Melbourne was the peculiar place for Argentina to start their record to recover under Jorge Sampaoli with a morale-boosting win over Brazil
More than 95,000 supporters crammed into the famous MCG on Friday for a clash between Argentina and Brazil that Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho correctly said ‘is never a friendly’ but this latest Superclasico de las Americas was of even greater importance as Argentina shepherded in a new era under Jorge Sampaoli to put a dismal year behind them and get one over their resurgent old foe.
Gabriel Mercado’s 44th-minute winner proved enough to get the new regime off to a winning start but only an amazing Gabriel Jesus miss denied Brazil a deserved equaliser when Argentina noticeably dipped after half time. Brazil are almost a year along in their progression and while victory serves as a morale boost, Sampaoli will need time.
A coaching change can make all the difference and one need only look at the past year for the two South American giants to see that. Brazil were sixth in World Cup qualifying when Tite took the helm but have rattled off nine straight wins since to guarantee their spot in Russia while Argentina have gone from third to fifth and won only three of the eight matches Edgardo Bauza oversaw.
Brazil emerged as FIFA’s number one ranked side, the favourites for next summer’s World Cup and implemented an attractive, young side that was the envy of Argentina while struggling with the same aging squad under the dour tactics of Bauza.
And so a Tite-like resurgence is what Sampaoli will be aiming for and in his squad selection and first half performance against Brazil there were promising signs of that.
Immediately, Sampaoli’s 3-3-3-1 formation looked an upgrade on the 6-0-4 that Bauza rigidly stuck to and whereas the previous incarnation was horribly disjointed, the new Argentina had a fluidity to them that made an exact formation difficult to lock-down at times. Debutant Jose Luis Gomez provided width on the right, Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala drifted behind Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria buzzed along the left and Ever Banega probed from deep but with seemingly only loose positions on the pitch.
The focus on possession all the way from goalkeeper Sergio Romero led to some glorious, snappy passing moves but a fair share of nervy moments against Brazil’s own intense pressing. Such confidence to play out from the back will certainly develop over time and is perhaps why the likes of Romero, who isn’t the most natural ball-player, will be under increased pressure.
When you wake up early to watch Argentina beat Brazil AND it's Friday… pic.twitter.com/JXCSbVENUV
— Peter Coates (@golazoargentino) June 9, 2017
Brazil did well to neutralize Messi and Dybala, who were undoubtedly Argentina’s dangermen, but that opened the space for Di Maria on the left. The Paris Saint-Germain forward clattered the post early on and was the source of almost all the attacking threat during the first 45 minutes but the focus down El Fideo’s flank did leave La Albiceleste a little lop-sided.
Sampaoli had stressed getting more players around Messi to draw the best from his captain but between Brazil snuffing that out in a packed midfield and Argentina still acclimatizing to the new system, the Barcelona star never got to show Melbourne his full array of tricks.
Understandably Brazil’s first half threat came on the counter, exposing the lack of pace and space in the channels with Argentina’s back three. However, Sampaoli’s switch to a back four early after the break lost the midfield and from there Tite’s side dominated against a tiring Albiceleste, Gabriel Jesus and Willian both striking the woodwork before Argentina regained a little control with another debutant Guido Rodriguez adding some extra muscle in the middle.
The back three would appear to be Sampaoli’s system of choice and it enjoyed relative success even with such little time on the training field. With this in mind, the positives far outweigh any negatives that one might draw from the difficult second half, the quiet performance of Messi or Gonzalo Higuain doing little to suggest he remains the number nine.
“Overall, I value the enthusiasm and attitude of the players,” Sampaoli said in his press conference.
— Melbourne Cricket Ground (@MCG) June 9, 2017
“I highly value the effort to try to dump an idea on the field with such little preparation time and it wasn’t easy to play with the high pressure of Brazil. There were normal mistakes that I expected, what I took most from the game were the intentions.
“If I said that everything went as planned, I would be exaggerating. We are starting a stage, we have to improve a lot,” concluded the Copa America winning coach.
Despite the want for immediate change and success, this process must be respected and it isn’t the first, nor likely the last, that Sampaoli has spoken of a ‘generational change’ that requires a slow, analytical process.
World Cup qualification dictates that results can’t be ignored. Tite has the luxury of planning for Russia even in defeat while Sampaoli has four finals starting at the end of August away to Uruguay. However, should La Albiceleste avoid the unthinkable and confirm their spot, the future looks bright again.