South American correspondent Tom Webber brings you all the action from the Copa America.
You can’t blame Argentina’s coach, Sergio Batista, for adopting Barcelona’s method of utilizing Lionel Messi. They are the most successful club side in the world in recent years and so their tactics are evidently working. More recently, Pep Guardiola has played Messi as a sort of unconventional centre-forward playing deeper than a typical forward in a 4-3-3 would. This is likely due to the fact that Barcelona do not have a target man of sufficient quality who still suits their style of play. Having seen the success of this, Batista has tried to play Messi in a similar position in recent months, yet it has failed to produce similar results for him. After last night’s 0-0 draw with Colombia, leaving Argentina with 2 points and one solitary goal from 2 games so far in the tournament, questions must be raised as to whether Argentina are playing the right game.
Perhaps it is down to a lack of practice before the tournament began. Two of Argentina’s friendlies before the Copa America began were used as ‘B’ team matches. Both of these matches, against Nigeria and Poland, ended in embarrassing losses for such a proud nation. Why Batista chose to give players such as Mauro Boselli a chance to play when it was obvious that he would never have got in the Copa America squad with such a vast array of superior attacking options is puzzling. Therefore, these friendlies were by and large wasted as the team that would be starting in the Copa America was not gaining valuable playing time together. The game they did get a chance in was the final friendly before the competition commenced. The Argentine’s thrashed Albania at home 4-0 with Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Perhaps the friendlies that came before would have been better utilised giving these players more of an opportunity to play together.
What Argentina have failed to do in this Copa, despite lining up as Barcelona do, is playing as Barcelona do. The Spanish and European Champions play a huge number of passes, some no longer than a few yards, in order to maintain possession and wait for the opponents shape to pull apart. This requires an extreme amount of patience, movement, and vision, which fortunately they have in abundance. However, Argentina do not have players of the quality of Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the middle. Instead, last night they played Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega. Mascherano and Cambiasso are defensive midfielders and so do not get forward with the ball as much as they aforementioned Barcelona midfielders. When Mascherano plays for the Catalan club it is in a more defensive role that does not participate in the attack as much. Argentina have been to rushed with the ball, not waiting for that perfect opportunity to play one killer ball. By doing this, the space is not created and so Messi finds it difficult once he is on the ball. Playing in a similar role but with teammates not playing the same game could become extremely difficult and frustrating. If Argentina want to benefit from Messi in this role during the competition then they must keep possession and become more patient.
As I mentioned, Barcelona may play in this formation as they lack a target man who fits in with their style of play. They tried Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at a hefty price, but loaned him out after arguably a decent season with the Spanish Giants, in which he scored 16 league goals. Argentina’s attacking dilemma is ridiculous. For their three attackers they must pick from Messi, Tevez, Aguero, Milito, Lavezzi, Di Maria and Higuain. Not a bad few options to have really, but fitting them into an effective team must be hard. Perhaps it would be best playing Messi and Tevez from the wings with Milito or Higuain through the middle in a standard 4-3-3. This would work better with the style of football that they are currently playing, enabling them to get the ball up the field quicker, and not risk losing the attack. It must be difficult to try to play with such patience in front of a crowd who are hungry for success; the country’s last senior championship win coming back in the Copa America of 1993. You can feel the anxiety in the crowd if their team do not go ahead within the first 25 minutes of football. However, in Barcelona, they want to see this patient, passing game and will wait for as long as is needed for a goal, though they too can still be impatient.
Personally I also think Messi picks up on the fact that he is not loved as much by the fans as players like Carlos Tevez. Tevez was raised as a poor boy who rose through the ranks in Argentina before making his move abroad and always gives his all in a match. Whereas Messi, after being rejected by River Plate for being too small, began his career at Barcelona. Now the Argentinian faithful regard as more of a Catalan than an Argentine as he has played his best football for his club side, whilst not performing to the same level for the national team. As his below standard performances grew and grew, so did these feelings among the crowd. He knows this, and then having the whole teams formation based around him adds to the burden he has to carry, which could be argued as to why he does not play as well at international level. A change of formation may give him some slight relief as he does not feel the same weight of responsibility, offering him more freedom to express himself. However, he did play poorly under Maradona and he did not use this formation, so perhaps it would not make much of a difference.
Something will need to change soon, possibly even for their next game against Costa Rica. They may possibly need a win to stay in the competition if Costa Rica managed a win tonight against Bolivia. If this occurs there will be a huge amount of pressure on the Argentine’s going into the last game, this may cause them to abandon these tactics and become more aggressively offensive. It is most likely that Argentina will still progress but they will need to either change tactics or perfect this line up on the training ground if they are to reap the full rewards. Batista may not be willing to play Higuain due to his injury this season leaving him below fitness and match practice, or Milito due to his age and below-par scoring record for the national side. One thing is for sure that something needs to change for Argentina to have any realistic shot of winning this Copa America title.