As match summaries go, Lionel Messi’s was to the point and hard to argue with on Thursday night: “We’ve got to get out of this shit.”
By now, you’ll have probably read reports of Brazil’s 3-0 win over Argentina in Belo Horizonte, if you didn’t catch the game yourself. An evenly-matched first half in which Brazil took clinical advantage of two slips in concentration by the Argentine defense gave way to a second period which plumbed new depths of awfulness. Not even the defeat at home to Paraguay last month was as bad.
Messi thinks a mental change is needed, and he should know. Changes in personnel would also appear to be in order, since a number of players simply aren’t performing for the national team. Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero continue to earn their call-ups with their club performances, but for a while now have been failing to justify them for the national team itself – just as Carlos Tevez had been doing for some time before Alejandro Sabella took the previously unthinkable decision not to use him.
The irony is that Agüero and Higuaín would both be far “easier,” from the point of view of the manager’s job, to drop. Tevez was lauded by the popular press in Argentina even as he continually failed to play well for Argentina; the current pair are seen by seemingly every fan in the country as failures at this level. If they remain in the squad, it’s not because Edgardo Bauza thinks the media pressure is too great to keep them.
The real worry for Argentina is that other players are also falling short. Surely, last night was the final time we’ll see Nicolás Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori as the central defensive duo. Perhaps both have a future with the national team still, but they can’t continue to play alongside one another. Pablo Zabaleta at right back looks like he too has passed his peak at international level. Question marks are even starting to be raised about Javier Mascherano’s place in the team, which for the two and a half years since his heroism at the 2014 World Cup has seemed assured for life.
Amid all the press panic and the obvious depression on the faces of the players as they gave their post-match interviews on Thursday, it’s easy to forget that this panorama might look very different on Tuesday night: if Argentina can beat Colombia in San Juan, and other results go its way, the Selección will sit third in the qualification table. Such is the closeness of this qualifying campaign that it’s a long way from over just yet.
Lose to Colombia — or even draw — and Bauza is going to come under more pressure than ever before, though. Giving a new manager time is always important, but time is a quantity Argentina will be running out of if they drop any more points. To keep the wolves from the door, Bauza must at least show that he understands some of the issues regarding the team’s setup.
The good news from that point of view is that he does seem to realize things need to change. The strategy against Brazil was always likely to be used for one match only — away against a team in the kind of astounding form Brazil has been in since Tité took charge, setting up to frustrate and counter-attack made sense at the start – and indications are that a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-2-2 could be the options against Colombia, rather than the lopsided 4-4-2 used on Thursday night.
The current squad isn’t perfect, but personally if I were managing I’d keep Sergio Romero in goal, and opt for the 4-2-2-2 in front of him. Gabriel Mercado at right back, Mascherano alongside Mateo Musacchio at centre back, and Emanuel Más keeping his place at left back would be my defense. I’d start with Éver Banega alongside Lucas Biglia in deep midfield, and would like to give Ángel Correa and Racing’s Marcos Acuña a run-out behind the strikers. Who would those strikers be? For the moment, I’d stick with Higuaín to partner Messi, largely because they know one another’s game.
That’s a fun bit of Football Manager-style team-picking from a squad I didn’t name myself, of course, and when I’m playing FM I tend to be a more attacking boss than Bauza is, but while the names on Tuesday night might differ, that’s the sort of system we might expect, perhaps with Fernando Belluschi or Julio Buffarini introduced.
As well as getting the initial setup right, though (which, as I said, I think Bauza managed on Thursday, given Argentina were clearly looking for a point) the manager also needs to demonstrate he can make the right adjustments during the game. That didn’t happen against Brazil, and the match was lost by half time. If Colombia takes the lead on Tuesday, a more immediate response will be required.
Bauza isn’t out of a job yet, and Argentina isn’t out of the World Cup yet, not by any means. But sharp improvements are needed all round, or the break from Tuesday until the next round of qualifiers in March is going to feel like a very long one for the manager as well as the fans.