Tim Vickery’s Notes from South America: Argentina Clearly In Transition

A team that loses its opening game in a World Cup finds itself instantly under a slagheap of pressure. The Copa America is more forgiving. Of the twelve competing teams, just four are knocked out by the group stage. A win and a draw have always been good enough to reach the quarter finals. In some cases, teams have made it through with one win and two defeats.  In 2011, Paraguay got over the line with three draws. In 1993, two draws and a defeat were good enough for Mexico.

Argentina’s opening 2-0 defeat to Colombia, then, is not an unmitigated disaster. They were up against dangerous opponents – the Colombians are likely semi finalists. And it is hardly a secret that they are going through problems. Argentina’s Russia 2018 campaign was a shambles, and the overwhelming reason for appointing Lionel Scaloni as long running caretaker coach is that he comes cheap.

Scaloni is also struggling with his overall idea of play. He stepped in last year – with extraordinary boldness for a caretaker  – declaring the birth of a new era. The lesson he drew from France’s World Cup win was the need for direct football, with quick switches of play into shooting positions. It was the kind of football he liked, and, he said, the style of play that Argentina needed. And so, in his first friendlies, he played two wingers and sought to get the ball quickly to the flanks.

And then Lionel Messi returned. He prefers the ball played to his feet. It became clear in the game against Colombia that Argentina really had no clue what they were trying to do. They are – perhaps understandably enough at the start of this new cycle of competitive games – a team in transition.

Luckily enough, so are their next opponents. On Wednesday Argentina face Paraguay- coached by the former Argentine international centre back Eduardo Berizzo. A former assistant to Marcelo Bielsa, Berizzo loves the high press.  Paraguay, though, traditionally defend deep. Berizzo has only been in charge for a few months.  He is still seeking to impose his style. And on the evidence of Paraguay’s opening game, his team, too, are a work in the early stages of progress, caught between conflicting desires.

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Berizzo wants them high. But do they have the defensive pace to pull it off? Might they not be better off dropping deep and opening up space for the pace of Miguel Almiron to explode on the counter attack? These are little questions which, under the pressure of competitive matches, could fester into nagging, morale sapping doubts. And after struggling to hold Qatar in a pulsating 2-2 draw in the Maracana, Lionel Messi is not a man the Paraguayans will relish facing on Wednesday.

As for Qatar, they caught the eye with some splendid football. Clearly well coached by Felix Sanchez, there were passages of play where they associated beautifully, finding clever angles for quick passes which opened up space.  But they leave space behind them. Their 4-1-4-1 often left Almiron dangerously free – and so they will surely have to take precautions against Messi which will inevitably limit their capacity to throw men forward.

The chance is there, then, for Argentina to regroup, pick up some momentum and charge into the quarter finals. The big question; do they have an idea of play sufficiently coherent to mount a challenge?

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