For the first time ever, both Argentina and Brazil failed to win their opening matches. It must be said that not enough credit was given to the two sides who foiled them in those games; Venezuela in the case of the holders Brazil, and Bolivia against the hosts Argentina.
All the same, after Argentina’s second match, another draw to Colombia, which they might very easily have lost if the opposing forwards had their shooting boots on (or goalkeeper Sergio Romero not had had such a good game), the knives were out for the Argentine side on the part of the local press here in Buenos Aires.
Argentina were the pre-tournament favourites for the trophy, and in Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero, Carlos Tevez et al, have one of the biggest embarrassments of attacking riches ever assembled in international football. So why have they struggled to make an impact so far in their own tournament?
In Argentina, the finger has been pointed squarely at manager Sergio Batista. One’s gut instinct would be to suggest that the local media reaction is hysterical, and that Batista deserves more patience. Whilst this is certainly backed up by the fact the press had been fairly easy on him before the tournament, it has to be admitted he has a case to answer. Batista was never the best choice available but after what was frankly speaking, an insane spell under Diego Maradona, everything is relative. Unlike his predecessor, Batista at least had the merit of not being a lunatic, and also of putting some thought into his selections.
He’s shot himself in the foot, though, in the build-up to the Copa and in his decision making so far in the competition.
For months prior to the tournament, Batista had maintained that Carlos Tevez had been left out of the squad for tactical reasons. This despite the fact that absolutely everyone in Argentina knew Tevez was being excluded for having (allegedly) been the player who was agitating late last year for Maradona to stay on as manager.
Batista relented – perhaps under pressure from AFA President Julio Grondona, who’d previously been on Batista’s side but who saw crowds in the provinces chanting Tevez’s name during various friendlies played by the Argentine domestic-based national side – and his reasoning was exposed as a sham when Tevez was included in the Copa América squad, along with the also-previously-exiled Agüero, who as Maradona’s son-in-law was also suspected of having preferred Diego as boss.
The truth is though, that Argentina is perhaps the one country which could actually afford to leave out both Tevez and Agüero. The real crime Batista’s committed is in being too one-dimensional, in having no ‘Plan B’. His suggestion that his first, second and last plans were always to have Lionel Messi playing as well as possible for the team isn’t an unreasonable one; when you’ve got the world’s best player in your side, why not use him?
And at this point, I must diverge from the accepted wisdom. Because I suspect most others would start saying, now, that these first two matches prove beyond doubt that what Batista lacks is a plan for when Messi isn’t playing well. Well, I beg to differ.
Messi has, in my opinion, been almost the only player for Argentina who’s genuinely been playing for the team. He’s got one of the best passing percentages on the team and one of the biggest pains of watching Argentina so far has been seeing him pass the ball to a team-mate (especially Ezequiel Lavezzi) only to see said player hare off with it in the other direction rather than help to build the play, as might happen in Barcelona. Much has been written questioning why Messi doesn’t play for Argentina as he does for Barcelona, but I’d say he actually does; it’s just that his team-mates are far more individualistic, with a few exceptions (Javier Zanetti and Éver Banega spring to mind).
One thing that’s clear for all to see, though, is that Batista needed to change the plan after the first match, that frustrating 1-1 draw with Bolivia. Both Lavezzi and Tevez were woeful in that game; nonetheless both started in the second draw with Colombia, in the same 4-3-3.
Whilst the midfield three of Javier Mascherano, Banega and Esteban Cambiasso looks a lot more balanced than the suicidal formation Maradona put out against Germany in the World Cup quarter-finals last year, they’ve looked short of movement so far. Banega’s a superb creator, but he does his job from deep. A better strategy, many feel, would have been to replace Cambiasso with Javier Pastore, to link more closely with Messi and prevent the Barcelona star from having to drop too deep to collect the ball.
Batista looks like he’s moving now, ahead of the Costa Rica game which will decide Argentina’s fate. Many feel he should have made the changes in time for Colombia, but a late change is better than no change, perhaps. All the same, at the time of writing Pastore looks unlikely to break into the starting lineup.
As it stands, it looks like the formation will be changed to a 4-2-1-3, with Messi filling the ‘enganche‘ role, that ‘1’ behind the three forwards, which many feel would be Pastore’s role in the team. Ahead of him will be Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín as a target man, and Ángel Di María. I can’t deny I’d rather see Messi in Di María’s position with Pastore in behind. Aside from anything else, Di María is a hopelessly one-footed player, and whilst the same could be said of Maradona, of course, Di María doesn’t possess the same discipline or, of course, ability as his former international manager did.
Argentina, then, look like they might be getting the change they need for their final group stage game on Monday. It’s not quite must-win – the Copa sees two of the three third-placed teams qualify for the quarter-finals, remember – but all the same, if Argentina manage to scrape qualification with a mere draw, Batista will be looking over his shoulder anyway. If the pressure was on before, it’s turned all the way up now.
By Sam Kelly
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona