World Cup 2018: Where it all went downhill for Argentina
June 1, 2017.
If you need a date to mark the biggest reason for Argentina's dismal performances this season, this is it. The day Jorge Sampaoli was announced as the coach of the Argentina national team.
Yes, it is harsh to pin the failure of 11 players on the field on one man - especially when he wasn't even on the pitch playing as one of them. Yes, it is harsh that Sampaoli should get the blame for this debacle when they have arguably the best player in the world with them. But that does not mean it is not deserved.
Since his appointment, Argentina have played 4 qualifiers in CONMEBOL - a 0-0 draw against Uruguay, a 1-1 draw against Venezuela, a 0-0 draw against Peru, and a 3-1 win against Ecuador.
In International friendlies, they have played 7 matches since then - wins against Russia, Singapore, Haiti and Italy and Brazil while being handed losses against Nigeria and Spain. In the 2018 World Cup, they have 1 draw and 1 loss.
Over the course of 13 matches, that is 6 wins, 4 draws and 3 losses. The FIFA rankings of the teams they have won against are: Singapore - 169, Russia - 70, Haiti - 104, Italy - 19, Brazil - 2 and Ecuador - 60.
Sounds decent enough, right? Wait till we get deeper. Here are the formations used for these games:
A 3-4-3 against Brazil, a 3-2-4-1 against Singapore and Uruguay, a 3-3-3-1 against Russia and Nigeria, a 4-4-2 against Haiti, a 4-2-3-1 against Italy, Iceland, Peru and Spain, a 3-4-2-1 (or a modified 3-4-3) against Croatia, Venezuela and Ecuador.
That is 6 formations employed in just 13 games. If that doesn't look like someone who doesn't know what they are doing, I don't know what is.
Here comes the scorers list:
Messi (3) and own-goal (1) in the qualifiers.
Messi (3), Aguero (3), Banega (2), Otamendi (1),, Mercado (1), Fazio (1), Di Maria (1) - to make things simpler, I have included only the players who were selected for the WC. Then finally, Aguero (1) in the WC so far.
In these matches, Messi has played in the right with Dybala in the middle, he has played as the No.10 with Aguero in front of him, he has played on the right alongside Aguero - you see the pattern. Once again, there never looked like there was any concrete plan going into the tournament.
Is the 2018 team worse than the 2014 team that made the finals? Not really. If you remember well, the 2014 side suffered just as much but was lucky enough to get an easy group - Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria - and were saved by Messi scoring in every single one of them.
The problem seems to be with the team itself. Unlike Spain or Germany that look like they are better than the sum of the individuals, or Brazil or France where the superstars all come together to deliver as individuals, Argentina never looks like a complete team.
And hiring Sampaoli has only worsened the situation. Against Iceland, their strategy was to pass the ball to Messi at every conceivable opportunity, while against Croatia their smoke-screen strategy was to never give him the ball. It is not as if there is a middle ground, right?
Then there is the issue of team selection as well. Dybala, Di Maria, Banega and Pavon watched from the sidelines against Croatia, despite every sane mind in the world hoping that they would play in the most important match of the group.
I hate to repeat this, but there is absolutely no way Mascherano should have played in midfield. He might be the Argentine with the most caps, but that in no way dictates that his name gets on the team sheet on 'brand value' alone.
Sampaoli has since then asked for forgiveness, but Argentina is not a nation that takes its football lightly. They are not likely to forgive Lionel Messi if he comes back without the trophy in his hands - remember that this is the nation that called him "pecho frio", translating to cold chest because his heart doesn't beat for the national team.
They are not likely to forgive Willy Caballero for the opening goal, as the endless whistles and boos that met him after every touch of the game thereafter. And if Argentina fail to get into the next round, which is looking more likely by the hour, Sampaoli will find forgiveness hard to come by.
The World Cup is not over for Argentina. There is still a chance they get through, and they might even go on to win the whole tournament with a dramatic turnaround. But that in no way absolves Sampaoli. If Argentina wins, it will be "in spite of him" and not "because of him".