Nobody can deny that Argentina are blessed in terms of footballing talent and history.
However, despite 16 World Cup appearances to their name, Argentina nearly missed out on a spot in Russia. Under-performance, together with instability and complacency, stood in Argentina’s way during qualification, and are things that they will need to avoid in the tournament.
Argentina might not be considered strong favourites to win the trophy, but the chance always exists when the nation has so much pedigree and talent on its side. Guided by a man many see as the best player in the world, together with an ambitious manager, Argentina are a team to watch in this World Cup.
The road to Russia
Considering that Argentina had just reached the 2014 World Cup final, following Alejandro Sabella was a difficult ask for Gerardo Martino, with the ex-Barca manager achieving mixed results.
After the Copa América Centenario, in which Argentina finished runners-up to Chile, Martino left his role as manager. The Argentine Football Association hired the well-travelled Edgardo Bauza as his replacement. This was a weird choice; despite Bauza’s achievements, he was only guiding a mediocre São Paulo side in the Brasileirão at time of hiring.
The appointment didn’t seem right. And sure enough, shortly after Bauza’s appointment, things only got worse for the La Albiceleste.
After just eight matches, including losses to Bolivia and Paraguay, and a failure to beat Venezuela, Bauza was sacked with just three wins. This turned out to be a good thing, as Argentina then hired a much better fit in Jorge Sampaoli, who left his role at Sevilla to manage his country.
The move had a positive outcome, although Argentina had some big scares in their final matches. A draw against Peru in their penultimate qualifier meant that they needed to rely on a Lionel Messi hat-trick to win their last game against Ecuador, ultimately qualifying in 3rd place.
How do they play?
Argentina is a country known for its tactical influence around the world. Jorge Sampaoli is often considered a disciple of fellow Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa, and this is evident in the style of play he wants to see in his team. Argentina’s style features offensive fluidity with quick transition plays, attacking from wide positions, quick exchanging of passes, a high defensive line, and aggressive pressing without the ball.
Sampaoli’s preferred formation is a 3-4-3, which provides the necessary width and wide advantage Argentina need in order to play. This formation’s flexibility can provide a numerical advantage in midfield, as the wide players drop into the centre and increase their number, as well as in defence, requiring the wide midfielders to fall back. Due to the versatility of the formation, the players also have to be multifaceted, playing a number of different roles in every game.
The downside is that this set-up leaves the team vulnerable on the counter-attack. With wide players always pressing, the defensive high-line exposes the team in wide positions. A killer long pass can break them down, and every player must remain focused in order to make this style of play work.
In order to see the style working fluidly, time is necessary, so we should see Argentina improving throughout the tournament.
Who is their star player?
If Argentina is going to fight in this World Cup, Lionel Messi must have a huge impact. Not only he has been one of the best players in the world this season for Barcelona, but he was decisive for his country in the qualifiers, scoring the hat-trick that guaranteed their place in Russia.
Messi will surely be even more fired up for this World Cup than usual after being so close to winning it last time out. At age 30, this may be Messi’s last chance of winning it; the fact that he has never won anything for his country at senior level adds significance.
Sampaoli’s team will surely be built around Messi, and the flair, skill, and decisiveness he brings will motivate his teammates. Argentina are lucky to have a player like Messi on their team, and his impact will be visible throughout the tournament.
How far will they go?
Favouritism is on Argentina’s side regarding their group. On paper, they are stronger than their opponents; even Croatia, their biggest rivals for the top spot in Group E. However, as seen in the qualifiers, complacency can be one of Argentina’s biggest enemies, and Sampaoli must make sure this does not creep in.
Argentina will be a strong opponent for any team and have the potential to go far in the tournament. However, Sampaoli hasn’t been in charge for long, considering he has only managed 10 of their games. The style of play is not strange for many of the players, but time is always a good thing, and Sampaoli hasn’t had much so far. A quarter-finals exit is likely.
What should we look out for?
With an offensive style of play that can bring the best from their forwards, we should see many goals from this Argentina side.
They have flair in Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala, and deadly finishing from Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain. They also have a varied midfield in Ever Banega, Angel Di Maria, and – usually – Manuel Lanzini. A very recent ACL injury to the latter means he’ll have to be replaced.
They also have two young, promising, attacking players in Giovani Lo Celso and Cristian Pavon – the latter just won the Argentinian championship with Boca Juniors, while the former just won Ligue 1 with PSG. These two can provide the dynamism and energy that can often decide important matches.
Jorge Sampaoli did well in the last World Cup with Chile, and went close to knocking out Brazil in the round-of-16, losing narrowly on penalties. It will be interesting to see how well his Argentina side implement Sampaoli’s attacking style, despite their lack of many games together. This could prove their undoing. However, the riches in attack they have at their disposal are something that will have a huge say on their tournament.