On Tuesday, Argentina continued their recent trend of bidding a pre-World Cup farewell to their fans with a friendly against opponents who, with no disrespect to Haiti, or to Canada in 2010 or Trinidad and Tobago in 2014, are not quite on the level of the opponents they’ll face in the tournament. Did we learn anything on Tuesday night? Well … ‘learn’ is probably a bit of a stretch, at least for those of us in Argentina and/or who watch the national team regularly. But we did have a few things confirmed or underlined which we already knew.
When Argentina dominate possession, Mascherano doesn’t do much
After the 6-1 friendly defeat to Spain in March, I tweeted that Javier Mascherano had surely played his last game for his country. A lack of other options, though, lead to his inclusion in the squad for Russia 2018, and Lucas Biglia’s back injury meant that on Tuesday he was in the starting XI, making his 143rd appearance for Argentina – and thus overtaking Javier Zanetti to become outright Argentina’s all-time most capped player. And just maybe, against a few opponents (pretty much Germany, France, Spain and Brazil), there’s an argument for fielding a purely defensive central midfielder. To be clear, I’m not saying that should actually be Mascherano, just that his tactical role might still have a place in certain situations.
But against practically every other team Argentina could possibly meet, all Mascherano does is slow down possession – and not in a good, deep-lying-playmaker way. A midfielder who can join in and support lengthy periods of possession in front of the opponents’ penalty area would surely be far more useful. This might, admittedly, be less of a problem if Éver Banega weren’t so infuriatingly inconsistent for his country, brilliant in one game and anonymous in the next, or if Matías Kranevitter hadn’t fallen off the radar since his move to Zenit St. Petersburg. A 4-2-3-1 looks set to be Jorge Sampaoli’s main starting formation, if only because he doesn’t really have enough decent central midfielders to put three of them on the pitch at once.
The full back situation is looking a bit better
It’s been a long time since Argentina had a genuinely world-class full back; Javier Zanetti and Juan Pablo Sorín were the last two, in my opinion. They still don’t have world-beaters in those positions, but Nicolás Tagliafico showed once again against Haiti that his willingness to bomb forward on the left and overlap his winger can provide passing options – not least for Lionel Messi – that weren’t there before his introduction to the team.
Eduardo Salvio’s call-up as a defender for the March friendlies (although he’s listed as a midfielder on the squad list for the World Cup) looked odd, but the plan was obviously to have him as an attacking wing back option on the right, and that too showed some promise on Tuesday, even if he was only transplanted in there late on when Sampaoli decided he wanted more attacking oomph than Cristian Ansaldi offers.
If the full backs are pushing up and getting into spaces in wide attacking areas, the rest of the attack should benefit from more angles and more passing options. It didn’t really work against Haiti – the first half was very ponderous from almost the whole team – but the plan at least was obvious, and should provide a foundation to build on for next week’s friendly against Israel and into the World Cup group stage.
Gonzalo Higuaín can’t be first choice
Let me be clear: I can understand why Higuaín is in the squad. He’s a superb club striker and has a fine goalscoring record for Argentina. He gets mocked for the chances he’s missed in finals, but one reason Argentina were playing in those finals was Higuaín’s goals in earlier rounds. Sampaoli gave Mauro Icardi, another fine club striker, a couple of chances last year and Icardi utterly failed to take them. Racing’s Lautaro Martínez is clearly one for the future, but would have been a big gamble to take in a squad with only four forwards, so Higuaín has been trusted again.
The good news is that Higuaín probably isn’t first choice; he started on Tuesday because the technical staff don’t want to rush Sergio Agüero back from his recovery from surgery. Agüero came on in the second half and scored soon after, though. He looked sharper than Higuaín, whose movement was rather sluggish (notwithstanding the burst and cut back from the byline he made which led to the second goal). The plan for Russia is probably to use Agüero as the first choice number 9, and hope like hell that nothing happens to him.
Cristian Pavón’s time has come
In fairness – because I always think it’s somewhat pointless to criticise the manager when I have absolutely no influence anyway, and will never be in a position to do things my own way – this is the only point on which I suspect Sampaoli might think differently. Ángel Di María has had a fine career and is a good player for a particular type of team. Playing on the counter-attack, told to burst forward at pace and not to think too much (at all, ideally), he can use his physicality and be an effective weapon.
In teams who seek to dominate possession and force opponents to play the game on their terms, he’s more of a blunt instrument. This is why I found it a bit odd when Louis van Gaal took charge of Manchester United, made a song and dance about wanting intelligent players who could outline their exact reasoning for every pass they attempted, and then spent millions and millions of pounds on Di María.
There have been plenty of signs recently that even for pundits who have always liked Di María unreservedly, his national team performances have dipped. Last night, Boca Juniors winger Cristian Pavón replaced him after 59 minutes, and within seven minutes Pavón had shown some flashes of excellence and set up Messi’s hat trick goal with a brilliant piece of skill. Di María had been largely anonymous in the hour he’d played prior to that.
I’ve spent a fair bit of my nearly twelve years writing and talking about Argentine football scoffing at local commentators urging national team managers to pack the team with players from the Argentine league. But Pavón is on the rise and Di María looks stale. The Boca man brings far more spark to the wings, and if I were Argentina manager he’d probably start ahead of Di María. As it is, Sampaoli sees him as someone to throw on in the second half to open up tired defences.
Lionel Messi is the team’s most important player
As I said, we didn’t really learn things, so much as have them underlined.