much as tactically Sampaoli is an astute coach, now it seems things boil down to mentality for Argentina. The former Sevilla coach must lift the team like never before, and ask them to dig deep within themselves to secure a passage to Russia next summer. Then, without the burden of trial and error in qualification, they can maybe focus on building something between now and the tournament kick-off. Sampaoli must find rhythm above all.
It’s not an ideal situation to be in but it’s one Argentina will now be used to. Perhaps that very thing will be decisive in whether they qualify or not.