Anything other than a victory for Argentina against Croatia could spell the end of the country’s World Cup campaign – time for one last roll of the dice for Jorge Sampaoli
“I think, playing like that, Sampaoli shouldn’t return to Argentina. It’s a disgrace that there wasn’t any game plan.”
Diego Maradona didn’t hold back in his criticism after La Albiceleste’s opening draw with Iceland and while many of the outspoken idol’s opinions fall on deaf ears these days, the 2010 World Cup coach is better placed than most to know all about bad game-plans at the tournament.
That is not a reason to start listening to El Diego but the display in Moscow on Saturday looks to have been enough to prompt Jorge Sampaoli to go back to the drawing board.
As another of Marcelo Bielsa’s disciples, Sampaoli has built his success on a relentless high press aiming to suffocate his opponents, overloading down the wings and attacking at will with a quick back three to cover ground and play out from defence.
This most notably brought huge success with Chile as Sampaoli led La Roja to their first-ever Copa América title in 2015 but inheriting the side from his mentor Bielsa meant the groundwork was already done. Sampaoli had a talented young squad already familiar with the demands and well-suited to his style.
Replacing the pragmatic Edgardo Bauza only a year ago with Argentina staring down the barrel of not qualifying for the World Cup, Sampaoli had no such luxury.
That didn’t prevent the exciting, offensive-minded coach from trying to establish this style early on.
The immediate shift to a back three was the notable change but Sampaoli truly tried to shake things up with a front three of Mauro Icardi, Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala in his first competitive game in charge away to Uruguay.
However, performances did little to suggest this was the way to go and under the very real pressure of missing out on Russia and with Argentina clearly lacking the players in key positions to utilise such a system, Sampaoli has gradually had to compromise on almost all of his principles.
The safety-first midfield of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia against Iceland was the biggest shift yet and the result was as most expected – Argentina moved the ball painfully slowly, lacked any dynamism or creativity, failed to pick passes between the structured Icelandic lines and resorted to waiting on some Lionel Messi individual magic.
A problem that goes back well before Sampaoli’s tenure but one that he has been unable to resolve.
This could be why a folically-challenged firebrand is set to go back to what he knows best for Argentina’s crunch clash with Croatia.
Out go Marcos Rojo, Lucas Biglia and Ángel Di María and in come Gabriel Mercado, Marcos Acuña and Cristian Pavón in something akin to a 3-4-3.
Mercado and Nicolás Tagliafico, both versatile defenders adept centrally or at full-back, will flank Nicolás Otamendi in a bold-looking back three; Eduardo Salvio keeping his place on the right but with presumably greater license to attack and Marcos Acuña occupying the same position on the opposite flank, as he has done previously under Sampaoli.
An anonymous display by Ángel Di María against Iceland was made all the more clear by Cristian Pavón’s bright cameo, which should have earned Argentina a second penalty, and after seeing that Sampaoli looks to have decided that enough is enough.
Pavón’s pace, ability to make those diagonal runs in from the left and burgeoning understanding with Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero in his fleeting international appearances provide promise in attack.
The only doubt is who will partner Javier Mascherano in midfield and at present that appears to be between Enzo Pérez and Maxi Meza.
A more confident Croatia, committing more to their attack than Iceland, will likely afford Messi a little more space but the midfield battle against Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic is a daunting one and an area of concern.
For all of Messi’s match-winning genius, it isn’t enough alone. Argentina’s defensive vulnerabilities are clear but what Sampaoli needs to find quickly is some cohesion in attack or the country’s World Cup campaign could be over before it has barely begun.