Sometimes failure can lead to success – that’s what Argentina fans are hoping for after a World Cup catastrophe – here’s five ways of looking forward
The dust is still settling after Argentina limped out of the World Cup following Saturday’s 4-3 defeat to France but big questions remain.
Years of neglect, institutional errors and a dependence on the world’s best player made La Albiceleste’s failure painfully predictable. The disjointed side could easily have been handed a Brazil 2014-esque thrashing so there is a sense of relief that a one-goal defeat to one of the pre-tournament favourites spared that embarrassment.
However, the gulf was wider than the scoreline suggested and Argentina must not allow the cracks to be papered over any longer.
1 – Is Sampaoli the man for the rebuild?
The most pressing question for the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) is whether Jorge Sampaoli remains and there are arguments either way.
The positives from Sampaoli’s year-long tenure are slim. Qualification was achieved as was the progression from the group stage in Russia but the Argentina coach never repeated a starting eleven in his 15 games in charge and looked clueless in finding a solution.
A back-three, a back-four, Messi as a false nine, all were used and the constant changing hardly helped Argentina find an identity.
However, Sampaoli with his somewhat single-minded approach to the game is perhaps better suited for the role of rebuilding rather than the recovery job of salvaging qualification and quickly constructing a World Cup-winning side from a beleaguered bunch of veterans.
The AFA certainly can’t afford to pay the reported $16 million compensation to fire him so would need Sampaoli to walk but the key is how far his position has been undermined by this experience.
Rumours of fighting with his own coaching staff, a deep-lying mistrust of the AFA and the players clearly questioning his tactics (and possibly revolting if you believe the press) could leave Sampaoli’s position untenable.
2 – Mascherano ushers the older generation out
One headache that Sampaoli or any successor won’t have to deal with is how to call time on Javier Mascherano’s international career.
Holding back the tears, Argentina’s battle-weary general confirmed after defeat to France: “Personally, for me now it’s over. From now on I’m just one more Argentina fan.”
Four Copa América finals and a World Cup final but only a couple of Olympic gold medals to show for his record-breaking amount of appearances, it simply wasn’t meant to be for Javier Mascherano.
However, El Jefecito has embodied everything that Argentina love and worship in a player – the passion, the grit, the attitude and the HUEVOS. This, for all the artistry and beauty that Lionel Messi has brought, has become the dominant characteristic in modern Argentinian football.
As such, in spite of the undeniable fact that the 34-year-old’s powers have waned in the four years since his instrumental role in Argentina battling their way to the World Cup final, Mascherano still played every minute in Russia.
Dropping Mascherano, as would perhaps have been suitable after his decision to leave Barcelona for China, was almost impossible for Sampaoli and many of Argentina’s club managers have been in the same predicament when a returning icon opts to see out his career in front of the supporters who idolise them most.
The decision comes from the player and in this sense, Mascherano has solved that particular problem and as the emblem for this generation left the door ajar for Argentina to usher several others out.
This was the last hurrah for those that have suffered the pain of three consecutive final defeats, and Sampaoli’s squad selection suggested that was the priority over any immediate reshuffle that had been overdue since 2014.
Lucas Biglia followed Mascherano’s example and announced his international retirement too and with Argentina taking the oldest average squad to Russia, a few others should follow. The likes of Gonzalo Higuaín or Angel Di María will no doubt still perform admirably in Europe for a season or two more but they are not part of Argentina’s future and it is time to look forward.
3 – Does Messi follow?
“I think that as long as the technician is Jorge (Sampaoli) or someone else if he needs me, I’ll be willing,” Sergio Agüero pledged his support following Argentina’s exit and the Manchester City striker may still play a part over the next few years.
A complete and immediate overhaul cannot be expected but while many run the rule over who should be out and who should remain from the current crop, the silence of Lionel Messi speaks loudest of all.
It was the great number ten’s penalty miss and subsequent defeat to Chile in the Copa América Centenario two years ago that prompted Messi to last retire.
“The first thing that comes into my head is that it’s over. For me the national team is over. It has been four finals. It was what I most wanted. It didn’t work out. I think that’s it. It’s what I feel now, what I think. There is great sadness,” were Messi’s words then.
Obviously not wanting to make the same heat of the moment call, the Barcelona star has sought time to reflect.
However, this campaign has obviously taken its toll. Having dragged Argentina to Russia almost single-handedly, any hopes at the World Cup rested squarely on Messi’s shoulders and his forlorn expression during the national anthems prior to the Croatia defeat was an image that perfectly captured La Albiceleste’s tournament.
“If things go badly, we will all have to disappear from the national team. We have to think about this World Cup – and it could be the last,” Messi hinted before travelling to Russia.
Sampaoli or whoever will still be desperate to utilise the other-worldly talents of Messi and so Argentina must hope that his regret over the initial retirement outweighs anything else.
4 – Promote youth
Even allowing for a full makeover, Lionel Messi would still be the fulcrum for any Argentina side post-Russia and the task is now moulding a fresh, younger supporting cast.
Whether through loyalty to the old guard, team selections being made elsewhere or the simple opinion that they didn’t fit the system, two of Argentina’s brightest talents went to Russia only to watch on from the sidelines.
Paulo Dybala scored more goals for Juventus this season than he managed minutes in Russia and Giovani Lo Celso went from apparent starting midfielder to missing person in the space of a couple of weeks.
At times Argentina seemed to cry out for the qualities the pair bring but Sampaoli repeatedly turned elsewhere.
Post-Russia, without the high-pressure environment of World Cup qualification or progressing in the tournament, Argentina must allow the time required for these new relationships to flourish. The 2019 Copa América is a year away but even this should be treated as part of the process on the road to the 2022 World Cup.
Those overlooked for this World Cup for whatever reason – Mauro Icardi, Leandro Paredes, Lautaro Martínez, Fabricio Bustos, Emanuel Mammana, Angel Correa and several others now play a key part in the formation of a new Argentina.
5 – Establish a system
“I think that we adapted to necessity, maybe, rather than having a clear identity. We had a clear need, and we had to win. That was our main goal, so that was maybe stronger than our football concept,” bemoaned Sampaoli.
The coach’s indecision didn’t help in that regard and Sampaoli certainly resolved far less than anyone would have expected in his first (possibly only) year in charge but now the necessity has been removed and finding identity is the goal.
Between 1995 and 2007, Argentina became the envy of world football winning the Under-20 World Cup five times and in doing so producing a conveyor belt of talent that has fed the senior side for the past decade or more.
Two failures to qualify and two first-round exits at the Under-20 World Cup since shed some light on why the rate of graduates has slowed but the country is still producing some raw talents.
Sampaoli and current AFA president Claudio Tapia at least seemed to appreciate the work that José Pékerman oversaw back in the 1990s and the importance of the youth levels to the senior side.
It was with this in mind that several new youth coaches were appointed along with Sampaoli and the idea to reestablish these links that flow through to the senior level were identified. Diego Placente’s Under-15s have already enjoyed success in the South American Championships and the subsequent age groups appear in good hands with Pablo Aimar and Sebastián Beccacece.
Beccacece, the long term assistant of Sampaoli, was one of those who reportedly fought with the Argentina coach in Russia but if their relationship isn’t beyond repair, their work together will be of even greater importance now.
Sampaoli (or his replacement) must now find a new identity and have this transmitted by the coaching staff throughout the process so that once more the youth teams can feed La Albiceleste’s next potential World Cup-winning side.
…All of these points must be addressed by the AFA and whoever they see fit to lead the way but what is also important is patience. A virtue not often found in Argentina but after years of mismanagement one that is vitally important to the success of the project.