spain 6-1 argentina: some perspective
While there's still Messi, there's still hope
By Andy West
Well, that was a reality check.
For a brief period, it looked as though Argentina’s preparations for the World Cup were coming along pretty well, with last week’s 2-0 victory over Italy suggesting that Jorge Sampaoli was taking the team in the right direction.
Then came the Mayhem of Madrid, when the Albiceleste appeared to have been collectively struck by a Spanish magic Wanda which turned them into heaps of crumbling stone, powerless to resist the dizzying passing patterns weaved by Isco, Andres Iniesta, Marco Asensio and co.
The 6-1 scoreline speaks for itself (6-1 for goodness sake!) and it’s clear that Sampaoli has some serious thinking to do and some major decisions to make in the next few weeks, with Javier Mascherano, Marcus Rojo and Gonzalo Higuain perhaps most in danger of becoming the fall guys during the inevitably bitter fall-out from a horrendous result.
Before we start completely writing off Argentina’s chances this summer, however, let’s find some perspective.
Firstly, it was a friendly.
Yes, it was a showpiece occasion, one of the most high-profile and prestigious non-competitive fixtures you could wish to see, but it was still, nonetheless, a friendly. When the World Cup gets underway the results from warm-up friendlies will be totally meaningless and it’s very dangerous to start making sweeping judgments on the basis of a match which, ultimately, counts for nothing.
Would those same Argentina players have got themselves collectively ‘in the zone’, rather than repeatedly losing possession in dangerous areas, if it had been a competitive match? For elite players, there’s an enormous mental difference between heading into a game that means nothing and a game that you’ve spent years building towards, and Sampaoli will hope that his players were hampered by a regrettable but understandable lack of focus on Tuesday night.
It should also be noted that this really was not a 6-1 game. 6-1 suggests a ferocious battering over the course of the full 90 minutes, with the losing team barely getting a kick of the ball. But that was not the case on Tuesday, when Argentina actually competed pretty well (against an outstanding team) for the first half before capitulating at a time when the game was becoming broken up by the inevitable plethora of substitutions.
Spain actually scored with their only efforts on target, a freakish occurrence for a team netting six goals, and the best chance – and best move – of the whole game belonged to Argentina after a sweepingly precise counter-attack gifted Higuain an early golden opportunity which could now prove to signal the end of his international career.
Then there were the absentees. Notably, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria might not have played to their full potential too often for Argentina, but they are undoubtedly world-class players who should prove to be valuable assets this summer.
Don’t forget, furthermore, that international teams don’t always need to be particularly good to win knockout competitions (just look at Portugal a couple of years ago). Despite their current wretched state, Argentina can hope to find their feet during the group stage, stumble across a formula that works well enough to allow them to compete, gain a knockout win or two on penalties or with a VAR controversy, and hey presto! Suddenly it’s 15 July and they’re in the final.
Above all else, though (and perhaps the previous 500 words have been pointless), Argentina still have reason for optimism because they still have Lionel Messi.
Messi gives breath to any team. He is overwhelmingly the focal point to everything that Argentina does, with every attacking intention going through him and being set up around him – especially in this phase of his career when he is playing in a deeper position and has become a more complete, more consistent and more ruthlessly effective player than ever before.
When he returns to the line-up, Messi will immediately revive Argentina beyond all recognition of the sorry mess we saw in the second half on Tuesday night. His insistence upon excellence will rid his teammates of the careless sloppiness they exhibited against Spain, giving them a boost in confidence and composure merely by his presence – while simultaneously having the opposite effect upon his opponents.
Messi improves the players around him perhaps like nobody else before. He bears a torch of leadership which, when extinguished, leaves his team in darkness, groping for a way forward without any real expectation of finding one. When he is there, everything makes sense. There is a point and a common purpose. Without him, you’re left with what happened in Madrid this week – a total elimination of collective identity.
Of course, even Messi can’t do everything on his own, and Sampaoli has much work to do in order to erect the surrounding structure that his leader needs. He must find a more dynamic midfield pairing than Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia (combined age 65); he must instigate a more convincing method of escaping the high press; he must establish more fluency in building possession; he must make decisions over his starting full-backs, centre-backs, wingers and striker. And all in just ten weeks.
There’s no denying that Tuesday’s result was a massive setback, and Argentina’s current predicament calls for a comic-book super-hero of intergalactic proportions. Fortunately, they have one. So don’t write them off yet.
Don’t write off Messi yet.
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