The most frustrating thing about the fact that Argentina have had The Wrong Manager for the last two and a half years is that they never had to lose the right one in the first place. As winter moved towards spring of 2016 down here in the southern hemisphere, Gerardo Martino – frustrated at club directors’ refusals to release players for training for the Olympic football tournament in Rio de Janeiro, and angered at not having been paid for months – did what many suspected the AFA board, composed of those same club directors, wanted, and resigned as Argentina manager.
Martino was criticised frequently during his time with Argentina, which seemed bizarre at the time and looks even stranger now. After Alejandro Sabella called it a day, leaving a heartbreaking if morale-boosting World Cup runners-up place behind, Martino proved the ideal man to move the team’s style on just enough to change the look of the place, without smashing up all the furniture and burning down the house. Under him, Argentina were more assertive. More final heartbreak followed in the Copas América of 2015 and 2016, of course, but if that made clear there was some streamlining needed in terms of playing personnel, Martino seemed the middle management figure to do it. The 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign didn’t start well, but things were back on track by the time of the Copa Centenario and the AFA’s subsequent forcing out of a boss they had no affection for, in spite of the lack of obvious top-class candidates to replace him.
On Friday, in Madrid, Argentina lost 3-1 to Venezuela. Lionel Scaloni’s reign has shown some signs that the team might be playing more like, well, a team than under Jorge Sampaoli, but aside from a few Lionel Messi-inspired passages of play, that went out the window on Friday. Scaloni has made much of wanting to check players out before the Copa América squad has to be named, but he can’t have learnt much from this friendly; most of us could have told him that the midfielders picked, with the possible exception of Gio Lo Celso, aren’t good enough, and that if Nicolás Otamendi isn’t involved the defence lacks leadership. His continued pretence that Argentina have a national-team standard goalkeeper whose name is not Sergio Romero (or, if you prefer, that Romero’s lack of regular playing time at Manchester United renders Franco Armani or Esteban Andrada preferable), meanwhile, is perhaps the most harmful hangover from Sampaoli’s barely sober time in charge.
Argentina’s best player on Friday was Lionel Messi. Of course it was. That fact is no longer because Messi is arguably the best attacking footballer of all time, but because he now seems to be the only one, most of the time, who actually knows where his teammates are (again: this might be a bit harsh on Lo Celso).
Is Argentina’s mess Scaloni’s fault? Perhaps. In part. But the roots of it go much deeper, and he can’t seriously be blamed too much for not being a good enough football manager. The people who decide on and appoint the manager need to look at themselves. They had the ideal person for the job, and he was actually doing the job, and they didn’t just let him slip – they actively forced him out. Scaloni got the job after Sampaoli left because he was there, and the AFA could afford him after the wasted contracts of Edgardo Bauza and Sampaoli, which an association haemorrhaging money could scarcely afford to keep paying.
Sure, maybe Diego Simeone or Mauricio Pochettino are the answer. But for one thing, they’re not going to take the job 2 – why would they, given the way the AFA treat their managers, and the crippling expectations on an already underperforming team (a genuinely underperforming team, now; not a team who get to a World Cup final and two successive Copa América finals and still get pelters from all angles)? And for another thing, if Simeone and Pochettino are seen as roughly equally desirable answers … are we sure we know what the question is? Both are fine managers, who’ve enjoyed success in different ways. Both will enjoy more success in their careers, of that I have no doubt. But their teams don’t play especially similar styles of football, do they? Do the folk at the AFA (or in the Argentine media) have a vision for how they want Argentina to play, beyond ‘whatever way the most famous manager we can get tells them to’?
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