Despite being one of the best teams in the world, with arguably the best player in the world, a long list awaits new Argentina boss, Jorge Sampaoli
It has been one of the worst kept secrets in football but Argentina finally named Jorge Sampaoli, the successor to Edgardo Bauza as national team coach, ending weeks of speculation. While the Copa America winning coach said all the right things at his official unveiling, the magnitude of the task ahead cannot be understated.
The Argentine Football Association (AFA) made it very clear who their number one (and only) target was as soon as Bauza’s departure was confirmed, but even after Sevilla had all but confirmed that Sampaoli was leaving and less than 24 hours before the 57-year-old was due to be presented, the AFA did what they do best and almost jeopardised the whole deal with some characteristic penny-pinching.
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) June 1, 2017
However, an agreement was reached and Sampaoli put pen to paper on a deal that runs until the World Cup in 2022. Results will obviously dictate whether the former Sevilla manager will see that through but after eight coaches in thirteen years, Argentina hopes for a period of productive stability.
So, what were the takeaways from Don Sampa’s presentation and what lies ahead?
1) World Cup Qualification
Before anyone can dream of Sampaoli guiding Lionel Messi and Argentina to glory there is the tricky matter of World Cup qualification to negotiate. With four matches remaining, La Albiceleste sit fifth in the inter-confederation playoff spot and difficult away trips to Uruguay and Ecuador lie ahead.
This immediate issue was not lost on Sampaoli, who said at his unveiling, “The difficulty in the World Cup qualifiers is real. We know that Argentina has the resources to reach the World Cup but the qualifiers are complex and there are other teams, like us, that have the same aim.”
CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers table:
Argentina down to 5th from 3rd in 1 match without Messi.. pic.twitter.com/fPDYHTemVu
— Leo Messi (@MessiWorId) March 29, 2017
Unlike Edgardo Bauza, who was plunged straight into the mire of South American qualification, Sampaoli has the luxury of two friendlies, against Brazil and Singapore, on June 9th and 13th and it will be a quick opportunity for the new coach to assess his options and try out new ideas before the crunch match in Montevideo at the end of August.
2) The roles of Messi and Mascherano
The two figureheads of the national team for the best part of a decade have been Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano and if certain rumours are to be believed their influence has gone well beyond the pitch. The immediate selection of Mauro Icardi appears to have quashed any further talk of the ‘club de amigos’ and so Sampaoli can concentrate solely on footballing matters.
For all of Mascherano’s unquestionable leadership qualities, El Jefecito’s role in an Argentina midfield had been a source of debate among supporters but one that all previous coaches ignored. Despite injury ruling the 32-year-old out of the friendlies, Sampaoli has been unequivocal in his opinion on this matter: “We called him up with the intention to play him as a central defender, as he does at Barcelona.”
— n0z (@nozbleed) May 30, 2017
With Mascherano set to assume the role that Gary Medel did in Sampaoli’s Chile, it brings us onto the big question of breaking Argentina’s perceived ‘Messi-dependence’ and getting the best from the Barcelona star.
“We want the best player in the world to be happy being here,” Sampaoli said when quizzed on Messi. “The important thing is that Messi has players that are compatible [with him]. I spoke to him and he is very enthusiastic.”
A more attacking, dynamic midfield, aided by Mascherano’s shift into defence, will certainly help Messi. Too often La Albiceleste’s leading scorer is forced deeper and deeper to get the ball and when it is at his feet, there is a distinct lack of movement. A shortage of attacking options seems inconceivable under Sampaoli.
3) Shaking up the squad
Alejandro Sabella selected the oldest squad at the 2014 World Cup and since then the average age has only crept up with subsequent managers failing to introduce new blood. Perhaps there has been a shortage of young talent but either way, after three major tournament final defeats, the group had stagnated under Edgardo Bauza.
Juan Sebastian Veron oversaw the selection of the current squad given Sampaoli was still under contract with Sevilla at the time but the stamp of the new boss is clear. The old-guard of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Sergio Aguero have been early casualties and the likes of Mauro Icardi, Leandro Paredes, Manuel Lanzini, Joaquin Correa and Emanuel Mammana have come in like a breath of fresh air.
“There are more than 100 players being monitored. What we want is for those players that wear this jersey to produce the quality they have,” Sampaoli confirmed.
The friendlies against Brazil and Singapore will be just the first phase as Sampaoli and his staff continue assessing all those on their long list.
4) The state of Argentine youth football
Only days before Sampaoli’s unveiling, Argentina under-20s’ latest failure, another first round World Cup exit, served as an ideal reminder of the systemic problems within the nation’s football. The AFA may have succeeded in getting their man to lead the senior squad but overhauling a woefully neglected youth system is perhaps the greatest challenge facing president Claudio Tapia.
It is little surprise that the Jose Pekerman-era that dominated under-20 football, winning five World Cups between 1995 and 2007, has helped sculpt the current senior squad. By contrast, in the years since the class of ’07, Argentina have failed to qualify for two tournaments, gone out in the first round twice and not coincidentally the number of graduates has significantly declined.
The subject has sparked great debate but little action over the past couple of years. Sampaoli, however, was quick to address this and insisted, “We will have to make a good analysis of the youth teams.”
Referencing the Pekerman glory years, the new coach said, “The idea is that our coaching staff will take care of the under-20s. Most likely, the coach will be Nicolas Diez,” a member of Sampaoli’s new set-up and a player under Pekerman in 1997.
5) Reigniting the passion of the nation
Even in defeat in 2014 there was a sense of a burden lifted as Alejandro Sabella led La Albiceleste back to a World Cup final after fourteen years of not progressing past the quarter-finals. However, with that came expectation and only silverware would now do for the demanding Argentine public.
Gerardo Martino and Edgardo Bauza both wilted under the pressure — two more Copa America final defeats, extended the trophy drought and the latter’s often dull selection and tactics only heightened frustration.