Argentina did not play well on Thursday night against Chile. Actually, that’s too kind a way to put it. Argentina played absolutely appallingly on Thursday night against Chile. The performance worried everyone who was watching — except, apparently, for the one man apart from the players who’s in a position to affect future matches: manager Edgardo Bauza.
In a press conference that was, at least to people with a somewhat dry sense of humor, more entertaining than the match we’d just seen, Bauza insisted that, ‘we didn’t play poorly, we played a brilliant match.’ He was so insistent that at one point a journalist was moved to ask, reiterating, ‘with all respect,’ as he did so, whether Bauza was actually being serious.
So, was he?
Bauza said so. ‘As much as we were able to, we attacked well,’ he responded. From the press box, it had seemed as though the only part of the game where Argentina could be said to have ‘attacked well’ was for a minute or two immediately after Lionel Messi’s penalty gave it the lead – when Messi darted down the right and offloaded the ball to Sergio Agüero, who fired into the side netting.
Surely that wasn’t the only chance Argentina had to attack, even in Bauza’s mind. Surely the sight of Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín almost tripping over each other as they made the same run towards the penalty box for seemingly the umpteenth time wasn’t ‘attacking well.’ Surely full backs Gabriel Mercado and Emanuel Más (the latter replaced at left back by Marcos Rojo for the second half) could have contributed a lot more in wide areas going forward.
Managing a team is a lot harder, and requires a lot more expertise, than being a fan or a journalist. It’s easy to criticize, but harder to actually do the job. So why does Bauza think this was a good performance? Or, rather, why does Bauza claim that he thinks this was a good performance?
Let’s clear one thing up: you may or may not like him, you may or may not think he’s the best man for the Argentina job, but Edgardo Bauza is not an idiot, or a bad manager. He has won the Copa Libertadores twice, with two different clubs, neither of whom had ever won it before. One of those clubs was Ecuadorian – LDU Quito, hardly a continental power. The other was San Lorenzo de Almagro, a club whose Libertadores mental block was so famous that before he turned up, fans of other clubs in Buenos Aires would joke that the initials CASLA actually stood for Club Atlético Sin Libertadores de América. He is the only person to manage four different clubs to Libertadores semi-finals (those two, plus Rosario Central in 2001 and São Paulo last year). This didn’t happen accidentally.
That being the case, there must be a disconnect between what Bauza sees, and what Bauza says he sees. He simply can’t have looked at the match last night and thought to himself, ‘this is perfect, no-one in their right mind would criticize this showing.’ So when he sits in front of the assembled press and says pretty much that, there’s something else at work inside his head. There has to be.
Given the players’ refusal to speak to the media, Bauza as manager seems to be taking on the role of a buffer. By fiercely defending his charges, he could well be gaining the appreciation and loyalty of the squad, and forging the kind of ‘us against the world’ mentality so beloved of Alex Ferguson at Manchester United during the 1990s (and to a lesser extent the 2000s), for example. By shielding his players from criticism, he seeks to create a strongly unified group.
It’s a well-established technique, and given the current disconnect between press and players, particularly the squad-wide interview embargo announced by Lionel Messi after one radio commentator claimed – with no evidence – that Ezequiel Lavezzi was left out of the squad for the match against Colombia last November after smoking a joint in the training complex, it would make some degree of sense.
Bauza’s problem will only really come if the AFA decide that a manager the press have turned on is a sitting duck. It’s known he wasn’t first choice – although none of the true elite group including Jorge Sampaoli and Diego Simeone were available or affordable – and too many showings like last night will start to raise questions about whether he can really lift the World Cup with Argentina.
Maybe he still can. It took Alejandro Sabella a few matches (not seven, admittedly) to bed into the job, but once he did he took the team all the way to the final. Past performances shouldn’t be seen as an indicator of what might be to come, and Bauza is surely safe in his job for as long as Argentina has a mathematical chance of qualifying for Russia. Right now – easy to forget in the fuss about the dreadful performance – it’s third in the table, having just beaten one of its direct rivals.
It would, it’s true, be easier to see this as a winning strategy if the team hadn’t just put in a performance that made you want to claw your eyes out. But on a strange night all round at the Estadio Monumental, it really might be the only decent explanation for the manager’s stated view of things.