Not all international friendlies tell the full picture leading into a major tournament, but Argentina’s problems on the world stage have been transparent for several years now. They might be possessed with star-studded names, but when all is said and done, there is only one player that continually drags them forward. And that is: Lionel Messi.
A 2-0 win against an Italy side going through a transition period a 6-1 demolition at the hands of Spain suggest things in Jorge Sampaoli’s squad are rather tumultuous. A lack of consistency, especially in World Cup qualifying, has been a present theme over the past 24 months.
Although the Argentinean boss put out a weakened side, it was still staggering to see Julen Lopetegui’s men rip their opponents piece by piece, limb by limb in what can only be described as a massacre. La Albiceleste failed to create a game plan to stop Real Madrid star Isco, who carved open their midfield and defence, scoring a hat-trick of his own at the Etihad Stadium. The Spanish playmaker put his name up in lights against Sampaoli’s men, and made his case to Los Blancos manager Zinedine Zidane as to why he should be starting each week.
It seems absurd that two players in Mauro Icardi, Serie A’s second best goalscorer, and Paulo Dybala, the heir to Messi, are set to miss out on their country’s 23-man World Cup squad. Sampaoli is said to have notified the Inter striker that he will not be going to Russia this week, partly due to his off field relationship with the players, which started from when Maxi Gomez, the former Sampdoria teammate of Icardi’s, accused the Argentine of cheating with his then-model girlfriend Wanda Nara. Shortly after their divorce was finalised, Icardi married Wanda and caused quite the controversy.
The same can’t be said for Dybala, who must be wondering how on earth he is about to miss out on going to the World Cup. There’s one thing not starting, but another not even making the
"It is complicated for Dybala to get used to our system," Sampaoli said during the international break.
"We couldn't improve his performances and we have to evaluate if the current players [in this squad] are better than Paulo or if we have to keep working with Paulo to improve his performance.
Argentina might be blessed with attacking talent, but it is not as straightforward as it might seem with that talent all on the pitch. Gonzalo Higuaín has earned a reputation of being considerably underwhelming in the latter stages of tournaments, especially in the finals of the 2014 World Cup, 2015 Copa América and the Copa América Centenario.
Ángel di Mariá is another player that should be playing at a much higher level than he shows for his country. At both Real Madrid and, to a lesser extent, Paris Saint-Germain, the Argentine has excelled domestically and in Europe for his clubs. Yet, he struggles magnificently to replicate that for his country on the world stage. It remains to be seen whether Sampaoli can get the best from him, but his international record has been disappointing so far.
The problem with Messi and Argentina is the expectation. Of course, being the best player in the world, fans just await the magic from the Argentinean wizard every time he receives the ball. However, with the poor lack of depth and quality in that midfield, the Barcelona forward is usually the one who sacrifices his position further up the pitch to come back, drop into midfield, and launch attacks himself.
There have been many occasions in which Messi has had to drop past the halfway to pick up the ball from his defence, run into the space in front of him, waltz past defenders, and literally create something from nothing. Only to see Higuaín miss yet another chance.
It is very easy to suggest that Argentina should be one of the world’s best teams, and they have certainly improved under the former Chile boss, but, in truth, the starting XI is incredibly dysfunctional with the team being very top-heavy and little substance in the middle. Opposition teams find it very comfortable to bypass their midfield and punish them with multiple overlaps.
La Albiceleste are not one of the outright favourites to lift the prestigious trophy come the end of the tournament, but they will be expected, through Messi, to reach the latter stages of the World Cup. Everything is pinned on the small magician’s shoulders, but there’s only so much pressure he can take. Even if it is the greatest player the world has ever seen.
This article was written exclusively for Soccer Box by Liam Canning. Shop with us for your official Adidas Argentina 2018 World Cup football shirts, shorts, socks and training gear.