Jorge Sampaoli’s Argentina are one of the favourites to lift the 2018 World Cup, but there are five major problems for the coach to resolve
The seven months that Jorge Sampaoli has been in charge of Argentina already seems like a life time and while the primary objective of securing qualification to the World Cup has been achieved, the real work has only really begun.
Lionel Messi’s hat-trick in Quito is already just a memory and now Sampaoli must mold his squad into potential World Cup winners. A run-in with the law at his daughter’s wedding ensures that the year ends in less than ideal circumstance and certainly the fiery coach will regret his verbal attack.
However, that can’t be changed so Sampaoli can only look forward and hope for the following in 2018
1) Messi remains injury free
While Cristiano Ronaldo may have lifted his fifth Ballon d’Or this month to draw level with Lionel Messi with five awards, there is no doubting who the best player in the world right now.
After a disappointing season with Barcelona last time out, Messi has made a sensational start to this campaign and in helping the Catalan side to a famous Clásico win in the Bernabeú at the weekend, the Argentina captain has already edged Barça closer to claiming back the league title.
Fifteen goals and six assists in seventeen league appearances have seen Barcelona ‘suffering’ from the same type of Messi-dependence that Argentina have long been accused of. The iconic number ten dragged La Albiceleste to Russia, may yet inspire the Blaugrana to major honours this season, and if Sampaoli’s side are to stand in chance at the World Cup then a fit, hungry and in-form Messi is an absolute must.
2) The players adapt to Sampaoli’s system
Results have been all that mattered so far under Jorge Sampaoli but while Argentina battled to the points required to reach Russia it has been clear that as yet the new manager’s tactical ideas have not been taken on board.
Edgardo Bauza’s ultra-conservative set-up packed the defence and relied on individual brilliance to win matches but Sampaoli has tried to implement a more dynamic line-up.
The issue is that it hasn’t clicked. Moving to Sampaoli’s preferred back three was always likely to take time but there are greater concerns that Argentina do not have the personnel to do this. The test for Sampaoli’s high-pressing outfit is to find enough pace at the back to not be exposed and…
3) Full backs
One of the positions that has been something of a problem for a while and has yet to be resolved. If Sampaoli sticks with his back three then finding the right players out wide is important and while the manager has experimented with Marcos Acuña and Eduardo Salvio, the jury is still out.
In both cases, Sampaoli is opting for a naturally far more attacking player and hoping to instill the necessary discipline but against top class opposition at the World Cup that could be exposed.
The issue either with a back three or a back four is the lack of options. Sampaoli appears keen on Independiente’s young right back Fabricio Bustos but injury has prevented taking a closer look and his El Rojo teammate Nicolás Tagliafico may yet provide an alternative on the opposite flank but Sampaoli is not overwhelmed with choices.
4) Balance the midfield
Under Bauza the midfield was virtually non-existent with Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia dropping deep and four forwards operating half the pitch further forward. Sampaoli’s back three has pushed the wide players into that role to balance matters but no one has yet staked a claim.
Lucas Biglia appears to be the preferred option in the holding role but with Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria operating out wide, there is an important linking role to start in the middle. Éver Banega hasn’t been the creative hub that Sampaoli expected, Paulo Dybala fluffed his brief audition and the likes of Papu Gómez, Enzo Pérez, Lautaro Acosta, Javier Pastore or Emiliano Rigoni have yet to make Sampaoli really take note.
Argentina’s glaring lack of goals must be addressed here as Sampaoli wrestles with some of the problems that have plagued Argentina since 2014.
5) The right number nine
If the full backs and midfield were to be fixed, someone is still needed to apply the finishing touch (supposing it isn’t Messi) and competition is fierce.
Sergio Agüero is leading the way but has missed games through injury and still has critics in Argentina, Gonzalo Higuaín faces even harsher judgement but remains in the picture while Mauro Icardi didn’t exactly grasp his opportunity when given his long overdue chance.
It seems almost certain that one of these three will occupy the role in Russia and Sampaoli must make his choice and allow for some time. Argentina are rapidly running out of game time ahead of their World Cup opener and what many perceive as an embarrassment of riches leads to its own problems with a constant cry for change after one poor performance.
Time is precious for Argentina and there is still so much for Sampaoli to do before his team can be considered genuine contenders.