The loudest result from the international break was Argentina’s 6-1 loss to Spain. Sure, the South American giants didn’t have Lionel Messi, and Spain are one of the favorites to win the World Cup this summer, but shipping six goals is still shipping six goals. Argentina’s loss showed just how many cracks having the best player in the world can paper over. As a nation, Argentina is loaded with talent. The problem is it’s concentrated in all the wrong places.
Argentina’s lineup spoke volumes about the mismatch between style and talent that manager Jorge Sampaoli is dealing with. Nobody is in the same stratosphere as Messi, but Argentina are lucky enough to have a player in Paulo Dybala (pictured above) who can do a mere mortal’s impersonation. He’s fast, tricky with the ball, a gifted goal scorer, an adept attacking creator, and despite only being 24 years old, he’s already an accomplished winner with Italy’s top team, Juventus. Sampaoli didn’t even call him into camp.
Part of the reason Dybala was left out in the cold is simply that Argentina have so many great strikers at their disposal. His Juventus teammate, Gonzalo Higuain, started the game alone up top, and has also over the years been the preferred partner for Messi. Then there’s Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero waiting in the wings. Sampaoli’s thinking seems to be that having a Messi replacement isn’t as important as having a few purer striker options who can play next to him. And even there, Argentina are so stacked that Mauro Icardi didn’t make the squad and also seems unlikely to make the World Cup roster (Given all that, it’s hard to understand why both Dybala and Icardi are as short as 33/1 in some markets for the Golden Boot).
Sampaoli’s attacking plan is to channel all that attacking talent into relatively few starting spots. Rather than trying to figure out ways to get as many attackers as he can on the field (experimenting with playing Dybala and Messi together, or playing two strikers ahead of Messi or other super attacking options) he’s committed to playing with Messi and one striker. Right or wrong, making that decision means that it doesn’t make sense to use squad spots on a lot of pure strikers. Instead Sampaoli is looking at wing options and creative midfielders who can both support the attackers and do the high-energy work of pressing that Sampaoli demands.
The problem is that the rest of Argentina’s talent pool is not nearly as impressive as their strike corps. Angel Di Maria remains great as an all-around havoc creator either from the wing or midfield, but at 30 he doesn’t quite have the go-go, 90-minute legs he used to. Ever Banega looks likely to be the team’s playmaker, and had his career resuscitated by Sampaoli playing that role at Sevilla. But while he’s undeniably a great passer, he’s a wildly inconsistent talent at best, and all too often a defensive liability. Giovani Lo Celso, a promising young Paris Saint-Germain midfielder, is also getting a lot of run, and while he may develop into a strong two way creative midfielder, at the moment he’s simply entirely unproven on a big stage. The rest of this international break’s squad of midfielders consist of good but not great pros such as Manuel Lanzini, Lucas Biglia and Diego Perotti, supplemented by young domestic players from Argentina.
What Sampaoli’s selection shows is that he is prepared to craft a roster that suits his stylistic preferences, even if that means curtailing the influence of the strongest part of his talent pool. Argentina is going to play with a bunch of midfielders, Messi and a striker. That means that some of the world’s best forwards are on the outside looking in. If the gamble doesn’t pay off this summer, Sampaoli will likely pay for marginalizing them with his job.